Towards a Definition of Organizational Strong Sustainability - A Review of the Literature

by Antony Upward on Fri, 2012/11/23 - 3:41pm


This is my second post to the blog of the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Group (SSBMG), an applied research group within OCAD U’s Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

I'm busy writing up my thesis right now: “Towards an Ontology and Canvas for Strongly Sustainable Business Models: A Systemic Design Science Exploration”.  This blog post is about one part of the thesis: the literature review I’ve just completed that I hope will

  • Provide a definition of organizational strong sustainability
  • Identify design principles for the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Ontology and the Canvas it powers
  • Contribute to the work to define a "gold standard" for organizational strong sustainability


Introducing the Gold Standard for Organizational Sustainability:
A Critical Component of the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Toolkit

At our SSBMG meetings over the past 10 months, Bob Willard introduced us the importance of a “gold standard” for organizational strong sustainability.  

Any strongly sustainable business model designer (managers, innovators, entrepreneurs, etc.) will want the answer to the question : “what business model designs are more likely create strongly sustainable outcomes?”.  The gold standard will answer this question.  Hence understanding the gold standard is critical to being able to attempt to design strongly sustainable business models using the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Canvas (the SSBMC).

The gold standard would appear to need to consist of a number of elements which I understand as:

  • A Definition of organizational strongly sustainability - a pithy 1 sentence
  • Evidence to support this definition - an argument built from the literature and experience
  • Design Principles (Criteria or Concepts) - what someone wishing to create an organization which meets the definition needs to consider
  • Metrics - what needs to be assessed in order to tell if an organization design or an actual organization meets the definition
  • Measurements - values of the metrics for a specific organization
  • Threshold (perhaps also what most people would consider "the gold-standard") - values of the metrics which "prove" an organization meets the definition.  This might be expressed as target measurements for each metric or as some sort of composite score (a la the B-Corp requirement of scoring at leat 80 out of 200 on their B Corp Impact Assessment Survey)
  • Assessment - the process by which measurements are taken for an organization (e.g. completing the B Corp Impact Assessment Survey )
  • Evaluation - the process by which it is determined if the measurements are above or below the "gold standard" threshold
  • Audit - the process conducted by a recognized independent body of the assessment and evaluation to confirm an organizations compliance with the gold-standard.

Our first thoughts on these topics were recorded in a prezi which I put together for the group and later in a working paper which Bob is actively working on in his work with Global Initiative for Sustainable Ratings (GSIR), The Natural Step (TNS), B Labs, International Society for Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) and others .

We also concluded that a gold standard definition of organizational strong sustainability is a critical component of the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Toolkit (the SSBMToolkit) along with a method for designing strongly sustainable business models that uses the SSBMC to apply the gold standard.  The aim of toolkit is to enable business model designers to efficiently produce high quality (reliable, consistenct, and effective) business models that comply with the strongly sustainable organization gold-standard.


What Are the Critical Concepts?

But what are the concepts which must be included in a strongly sustainable business model design?  These concepts can be thought about in a number of ways:

  • What specific questions about their business design must a business model designer answer so that their business model is more likely to create strongly sustainable outcomes? 
  • What are the design principles for a strongly sustainable business model? 
  • What are the criteria in order a business model design describes a business which will be compliant with the "gold standard"? 

The Strongly Sustainable Business Model Ontology (SSBMO) and the SSBMC it “powers” must include these concepts derived from the latest scientific research on organizational strong sustainability.  This ensures that each strongly sustainable business model designer who uses the SSBMC will benefit from the latest research - rather than having to reinvent the wheel. 

This is the same idea that Alex Osterwalder had with the Business Model Ontology (BMO) and the Business Model Canvas (BMC) it powers.  By providing a complete list of concepts from the literature on profitable businesses that business model designers need to consider, using the BMC increases the likelihood of a profitable business mode design and hence a profitable businesses.  The SSBMC extends this to include the list of concepts that increase the likelihood of a strongly sustainable business, one compliant with the gold standard for organizational strong sustainability.

But of course the list of concepts in the SSBMC must also match the gold standard.  If the SSBMC answers the question: "what concepts do I need to think about when attempting to create a strongly business model design?", then the Gold Standard must answer the question "what is a strongly sustainable business" - i.e. what are the (perhaps currently aspirational) values of each of the concepts in the SSBMC.

An example:

The SSBMC includes the ideas that a strongly sustainable business model designer must think about stakeholders, governance arrangements, bio-physical stocks, eco-systems services and organizational definitions of success for the possibility of strongly sustainable outcomes to emerge from their business model. 

But a business model designer will expect more than “just” a list of questions from the SSBMTookkit:  They will expect the toolkit to provide advice on these concepts to help them make the right choices about each of these concepts, e.g.:

  • Which stakeholders do I need to think about?
  • What governance arrangements are best?
  • How should the business model consider bio-physical stocks and eco-systems services?
  • What are the best definitions of organizational success?

The role of the SSBMC within the Toolkit is to help the business model design ask the right questions.   The role of Gold Standard within the Toolkit is to help provide “the best” answers to the questions.  The role of the method within the Toolkit is to provide the steps to ask and answer the questions.


Goal of my Research

One of the goals of my research is to provide the list of concepts required to describe a strongly sustainable business model: without this list I can’t build the SSBMO or the SSBMC it powers.  But the gold standard also needs such a list. This is a very large part of the value of my research and part of my contribution to the gold standard efforts.

To be valid and useful these concepts need to be rigorously derived from the from the most current natural, social and economic scientific research on organizational strong sustainability.  This has not been a small undertaking!

To ensure the SSBMO can help people create strongly sustainable business models I “simply” need to identify from the literature the concepts which must be included for a business model to have strongly sustainable outcomes. 



  • The Gold Standard answers the question: what is a strongly sustainable business (and how do I know if I have one)?
  • The SSBMC answers the question: what are all the concepts I need to consider to create a strongly sustainable business model?
  • For the SSBMC and the Gold Standard to work well together in the list of concepts must be common and must be rigorously defined based on the latest science.

In my research I am not attempting a gold standard definition of organizational strong sustainability; I don't have to provide the possible the patterns or values of the concepts for organizational strong sustainability in order to define the ontology (this is the critical work of the gold standard.).  I am “merely” providing the list of the concepts which must be included in the gold standard.


Status of my Research

I have now completed the exploration of the natural, social and economic science literature related to organizational sustainability and have broadly but rigorously identified the concepts required to describe a strongly sustainable business model.  I am calling these broad definitions of the concepts the" Strongly Sustainable Business Model Detailed Design Principles".  

I hope this work will be a useful basis for the organizational strong sustainability "gold standard" work that Bob Willard, with the folks at The Natural Step, B Lab, Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR)  et. al., are undertaking.

I've prepared a single document with the results of this part of my research (it combines parts of several chapters of my thesis).  I am  not suggesting this is anything other than a draft and an academic review; but, based on initial comments from my supervisory committee it is rigorous and thorough.  It is approx ~45,000 words / 190 pages (including a 34 page bibliography).

Since this part of my as yet to be published thesis I am not making this available on the internet. However, If anyone would like a copy please let me know (contact details are here).

This blog post is © Antony Upward / Edward James Consulting Ltd. 2012 and is licensed under an Attribution –Non-Commercial –Share-a-Like Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Canada License.  Contact for permission to use commercially.

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