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What Is Sustainable Entrepreneurship?
I have been grappling with the emerging field of sustainable entrepreneurship, which has its roots in the concept of sustainable development that grew out of the environmental movement of the 1970s, so I did a brief analysis to try to better understand the concept. A Google search for sustainable development yields 30,600,000 web pages, references and/or citations published on the internet suggesting significant interest in all aspects of what constitutes ‘sustainable’. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines ‘sustainable’ as “…pertaining to, or as a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource he is not exhausted or permanently damaged; … or relating to a lifestyle that involves the use of sustainable methods…” The key phrase is ‘not exhausted’ which I have highlighted in bold. This has been and continues to be the essence of sustainability which has produced a host of socio-economic developments, nor one not as popular as sustainable development.Wikipedia [I’m not a fan of this web site, however it does serve a purpose in providing quick accounting of a subject] explains that sustainable development involves taking care of the carrying capacity of natural systems; it is nature’s carrying capacity to support all life, i.e. natural capital and the human challenges of economic growth.
Dating back to the 1970s when the concept emerged in relation to the establishment of limits to developed growth, the term “sustainability” was and is used to connect ecology and economic growth, with terms such as “limits to growth” and “steady-state economics” contributing an environmental movement that caused major changes in building and zoning codes across the nation related to economic development, especially land development. The idea that we have unlimited resources to be developed has been challenged by the newer idea of limited resources that must be wisely developed in harmony with nature, resulting in a competition of forces that have shaped our economic development over the past forty years. Practitioners of sustainable development believe that it has three elements: ecological sustainability, economic sustainability and sociopolitical sustainability. Special interest groups on both sides of the spectrum have laid claim to this concept to perpetuate their own goals. However, the common sense approach, in my opinion, has always been preferred, especially when we almost unanimously agree in today’s world that there is a natural limit to resources that must be recognized. In this regard, I firmly believe that the free market has been and will continue to be the best place to enable the combination of economic development with sustainable development.
An example of how the free market is used to achieve sustainability is the work started by Dr. Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute who applied the natural principles of biology to the study of economics, particularly economic growth; which became known as the ‘Santa Fe Approach’. Arthur was very interested in explaining how economic markets work, how business is shaped, in terms of the natural world, and how human organization, in order to grow, must adapt and assimilate to its environment, constantly adapting to change. The ‘Santa Fe Approach’ was a guiding concept that helped pave the way for a new field in economics called ‘ecological economics’. The concept of sustainable development was further enriched by the new field of ecological economics popularized by Dr. Robert Costanza, who founded the International Society for Ecological Economics (ISEE) and conducted much of the basic research at the University of Maryland.
The goal of ecological economics is to ground economic thinking and practice in physical reality, especially in the laws of thermodynamics and biological systems. It accepts as a goal the improvement of human well-being through economic development and strives to ensure that this is achieved through planning for the sustainable development of ecosystems and societies. Ecological economics differs from neoclassical economics primarily by the assertion that economics is a subfield of ecology, because ecology deals with transactions of energy and matter of life and the Earth, and the human economy is by definition contained within this system. This system is defined as natural capital, which consists of all non-renewable resources such as oil, coal, gas and minerals, and renewable resources such as the ecosystems that make up the planet, in quantitative and qualitative terms. It includes concepts such as ‘carrying capacity’ which refers to nature’s ability to support human activities, and goes to the heart of what sustainable development is, from which sustainable entrepreneurship has emerged.
A recent white paper titled “Sustainable Entrepreneurship in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises. Theory and Practice” by Evy Crals and Lode Vereeck defined sustainable development as the ongoing commitment of businesses to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce, their families, local community, society and the world as a whole as well as future generations. From sustainable development, according to this white paper, came sustainable entrepreneurship defined as the constant commitment of companies to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce, their families, the local and global community, as well as the future generation. All right then; sustainable entrepreneurship can consider a holistic approach to undertaking a business venture. But how does this relate to the true essence of entrepreneurship?
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines an entrepreneur as one who organizes, manages and assumes the risk of a business or enterprise. We often use the terms business and enterprise interchangeably to mean the same thing. The word ‘entrepreneur’ comes from the French word ‘entreprendre’, which means ‘to undertake’. In a business context, this means undertaking a business venture. Entrepreneurship and small business are commonly used as synonyms, interchangeably and presented as one and the same. In fact, entrepreneurship differs from small business in four key ways: amount of wealth creation, speed of wealth accumulation, risk and innovation. [Reference: See the Green$: Achieving Your Entrepreneurial Dream, LOGOS Press, January 2011.]
In the case of acceptable definitions of sustainable entrepreneurship, where the common good is mentioned, I would like to clarify that sustainable entrepreneurship cannot and should not refer to the establishment of some kind of social common good, as in the social framework associated with planned economies such as the former Soviet Union, East Germany, Cuba, Venezuela and socialist African countries. It is an oxymoron to do so. In contrast, the common good in a free market context refers to job creation that generates disposable income that creates increased demand for goods and services. This is then accompanied by a multiplier effect that allows the dollar to flow through the economy approximately 2 times or more, which further creates additional demand for goods and services, which further increases disposable income, resulting in increased corporate income for reinvestment, capital accumulation and business growth . This complex economic activity produces increased state and federal income from corporate and personal income taxes, which allows for infrastructure investments in public works such as roads, bridges, railroads, dams, and national lands such as parks, wetlands, mountain ranges, and the like.
Instead, in my view, sustainable entrepreneurship is the process of maintaining a level of entrepreneurial development to create a paradigm shift in economic activity so that national GDP, job growth, capital investment, technological progress and quality of life are unmatched, unmatched and unmatched. I realize this seems a bit altruistic and sounds like I’m talking about utopia. But I’m not. We can and should strive through local, state and national efforts to establish an economic mentality that is strategically focused on entrepreneurship and authentic organic economic growth at the community level across America. We can and should incorporate the concept of sustainability into the consciousness of the free market and enable the perfect entrepreneur, who strives to create wealth within an environment of enormous risk and reward, through sustainable inventions and innovations, to achieve success. The least we can do is forget that the development of entrepreneurship was, is and will be what made our country great. Now we need more of that.
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