What does “sustainability” mean? I’ve written before on the philosophical meaning of sustainability as an end point here (I don’t think there is one or an end point I want to reach). The core concept of sustainability is getting on a path where we can keep today’s people and the environment healthy so that there are future generations who can thrive.
It’s more than one thing. More than recycling plastic. More than buying “green” labeled products. More than climate change and reducing your carbon footprint. A lot of people are equating sustainability with reducing environmental impact. A good thing, but not the only thing the concept of sustainability is about.
Sustainability is also about health and safety. It’s about economic well-being. Poor people are not happy or healthy and don’t give a fig for environmental damage because they are worried about basic survival now. And social justice. What about the workers in those bamboo plantations? (check out this article recently in GreenBuzz:)
Sustainability is systems thinking – thinking about all the consequences of what you are about to do. I like to call it Life Cycle Thinking. What are the associated impacts to health and the environment and social well-being at each stage of the life cycle? Where do the energy and materials come from? How efficiently do you use them? What wastes are generated and where do they go? Who has to do what to whom to get you want you want? What are the true costs to humans and the environment at each step and what is the net benefit to you and to others? Now I know that no one has the wherewithal to conduct life cycle assessments before they make every decision, but some of it is pretty darn obvious – especially when you look at how much stuff you have thrown away (or stacked in a corner and should be tossed) or are gloating over how cheap something is. You can think about sustainability before acting. You can be aware by reading and supporting those who do look into those impacts.
Don’t stop at a single attribute (e.g., “organic”). Ask whether your suppliers and your customers and/or those you affect downstream are thinking about the full breadth of sustainability. Be skeptical, but do recognize and support those who are on the right path and really trying (see blog on Continuous Improvement). Help others understand the impacts of what they do.
(Rant: The “green” product claims are getting out of hand and need to be reined in (see blog on comments to the Federal Trade Commission). The implication is that doing one apparently good thing makes a product sustainable. Wrong.)
Be more aware of the full scope of impacts caused by what you and others do. Ask questions and communicate. That old “Golden Rule” is pretty good – if you have a more expansive view of who the “you” and “others” are.
Sustainability is pretty much everything.