Sustainability May Not Mean What You Think It Means

Sustainability, ensuring the future of life on Earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all
— Paul Hawken

Sustainability is a big deal today.  It is an oft-uttered term among a wide array of businesses and designers.  According to studies by BSR and Global Scan, 62% of business leaders “identified the integration of sustainability into core business operations as the most important leadership challenge for business today.”   Sustainability is important to businesses of all stripes.  To many business leaders being sustainable is important because they want to make the best impact on the world around them.  

To other businesses, sustainability is important because it has been proven to be important to their customers.  That is little surprise: according to a 2013 survey by Cone Communications, 9 out of 10 customers would readily switch to businesses or brands that represent a better environmental choice.  Many businesses and products not only claim to be sustainable and truly believe they are.  With the importance of creating a sustainable society, we should consider carefully what "Sustainability" really means.

Herman Daly, an American ecological economist and professor at the University of Maryland established the definition of sustainability from the perspective of maintaining natural capital as:

  1. For renewable resources, the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration (sustainable yield);
  2. For pollution, the rates of waste generation from projects should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment (sustainable waste disposal); and
  3. For nonrenewable resources the depletion of the nonrenewable resources should require comparable development of renewable substitutes for that resource.

Daly’s definition is perhaps the best yard stick to measure ourselves against in terms of sustainability.  The more personal and business decisions we make using these three measurements, the better we will be assuring the stability of our economy and ecosystem indefinitely.  To be sustainable, our lifestyles, businesses, or products need meet each of these three criteria. 

Unfortunately, businesses and products that actually meet these three criteria are exceedingly rare.   Certainly, we are finding many more choices that are 'organic', or identified as 'sustainable'.  That is a good thing, to be certain.  However, even with the very best of intentions, few of these options are really sustainable when viewed through Daly's guide for sustainability.  In our next post we'll explore what it takes to be truly sustainable.