Defining Sustainability

Dana Decent reflects on the challenges of developing a common understanding for the term “sustainability.”

I was recently telling a good friend  about my work helping a local business with their sustainability initiatives over lunch. Because she has a non-environmental background, she listened for a while, but eventually stopped me to ask, “So what exactly does sustainability mean?”

Her question emphasized two ongoing challenges we face as environmentalists: the need to shape a message that will resonate with our audience and the fact that sustainability is a very ambiguous term. We use it all the time, but how many of us can actually define it?

A classic definition comes from the Brundtland Commission, published in 1987: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In common parlance, it often means a balance of social, environmental and economic interests. Dig a little deeper and it’s harder to pin down exactly what that all means. How do you prioritize and balance those often-competing factors? Is sustainability a goal or a process? What does it mean to actually be sustainable?

I find people who have never learned about sustainability in an academic setting (and even those who have) often have radically different ideas about what it means. Some think it can be substituted for “environmental.” Others equate it with something that neither grows nor decreases. Others still exhibit the mindset that sustainability is the antithesis to running a successful business – or they really don’t care what it means as long as they still make a profit.

This needs to change. We have reached a new era of greenwashing where large companies produce sustainability reports and we see this as “doing good” and call it a day. Our overuse of the term makes it unsurprising that people are unsure about its definition. And how can we create a sustainable world if we don’t know what sustainability really looks like?

This is why I believe it’s important to avoid the term “sustainable” with this type of audience– at least at first. It is more important to provide concrete examples that demonstrate the sustainability concept. For example, talk about a homeowner who installed a geothermal energy system so they consume renewable energy and depend less on non-renewable fossil fuels. Explain how urban farming can offer nutritious meals and create more resilient cities. Demonstrate how biking to work or school (and urging cities to adopt bike-friendly roads) can improve health and well-being, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You can then bring each example back to how they align with principles of sustainability and paint a more comprehensive picture of the concept than just using the term on its own.

Circling back to my friend’s original query, I had to take a breath. Where to start? What to say? So I gave some examples that demonstrated how I was helping the local business become more sustainable, little by little: socially, environmentally and economically. I explained our recommendation to insulate their house and install a geothermal heating system, and demonstrated the return on investment for both endeavors. We created environmental signage to increase member awareness of green initiatives and recommended key items to track and report on.

“I get it now,” she said, “making them more sustainable sounds great!”

Dana is a fourth-year Environment and Business student at uWaterloo.