What is Sustainability?
The word itself has become an over-arching and malleable concept that has come to define and represent many different things across a variety of disciplines. It is now a popular concept in academic and professional forums, being utilized within discourses on topics as varied as the people in them. As such, a definition needs to be provided for the purposes of this article.
the ability to meet the resource, service, and cultural needs of current and future generations without compromising the health of the ecosystems that provide them, nor diminishing overall biological diversity (Morelli, 2011).
Sustainable development was first introduced in the late 1980s by the World Commission on Environment and Development’s Brundtland Report as a development concept designed to help achieve international balance between social, environmental, and economic development. The Report examined the interconnections between social equity, economic growth, and environmental stewardship and provided policy solutions for nations to begin mitigating and eliminating various socio-environmental negative externalities and economic disparities.
Since that time, sustainability has not only become a multifaceted academic and professional discipline, it has become a mindset, and perspective on how to see the world. Today, disciplines within the purview of sustainability have come to spur local, national, and international-scale efforts to understand and address a variety of challenges and opportunities, which include:
- large-scale anthropogenic (i.e. human-made) impacts on the environment, such as ecosystem degradation during resource extraction; industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, and; habitat fragmentation due to urban sprawl
- the impacts of our globalized socio-economic systems on social inequality, including the impacts entrenched socio-economic systems have on marginalized groups of individuals or communities that exist on the fringes of established social groups (also known as Othering), and
- the ability of food systems to sustain growing global populations despite degraded ecological systems, exemplified by large scale monocultures within ecologically sensitive areas such as the Amazon rainforest (soy).
While it can be argued that sustainability’s tendency to be applied, defined, and understood in many different ways is a detriment to the concept’s integrity, there is reason to believe that its maneuverability allows it to remain a valid construct in different contexts. This elasticity enables it to support intersectional perspectives that help build analytical understanding on subjects like international development, municipal land management, environmental governance, gender equality, and energy development. The value of sustainability is its ability to be relevant across topics yet refined when required to enhance holistic understanding of topics with unique temporal, spatial and socio-economic characteristics.
Applying sustainability in society
Sustainability is founded on the idea that the future viability of social, economic and environmental resources must not be threatened as a result of current anthropogenic practices. When this is acknowledged it becomes quite clear what it means to think sustainably, build sustainably, design sustainably and live sustainably.
Properly integrating sustainability requires an acknowledgment that systems are interconnected and thus, so are impacts. Individuals and corporations are increasingly exemplifying this form of thinking in order to be responsible but also to create benefits for themselves. Individuals are purchasing electric vehicles to not only lower their emissions but to eliminate costs related to operating fossil-fuel dependent vehicles. Patagonia, a leader in sustainable apparel, has gone to great lengths to work with suppliers in order to develop ecologically responsible materials, create sustainable sourcing strategies, lower supply-chain impacts, and provide workers with safe working conditions. By focusing on the sustainability of its processes, Patagonia has simultaneously improved the quality of its products, the responsibility of its manufacturing activities, the connection with its workers, and consumer loyalty to the brand.
Every company that has successfully integrated sustainability initiatives and strategies within their business has something in common: they understand the economic value of social and environmental responsibility.
Once a company understands the trilateral relation between economic, social and environmental realities, corporate objectives can pivot in order to best capture internal and external value. This can result in improved competitiveness, entrance into new niche markets, improved consumer loyalty, lowered operating costs, and risk mitigation.
Barriers to sustainability: Scale and perspective
Despite its seemingly simple conceptual foundation, the application of sustainability (by consumers, companies, and governments) runs into problems when realities of scale and perspective become hard to navigate.
Sustainability attempts to provide a basis for understanding the interconnections between a number of very large, complex systems that exist at the intersection of society and the environment. As a result, it has a tendency to require thinking on a scale that is both small and large in order for its tenets to be realized and implemented adequately. This scope of thinking can be a challenge for three main reasons:
- Individuals and corporations find it hard to think about the future when the day-to-day is challenging. When day-to-day tasks and objectives require large amounts of focus and work, the importance of the future becomes blurred. Corporations are not interested in redesigning their supply chain if their quarterly profits are dramatically low.
- Social and environmental time scales are dramatically incongruent. The two main timescales impacting societal decisions are usually our life expectancies and our political cycles. Both are dramatically smaller than the circuitous systems of the environment. The decisions we make are generally out of touch with the ecological requirements of the environment, resulting in disconnected objectives, misguided strategies and questionable results from short-sighted policies and disjointed efforts that start and stop as socio-political cycles wane and renew.
- The “collective/common good” can be overly abstract. Societies now and in the past have had a hard time stewarding common pool resources (i.e. resources that are difficult to exclude users from, e.g. fisheries, forests, the stratosphere, etc [Ostrom, 1994]). This is commonly due to a combined lack of regulation, self control, and perspective. More specifically, many individuals will naturally avoid responsible behaviour if they believe that:
- their individual behaviour will create relatively minuscule positive or negative impacts on the overall system, and
- other people will be using the resource in question irresponsibly irregardless of their own behaviour (i.e. if they don’t do it, someone else will anyways).
Sustainability is a concept that is guiding thought processes across disciplines and industries as a result of innovative necessity. Social and environmental challenges are increasing in scale and complexity, so much so that governments are now implementing progressive policies like carbon taxes, and the elimination of single-use plastics, while also increasing investments into renewable energy projects. Even large industries are now incurring larger upfront costs in an effort to mitigate their negative impacts and prepare themselves for a changing economy.
Thankfully solutions and opportunities are becoming available at an increasing rate as social perspective and technological innovation improve. Maintaining an awareness of the interconnectivity amongst global systems will be key to improving our symbiotic existence with each other and the planet. It is important to note, however, that while awareness is important for building solutions, collective action is what catalyzes impact.
Thank you for reading.
Morelli, John. (2011). Environmental Sustainability: A definition for environmental professionals. Journal of Environmental Sustainability, 1(1).
Ostrom, E. (1998). Coping with tragedies of the commons. Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. Indiana University, Bloomington.