You’ve heard the buzz about businesses and institutions “going green” and taking steps to become more “sustainable”. And you’ve heard about “greenwashing“, where companies’ deceptively use green marketing to promote the perception that their products, goals, and/or policies are environmentally friendly, thereby spending more money trying to convince the public that their practices are green rather than funding sustainable development itself. With all of this greenwashing going on and the meaningless “green” cliches, it’s no wonder there is some confusion about sustainable development.
The term “sustainability” insights a vague sense of environmental integrity and can be a confusing concept to fathom, as it applies to all aspects of life- agriculture, transportation, economics, people… you name it.
But that’s just how it should be. The concept of sustainability is so simple that it in fact applies to all of these things and more.
The forefront definition of sustainable development was created in 1987 by the Brundtland commission. In their report, sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs“.
Contrary to popular belief, sustainability does not focus solely on the environment and environmental protection. And it is not a synonym for “green”. Instead, it is based on the triple bottom line: economy, society, and environment. These three concepts are interconnected and dependent on each other.
To bounce off that idea, sustainability isn’t just about recycling and composting, switching to LED lightbulbs, unplugging electronics, and buying “green” products.
Just because you choose to recycle your single-use plastic water bottle does not make your decision a sustainable one. Instead, purchase a reusable water bottle and drink tap water. You’ll save tons of money and landfill space (yes, landfill- hate to break it to ya, but it’s more than likely that your plastic water bottle will end up there rather than recycled into a new product).
In addition to the term’s vagueness, sustainability gets a bad rap because it is viewed as costly. Sure, sustainable development typically requires an upfront cost to transform an existing unsustainable system (for transportation, energy, etc.) into a more sustainable technology. But once the investment is made, there is always a large long-term payoff (e.g. water and energy cost savings over many years). And this payoff doesn’t even take social and environmental benefits from switching to the newer, more sustainable technology/methodology into account.
While grassroots activism and consumer choices are incredibly important in encouraging system changes to happen, our governments (local, state, national, global) to intervene too. The signing of the Paris Agreement on April 22, 2016 (yes, Earth Day) is just the beginning of a strong future in sustainable policy-making decisions across the globe.
Sustainability encourages us to be innovative and responsible. For far too long we’ve worked to get the job done. Sustainable development asks us to do the job right, which means more efficient, more productive, and less consumptive.