Thursday, September 19, 2013

Understanding Sustainability: Forging a Comprehensive Definition

What does sustainability really mean? This is a far more difficult question that it would at first appear. Sustainability is often falsely used synonymously with the word "green". Using terms like "green" are so vague that they offer little beyond abstract generalities. Green is a marketing buzzword that refers to everything that has minutest amount of environmental or ecological advantage, but may not be sustainable to any degree. 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 simple and succinct definitions of the term including:

"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"
"Lean and Green"
"Giving back to the environment what is taken out"
"Staying viable in perpetuity"

The truth is there really is no simple answer because sustainability involves so many different elements that its meaning is undermined by over simplification. Some definitions involve circular logic like, "sustainable business is business that is sustainable," but these types of explanations offer very little precision. It is only when we began to explore the specific elements of sustainability that we begin to address issues that can be translated into concrete actions.

A commonly used definition is the one that was developed in 1987 by the Brundtland Report, also known as "Our Common Future", which is basically the "marriage of economy and ecology, in order to ensure the growth of human progress through development without bankrupting the resources of future generations."

Present Actions and Future Impacts

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 means that it is able to last or continue for a long time. Put another way sustainability is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability is the ability to sustain actions indefinitely because those actions do not use more natural resources over time than can be replenished.

Sustainability is best achieved by managing resources to produce at a level which will continue over the long-run. 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 and enhancing health and safety.

Key Components

Sustainability implies energy efficiency, renewable power, and resource conservation. Water and waste reduction are key elements of such efforts.Key elements of the sustainability include minimizing carbon-footprints and waste reduction.

Sustainability involves long term planning which related to product design, manufacturing, transportation. Sustainability also extends to 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 on the world. Like using resources that can be consistently harvested without devastation to the ecology it is extracted from.

Sustainability also refers to physical resources that maintain the ecology they come from. Certainly technology has a role to play in helping us to be more sustainable. That is why the adoption of greener technologies that reduce our environmental impacts are also important.

One thing that sustainability must address is our addiction to fossil-fuels. We cannot make any claim about sustainability without seriously working on ending our fossil fuel dependence. Simply put we can't burn fossil-fuels and build a sustainable world.

An important and sometimes overlooked element of sustainability as it applies to business involves profitability. The logic here is simple, if a company is not profitable it will not be able to sustain itself, provide employment, pay taxes etc. For business, reducing costs through things like energy efficiency makes them financially sustainable.

There are a number of initiatives that give us reason to hope that we will continue to engage sustainability. At the forefront of this movement is the Corporate Responsibility, Sustainability/CSR, Corporate Governance


Sustainability is sometimes defined as the ability to increase production as well as preserve the environment." However, there are some who feel that sustainability is incompatible with economic growth. Inherent in this view is the belief that we cannot continuously increase production to meet consumers needs.

The Europe 2020 strategy redefines 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 Businesses, People and Governments

When it comes to sustainability businesses are not separate from governments and individuals, all three are related to the all important issue of reducing our environmental impacts. Sustainability applies to business, governments and individuals. We need to meet present and future needs in terms of design (business), policy (government) and lifestyles (individual). Sustainability really applies to every detail of living, both in terms of businesses and individuals.

Individuals need to be both responsible citizens and responsible consumers. To be responsible we need to be well informed which means education is critical. People need to know how their perceived needs affect the sustainability of our planet.

Collectively we need to take ownership of our planet, this implies responsible stewardship (we can learn a lot from aboriginal societies on this issue).

Sustainability also extends to the difficult topic of unbridled population growth. As the global population grows it becomes increasingly difficult to live within the Earth's carrying capacity.

Understanding sustainability involves understanding interrelationships. An in-depth understanding of sustainability is holistic involving a combination of actions from people, business and governments. People, resources, energy must be tied together into quality of life and a standard of living as part of an overall definition of sustainability. A change in one effects the others.

Every business, every government and every person needs to evaluate what we do each day to increase the ways to reduce our impacts.


In the final analysis, the reality is that as long as we use finite resources, we are also being unsustainable. While things like renewable energy are considered to be sustainable, the resources used to manufacture them are finite. So even here we run into difficulties. Therefore sustainability is often an oxymoron. We may be better served by addressing these issues in relative terms (ie being more sustainable).

Due to the complex interrelationships there can be no simple and uniform definition of sustainability. We can address the basic components of sustainability and from there we each must find ways to elaborate as it applies to our activities.

No matter what our definition sustainability starts with each one of us. In the broadest sense we must minimize our adverse impacts.

© 2013, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.

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