What does sustainability really mean? Sustainability is often falsely used synonymously with the word “green”. The problem is that terms like “green” are so vague that they offer little beyond abstract generalities. Green is a marketing buzzword that refers to everything that offers even the minutest amount of environmental or ecological advantage, it is not uncommon to see it used in places that are antithetical to environmental concerns. A simple definition of sustainability is elusive, yet it is desirable because so many people now use the term in an incomplete or partial sense that it is being cheapened and its value is being diluted.
There have been a host of succinct definitions of sustainability, here are some of the most common ones:
“Triple bottom line (people, profits and planet)”
“Preserve today to determine tomorrow”
“Meeting both present and future needs”
“Consuming the interest and keeping the appreciating capital intact”
“Giving back to the environment what is taken out”
“Staying viable in perpetuity”
The truth is that there really is no simple answer because sustainability is all-encompassing. It involves so many different elements that its meaning is undermined by oversimplification. Some definitions of the word ‘sustainable’ are utterly meaningless like the circular logic in statements like, “sustainable business is business that is sustainable,”. It is only when we explore the specific elements of sustainability and the diverse array of associated issues that we can appreciate just how all-encompassing this term can be.
Perhaps the best succinct definition of sustainability is found in the 1987 Brundtland Report, also known as “Our Common Future”, In this widely cited document sustainability is defined as the “marriage of economy and ecology, in order to ensure the growth of human progress through development without bankrupting the resources of future generations.”
Key components and redefining growth
Defining sustainability must involve working in the present with an awareness of the future. We cannot be sustainable without understanding the impacts of our current conduct on the future of the planet and all its inhabitants.
Sustainable development meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability is the ability to sustain actions indefinitely because those actions do not use more resources than can be replenished.
Sustainability is best achieved by managing resources over the long term. From a business perspective, sustainability involves maintaining production for the present and future generations as well as conserving the natural resource base, preserving the environment, while enhancing health and safety.
Sustainability is closely associated with energy efficiency, renewable power, and resource conservation. Minimizing human footprints, including things like water management and waste reduction are key elements of such efforts.
Sustainability involves long-term planning related to product design, manufacturing, and transportation, extending throughout the entire supply chain.
Sustainability refers to maintaining an ecology. It has been adopted by industry to relate things that are environmentally friendly or good to the environmental context. Sustainable business models take on practices that can be consistently reiterated without producing a negative impact. This involves using resources in a way that does not devastate the ecologies from which they are extracted.
Our addiction to fossil fuels is at the core of sustainability. We cannot make any claim about practicing sustainability without a serious effort to end our dependency on fossil fuels. Simply put we cannot build a more sustainable world without ending our use of dirty energy.
Profit also has a place in sustainability, following the logic that if a company is not profitable it will not be able to sustain itself, provide employment, pay taxes, etc. For profit-focused businesses, sustainability initiatives can reduce risks by increasing compliance and reduce costs by improving efficiency.
There are a number of initiatives that give us reason to hope that sustainability will become an integral part of normal life. . We are already seeing clear evidence in the form of Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability (CSR).
Sustainability is sometimes defined as the ability to increase production as well as preserve the environment.” However, there are others who say that sustainability is incompatible with economic growth. This view is supported by the fact that there are finite limits to our capacity to increase production. Perhaps we need to redefine growth. The Europe 2020 strategy, defines growth as follows: “growth that is: smart, through more effective investments in education, research, and innovation; sustainable, thanks to a decisive move towards a low-carbon economy; and inclusive, with a strong emphasis on job creation and poverty reduction.”
The interrelationship between governments, businesses, and civil society
Governments, businesses, and civil society all have roles to play in the creation of a truly sustainable society. Corporations need to be responsible, and governments need to hold them accountable. Civil society needs to hold their elected representatives accountable and they also need to judiciously leverage their buying power. This requires a well-informed public which is why education is critical. People need to understand the impacts of their perceived needs on our planet.
Understanding sustainability involves understanding the complex interrelationships that exist between key elements of society. This requires a holistic appreciation of the roles of governments, businesses, and civil society. There are no uniform solutions, every government, every business, and every citizen needs to evaluate what they can do to minimize their adverse impacts.
Extracting and using finite resources is unsustainable. While things like renewable energy are considered to be sustainable, the resources used to manufacture them are also finite. So even here we run into difficulties that require innovative solutions like a closed-loop, circular economy. Due to the complex interrelationships, there can be no concise or uniform definition of what sustainability means. We can address the basic components of sustainability but deciding which are the most impactful actions depends on our particular practices or business activities.
© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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