January 6, 2020

Does the Word Sustainability Confuse You?

If you google the word “sustainability” right now, you’ll be met with about 185 million results. Two definitions precede clickable results: “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level,” and “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” While the definition of the word and concept might seem straightforward, many people continue to misunderstand its true meaning. If you tend to find the concept of sustainability confusing, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

The German Origin of the Concept of Sustainability

The Germans coined the term “Nachhaltigkeit” back in 1713, way before the concept of sustainability crossed the minds of most people. The term was used to explain the need for a permanent supply of trees that could provide lumber for building silver mines. The intent was to implement a system that would give new trees a chance to grow before people continued cutting down the forest. Without giving the forest a chance to replenish itself, people would lose their supply of lumber quickly. “Nachhaltigkeit” translated into English as the word “sustainable.”

The Brundtland Report

Presented to the United Nations in 1987, Our Common Future, otherwise known as the Brundtland Report, explained sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Sustainability has two key concepts:

1.Meeting the essential needs of impoverished people around the globe

2.Introducing the idea that limitations should be set by social organization and technology to allow for the environment to meet not only present needs, but also future needs for all people

Three Pillars of Sustainability

The concept of sustainability encompasses three main pillars: economic, environmental and social, and each pillar is meant to carry equal weight. These pillars are often informally referred to as “people, planet and profits.” When pertaining to economics, most definitions of sustainability refer to that simple three-pillar model. However, there has been debate over whether or not giving each pillar equal weight weakens sustainable actions. Those in the scientific community believe that stronger sustainability can only be achieved if more emphasis is placed on intact natural resources because the other two pillars depend upon them.

Greenwashing Hasn’t Helped

The term sustainability has been met with reluctance due to the prevalence of greenwashing, which is similar to whitewashing but in nature. Greenwashing is the practice of intentionally misleading the public into believing that a company’s products, services, policies or practices are environmentally friendly. Often, terms like green, natural, organic and eco-friendly are used in deceptive green marketing campaigns. The practice of greenwashing has led to litigation for disputes regarding misleading and false marketing of products and services that are not conducive to sustainable efforts. Because of this, “sustainability” is sometimes met with doubt or suspicion. For many people, the simplest way to understand what sustainability means is to look at it as doing the right thing. It means being mindful of your actions and incorporating environmentalism and social equality into your life. Additionally, it means supporting and protecting the rights of those who are making efforts to maintain a healthy balance of traditional and sustainable growth methods. By adhering to these sustainable principles, you can help make the world better for future generations