04/26/2012 12:50 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Don't Just Go Green, Go Harmony

Sustainable development is the only development that makes sense. -- President Bill Clinton

When I heard President Clinton say those words, I smiled. How can sustainable development not make sense to anyone who is listening? Sure, I have heard clever field experts mention that development, given its need to extract in order to build, cannot be sustainable. I tend to think that it really is not about what we call it, but how we practice it. I was pleasantly surprised to find my sentiments echoed throughout a conference that I attended.

Last week, myself and three students, were afforded the opportunity courtesy of CUNY IVE Smart Pitch Challenge and its partner IBM, to attend the Sustainable Operations Summit (SOS), where President Bill Clinton made the aforementioned remark. The SOS brings together a diverse crowd of top business, government and civil society leaders each year to share best practices in sustainability and showcase the latest products and services for industry and commercial consumers. The atmosphere of the conference was clear; sustainability should be integrated within industries, not made as an ad hoc exercise in community engagement. As an activist that predominantly deals with grassroots efforts for many overlapping issues, I had expected business people to be reserved and arrogant. Instead, I had fulfilling experiences with open, approachable and solution oriented thinkers.

There were many instances that made the SOS conference memorable for me. Aside from the helpful staff of CraigMichaels Inc, I enjoyed listening to engaging speakers like Don Cheadle, Summer Rayne Oakes, Trudie Styler, Robert Hammond and others. Yet, conferences are more for me than who speaks on stage; it is within the small, sometimes fleeting conversations that I find the most intriguing. It so happens that the most memorable conversation I had was one that revolved around the quote that I was able to jot down from President Clinton.

In the conversation, I noted that there was a lot of great talk about environmentalism, but not much that really incorporated true sustainable development. Sustainability, as it was referenced throughout the conference, sounded a lot like practices only considering responsibility as it relates to environmental impact and health. I wondered where the economic, social and environmental principles that make up sustainable development intersected within and outside of the industries represented. In my view, industries cannot disengage from effects they cause here and abroad on all three principal areas of sustainable development for all parties, past, present and future. I was curious: How were their respective fields addressing sustainability within poverty eradication and peace?

The colleagues at my table responded with thoughtful silence. I made a quick joke about how I like to ask the simple questions in life, and we all shared a laugh. After a few moments more of silence, someone explained that rights are automatically incorporated in sustainability because the idea of it comes from the Brundtland Report. A second person weighed my argument closely, ultimately undecided on how to respond. A third person responded in the same fashion as the one before her. My reaction to the collective responses was to reflect in silence. I thought about the best way organizations like mine could help bridge the gap of understanding between Activists and corporate entities.

The deeper I understand the concept of sustainable development, the more I wonder, why is sustainable development not automatically widely perceived within full justice for humanity via poverty eradication and sovereignty of the Earth to have peace? A culture of peace includes sustainable development and it also identifies how social and individual actions should be performed. The Earth Charter gives a comprehensive approach to sustainable development by including the spiritual, economic, reproductive, educational, substantive rights of man and the indisputable rights of mother Earth. Why then, does it seem like there is a disconnect between the realm of people talking about environmentalism and others talking about sustainable development?

Consider that the possibilities for the disconnect lie within the way rhetoric for sustainable development contain double entendres and misappropriated synonymous terms. A word like "sustainability" can cloak a really savvy business ploy that presents less harmful impact on the Earth at the expense of human capital. Increasingly, consumers want their purchasing power to benefit the greater good, which can positively affect profits for entities presenting misleading information.

Sustainability can also be synonymously associated with large public perception of environmentalism. The difficulty becomes that the word "environmentalism" can conjure up ineffective associations of thin polar bears and tree hugging protests. Whereas the image of saving polar bears and trees are important, it leaves out key impacts like how a company treats its workers and cultivate relationships within the communities it profits from.

Businesses, civil society and governments should be careful to not just go environmentally green. We have to be clear that we will be in harmony with each other and our planet. We have to be resolved that to be in harmony means to simultaneously uphold the integrity of mother Earth and humanity. We have to be resolved that we will practice simultaneous integrity for mother Earth and humanity not just wherever employer policies, country laws and international agreements are scripted, but especially where they are not. It means ensuring livable, fair wages, integrating employee and local community bill of rights, as well as making zero net waste and limited consumption a part of the corporate and social bottom line.

Forward thinkers, consider the implications of all of us living well on a planet that can last better for future generations that will resemble us. What kind of example do we want to set? Let us get in harmony with one another and make sustainable development happen in lock-step world-wide. Like President Clinton said, it is the only development that makes sense.