Planet earth

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Sustainability?

March 27, 2023

Sustainability means many different things to many different people. If we don’t share a common definition of what it means to be sustainable, how can we work together to reverse climate change?

Sustainability is a term that has become increasingly common in recent years, with individuals, businesses, and governments all striving to achieve it. However, while the term is used frequently, there are often misconceptions about what it actually means, and the different ways in which it can be achieved.

At its core, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain something over time, without causing harm to the environment or depleting resources. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as

“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is a common definition that is employed by the main reporting organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). Another common definition of sustainability is often referred to as the “Triple Bottom Line,” which focuses on three areas: economic, social, and environmental. In order to be truly sustainable, an action or initiative must take into account all three of these aspects, and balance them in a way that ensures long-term success. For a brief overview, here are the main factors to be considered in each category:

Economic sustainability:

  • Financial viability: The project or action must be financially viable in the long-term. This means that it must generate enough revenue to cover costs and provide a reasonable return on investment.
  • Resource efficiency: The project or action should use resources efficiently and avoid waste. This can help reduce costs and improve profitability over the long-term.
  • Economic growth: The project or action should contribute to economic growth, job creation, and other positive economic outcomes.

Social sustainability:

  • Social equity: The project or action should ensure that benefits are distributed fairly and that no one group is disproportionately affected by negative impacts.
  • Community engagement: The project or action should involve the local community and stakeholders in decision-making and ensure that their voices are heard.
  • Health and safety: The project or action should prioritize the health and safety of workers, community members, and other stakeholders.

Environmental sustainability:

  • Resource conservation: The project or action should prioritize the conservation of natural resources, such as water, land, and energy.
  • Pollution prevention: The project or action should avoid or minimize pollution and waste generation.
  • Biodiversity conservation: The project or action should prioritize the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

One of the most common misconceptions about sustainability is that it is simply about environmentalism. Encyclopedia Britannica defines environmentalism as

“a political and ethical movement that seeks to improve and protect the quality of the natural environment through changes to environmentally harmful human activities […]”

While protecting the environment is certainly an important part of sustainability, it is just one aspect of a much larger picture and it should not be believed that reducing the humanity’s harmful effects on nature is the key to becoming sustainable. A truly sustainable approach must take into account economic and social considerations as well. For example, a business that is environmentally sustainable but socially unsustainable – such as employing child labor to manufacture goods – is not truly sustainable in the long-term.

Another common misconception, which gets perpetuated quite often by the private sector PR departments, is that sustainability is simply about reducing carbon emissions or about having a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) plan in place. Corporate Social Responsibility refers to a company’s voluntary actions to improve the social and environmental conditions in the communities where it operates. This includes things like reducing emissions, philanthropic giving, adherence to local laws, employee volunteer programs, and community engagement initiatives. Sustainability, however, refers to minimizing the negative impact of a company’s operations on the environment, promoting social equity, and ensuring economic viability over the long term. While CSR and sustainability have some overlap, they are not interchangeable terms. A company may engage in CSR activities without necessarily being sustainable, and vice versa.

In addition, the use of terms like “carbon neutral” or “net zero” without a clear definition of what they mean, or used interchangeably with sustainability, can also lead to confusion and skepticism. Carbon neutrality is achieved when the net amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions released into the atmosphere from an activity is equal to the amount of CO2 that is removed from the atmosphere or offset through carbon reduction projects. Net zero is a synonymous term that refers to achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. Both can be achieved by either reducing emissions to as close to zero as possible or by removing an equivalent amount of emissions from the atmosphere.

Finally, a term you will hear mentioned often associated with sustainability is the term ESG, which stands for the Environmental, Social and Governance criteria used to evaluate a company’s sustainability and ethical practices. The origins of ESG can be traced back to the socially responsible investing (SRI) movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to align investment decisions with social and environmental values. In the 1980s and 1990s, ESG criteria became more formalized as  the 1987 publication of the Brundtland Commission’s report “Our Common Future” helped to popularize the concept of sustainability, and prompted many companies to begin addressing their environmental and social impacts.

Again, ESG and sustainability are related terms but they are not the same thing. Sustainability refers to the ability of a system or process to endure over time, without causing significant negative impacts on the environment, society, or the economy. ESG, on the other hand, is a framework that is used to evaluate companies based on their performance in how they manage their environmental risks and opportunities, how they treat their employees, suppliers, and customers, and how they are governed and managed. And while ESG criteria are an important part of sustainability, the latter requires a more comprehensive and integrated approach that takes into account a wide range of factors, including resource efficiency, waste reduction, social justice, economic viability, and long-term resilience.

In order to ensure that sustainability efforts are successful it is important to use clear, accurate language when discussing such a complex term and to avoiding vague or exaggerated claims about what it means to be sustainable. For example, some companies may claim they are sustainable simply because they have achieved “carbon neutrality” by purchasing carbon offsets rather than by actually reducing their emissions. This type of claim has led to the appearance of the term “greenwashing” to describe organizations that make false or exaggerated claims about their environmental sustainability in order to appeal to consumers. Moreover, by limiting the definition of sustainability to its environmental factor, a claim like this can again lead to confusion and skepticism about sustainability efforts, ultimately making it harder to achieve real progress towards reversing climate change.

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