Sustainability is all the buzz – from recycling at Starbucks and organic cotton at Macy’s, to the recent boon in farmer’s markets and community shared agriculture -messaging around improved environmental responsibility has become mainstream.  Still, many of us are left wondering what “sustainability” actually means.

In its essence, sustainability is about the reduction of waste.

This lack of clarity is largely attributable to two factors: the absence of a coherent regulatory framework, and the breadth and depth of to which sustainability holds relevance for businesses, consumers and the collective global community.

Unlike water quality, which is governed by the Safe Drinking Water Act and waste management, which is regulated by CERCLA and RCRA, sustainability is not encapsulated within a specific regulatory set.  Rather, it touches each of the major regulatory pillars and extends into other areas of social responsibility as well.   With a work scope that can include environmental compliance, supply chain management, fair labor practices, worker safety, public health and company reputation, defining an effective path forward -one that both effectively reduces environmental impact and supports business goals – can be a daunting task.

As a result, many firms are left in a middle state, with the desire to progress in an arena that has clearly emerged as a fundamental component of a competitive advantage for firms like Walmart, Coca Cola and Levi Strauss, and yet possess no clear path to do so.

Fortunately, simplicity can be found.  In its essence, sustainability is about the reduction of waste.  This can translate to the sensible reduction of waste in almost any aspect of the business, from operations to distribution and supply chain.  Beginning with this starting point, businesses with a good sense of their goals can more easily identify projects with synonymous environmental and financial value.

Once a focus area has been identified, the need for a concrete regulatory framework is of lesser importance.  In many cases, national and global guidance does exist.  Depending on your focus area, entities such as the Carbon Trust, Global Reporting Initiative, International Organization for Standardization (ISO), Sustainable Apparel Coalition and LEED can provide valuable support toward achieving effective change.

So, while the complexity of sustainability will fuel deep inquiry across public, private and social sectors for years to come, it is possible to intelligently and safely lean into the lesser known, and evolve into a stronger, healthier, more sustainable organization.  All you have to do is tie your laces, and start walking.