The other day I was pondering what will make sustainability a way of life and a way of doing business for US companies. I started thinking about some of the sustainability memes that have helped get us where we are today.

Positive memes are awesome. In 1976, English biologist Richard Dawkins published a book by the title The Selfish Gene in which he coined the term “meme.” A meme is that which is imitated. Today, we have come to know memes as ideas that have caught on. They are self-replicating ideas that become embedded in culture and human behavior. This is because of imitation because the ideas has power, whether inherent or because of social pressure. Memes, or ideas, spread because they are good, useful, true, powerful, and so on.

So what are some examples of good sustainability memes? Here are a few that have sparked change.

  1. Sustainable Development. The Brundtland Commission created a new concept in its 1987 report called sustainable development. The committee defined sustainable development as “development [that] meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is one of the most referenced definitions for the concept of sustainability. It changed the international outlook on development. The commission defined development as the way humans interact with each other and the planet. This definition lead to the practice of looking at the economic, social, and environmental impacts of human activities. By adding the concept of intergenerational equity as well, it made the analysis of human activities long term.
  2. Green Building. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programs are green building certification programs created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In the 14 years since its creation, LEED has become the “premier mark of achievement in green building” across the globe. The LEED programs caught on because of early government support in certifying government buildings. That support helped create a market for many of the green products we have today.  Thousands of builders learned how to incorporate sustainability into their construction. As of May 2013, there were 44,270 LEED projects in the United States alone. (Check out this USGBC infographic to learn more.)
  3. Certifications. Sustainability is a multi-faceted concept. Sometimes it's hard to sort out which products are sustainable and which are hypes. With certifications, once you decide the certification standard is valid, everything certified is golden. It's great to have certifications like Green Seal, Fair Trade, and Forest Stewardship Council. (For more on sustainable purchasing, check out some great apps listed in our recent blog on the topic.) For Sustrana's sustainability consulting products and services, we turned to B Corp certification. Our certification shows how we do on social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. It shows that we don’t just talk the talk with clients; we walk the walk.
  4. Health Over Profit. By October 2014, CVS will no longer sell cigarettes and other tobacco products. The company’s chief executive Larry J. Merlo explained, “We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don’t go together in the same setting.” This bold business decision inspired other health-related entities to make similar commitments. A local example of this meme in action is Main Line Health. The health care system is one of the largest employers in the Philadelphia suburbs with 10,000 employees. Not long after the CVS announcement, Main Line Health decided to stop hiring tobacco and nicotine users. It did so saying it has a “responsibility to set an example of wellness and disease prevention for [its] patients, employees, and the community.”

At Sustrana, we’re working on a technology meme to make sustainability planning and management accessible to more companies. We’re dying to accelerate sustainability for businesses. Check out the Sustrana platform. See if your company is right for beta testing and spreading our meme. And, we’d love to hear about sustainability ideas have caught on at your firm. What’s your best meme?