What Is Sustainability?

February 11, 2010
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In recent posts, we’ve addressed whether we should replace the term “green” with “sustainability.”

The term “green,” after all, comes with some baggage: Al Gore, environmentalism, energy efficiency mandates and regulations, expensive products and some products that don’t perform as well as non-“green” products—at least in the eyes of many consumers.

So it makes perfect sense to switch to another word, and sustainability seems so much more positive. Furthermore, it seems to encompass so much more than just “green.”

But what exactly is sustainability?

I’ve been doing some snooping and surfing, and following are a few definitions I’ve found.

According to Chemistry Innovation, sustainable technologies use less energy, fewer limited resources, do not deplete natural resources, do not directly or indirectly pollute the environment, and can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful life.

But sustainability is really much, much more.

Good-old Wikipedia says, “Definitions of sustainability often refer to the ‘three pillars’ of social, environmental and economic sustainability.”

This means that something “sustainable” should not just be energy-efficient and made with nontoxic and recyclable materials, but it also should not be produced with egregious labor practices such as taking advantage of third-world laborers (the social aspect), and it should have lasting economic value, for both the buyer and seller. This could mean that the product lasts a long time, instead of just a year or two before it needs to be replaced, and/or that it helps sustain a company’s business. After all, we all want our businesses to be sustainable, strictly in the economic sense.

Sustainability, then, covers much more than just green or energy efficiency. But that doesn’t mean sustainability is always more than “green.” As Scientific American argues, “Calling [nuclear power] green would be a stretch [due to its toxic waste]. Calling it sustainable is much less of one [due to it not emitting greenhouse gases].”

Some may argue with that statement, on both sides. Many environmentalists now say nuclear energy is green, despite the waste. But that’s a topic for another day and another web site.

As Scientific American concludes:

You cannot really declare any practice “sustainable” until you have done a complete life-cycle analysis of its environmental costs. Even then, technology and public policy keep evolving, and that evolution can lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences. The admirable goal of living sustainably requires plenty of thought on an ongoing basis.

What does that mean?

It means the term  “sustainability” is a work in progress. Don’t be intimidated by terms and concepts like “life-cycle analysis.” Sustainability is really what we all make it to be.

We cannot expect the consumer electronics and computer industries, for example, to be sustainable in all ways overnight.

  • Are they going to produce products, for instance, that last for years and years and only need software upgrades? That would be beautiful, but GreenTech Advocates doesn’t expect that to happen for years or decades.
  • Can you, as a consumer or a retailer or electronics installer, demand that all your providers and vendors be green and build green products with sustainable values all through the manufacturing chain? Unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t in the future—or even in the near future.
  • Should you care whether underpaid laborers work in dangerous conditions to manufacture or recycle these products? Absolutely, but there’s only so much you can do about it now, such as making sure you recycle electronics via e-cyclers that don’t ship old electronics overseas.

The whole value-chain of sustainability, especially in green tech and energy management technology fields, is still very early in its development. In this sense, sustainability is still more of a goal than an absolute. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it, and promote more sustainable lifestyles for your customers.

Just be sure to use the term “sustainability” wisely, and be prepared to explain what you mean by it.

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