What is the true meaning of “sustainability”?
A big question with a very personal answer…
The definition of sustainability is largely agreed to be “the maintenance of an ecological balance” – in terms of production, lifestyle and everything in between.
The word sustainability – out of an environmental context – means “the ability to be maintained”. Since the 1980s, the meaning of sustainability has been most widely known in ecological terms, causing its usage to increase over 50,000% over the next forty years as concerns about the environment increased.
With such a rapid increase in the use of the word, people start to imagine their own definitions of sustainability, to apply it to their own situations, interests and experience. The true meaning of sustainability can be hard to pin down.
Why are there different meanings of sustainability?
The definitions of sustainability might all focus on a general ability to be maintained, but there are still choices to be made, costs to be considered and rights to uphold while doing that. This is why the ecological meaning of sustainability is so difficult to define.
For instance, a CEO’s vision of a sustainable production line may be efficient in producing items quickly to reduce energy, but may not have its workers’ best interests at heart. This would be a very different view of sustainability to that of a fairtrade campaigner who is concerned about creating a sustainable workforce and promoting companies that look after the rights of their workers around the world. People may approach the word from different angles, but we can, on the whole, agree that the meaning of sustainability is about having a positive impact on the world.
But even that more inclusive meaning can feel a little wishy-washy, and hard to apply to real life. If you’re new to sustainability or starting to take an increased interest in the topic, hearing something like ‘having a positive impact’ doesn’t offer you direct action to take. Definitions like corporate social responsibility spell out some of those nuances but can be alienating in their stuffiness. So what is the meaning of sustainability?
Different definitions of sustainability
Although sustainability is a global effort, what it means to an individual is usually quite personal and can range from habitual to radical. Some people’s definitions of sustainability are simple: cutting out waste and choosing products made of planet-friendly materials, like bio-acetate. Others see it as travelling less, tapping into circular fashion, shopping locally and helping communities. Many see sustainability as refining business practices, funding B Corps or social enterprises, and advocating for fairer trade prices.
On the consumer side, ‘voting with your dollar’ by buying from transparent and ethical businesses, who let you know where their products are sourced from, and what they do with their profits is currently a very popular definition of sustainability. For some, it’s activism, taking part in marches and signing petitions to provoke change. But a few people see true sustainability as not creating anything at all – all production emits energy, and the planet needs a standstill, not new ways of doing things.
There are so many widely varying definitions of sustainability that it can become overwhelming. Standardised phrases that try to account for all of these approaches become amalgamated, trying to please different people, and are either therefore boring, or meaningless. Most of us see the meaning of sustainability as a combination of many approaches and figure out how it works for them.
Something that’s truly wonderful about sustainability is that it creates a chain of action. You might start by shopping at refill stores to reduce packaging, and end up getting turned on to vegan cooking, then change your shopping habits on a wider scale. Looking at the supply chain in your favourite businesses might inspire you to change some practices at your own workplace. The fact that the meaning of sustainability is somewhat vague can be both a blessing and a curse.
Choose your own meaning of sustainability
Of course, the curse of a vague meaning of sustainability comes in the fact that as there are so many definitions, a lot of people will use the loopholes and space between definitions to try and manipulate the generosity that trying to be sustainable is based on. Greenwashing is a term that means applying a definition of sustainability very loosely, or translating it into marketing buzzwords, like adding ‘clean’ or ‘green’ to something that’s not proven to be sustainable. It can be easy to be taken in by gestures towards sustainability, so giving some thought about what the term means to you is a key part of being sustainable.
The meaning of anything comes from what you as an individual take from it. If you just listen to somebody else’s definition of sustainability, it can feel like trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. Zooming in on what you truly care about, what brought you to the idea in the first place – were you overwhelmed by junk Christmas presents and started wondering what sustainable gifting is? Or did you see a shocking documentary that put you off eating meat? – and your definition of sustainability is really important. Ultimately, the meaning of sustainability is about choice. What you choose to buy, and why. How you choose to live.
Your meaning of sustainability will differ from others, but that’s not a bad thing – and it’s important to stay open-minded, and keep listening to and learning from others. To finish, here are some thoughts on definitions of different areas of sustainability from some friends of Pala, with expertise in different areas:
“Small steps by many are key, being more conscious of who you support, promote and stand by. Use less, reuse more. We do not need a handful of people doing it perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly. Great change does not, and cannot come overnight. It will be a long hard slog, full of mistakes, successes and gradual change. We can do it, and we must try.” – Pala ambassador Amelia Brun, @amslebrun
“During my long hours in the water I’ve been lucky enough to swim with a variety of marine life, from sperm whales, dolphins to turtles and plenty of mahi mahi. More prominent than the wildlife, sadly, was the marine trash we found on a daily basis. There wasn’t a day we didn’t find plastic in the water, everything from smaller microplastic to larger debris and huge ghost nets… you can help by cutting out plastic from your life to prevent it from ending up out here. I want people to understand that the solution is in everybody’s hands. It’s true when people say, we don’t need one person to do it perfectly, we need millions to do it imperfectly.” – Ben Lecomte, Marathon Swimmer, Guinness World Record holder and ocean advocate
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Want to go deeper into the subject matter? Then why not head to our friends over at Porch for a insightful post on how you can be more conscious in your behaviour and look out for that all ‘greenwashing’.