The End of Sustainability?

I was asked recently if this sustainability movement was over. I have to admit I was puzzled by the question. I asked my friend what he meant? He said, “You know, the leaked climate change emails, the Copenhagen meltdown,the head of the U.N. Climate Chief resigned, and BP, Caterpillar and ConocoPhillips not renewing their memberships in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. With all this bad news doesn’t that make you think that this sustainability thing has ran its course?”

That’s when it hit me. He thinks sustainability is only about climate change!

I told him no, I didn’t think that the sustainability movement was over. Climate change was a part of sustainability, but it wasn’t the sole issue of sustainability. I told him other challenges existed that also needed to be addressed in order to provide his company with a sustainable development program. We discussed several other areas over the next few minutes. Energy, not just power used to turn on the corporate, factory, distribution centers and store lights, but also the power that was used to power the products sold to customers. Water, contaminated runoff from buildings and parking lots and the water used by consumers with products purchased. Biodiversity, and how the buildings, office complexes, warehouses, factories and stores affect the ecology of the area. The use of chemicals in business operations and in the manufacturing of products sold. Labor, meaning workforce diversity and child labor policies in place for your manufactures. And waste, the amount and type of materials generated by employees, factories, warehouses, distribution centers and stores and the materials generated from customers due to packaging.

He said that made sense and there seemed to still be a lot of things to cover.

I started wondering after he left, if an intelligent, college educated, business professional thinks that sustainability is only about climate change, how many other people out there also feel the same way? I mean, I don’t think I can blame them with all the excitement over an Oscar and Nobel prize and it seems that every where you look we are placing a green leaf on something trying to tell others “Hey look at me, I’m green.”

It did make me more aware of the words I’ll use in the future when I speak about sustainability and showed me that we still have opportunity to spread the word!

So the next time someone ask you what you do or what is sustainability, don’t stop with a definition of “environmental sustainability” tell them the whole story using examples of social, environmental and financial activities.

11 thoughts on “The End of Sustainability?

  1. You really make it appear really easy together with your presentation but I to find this matter to be really one thing that I think I might never understand. It sort of feels too complicated and very wide for me. I’m looking forward for your subsequent post, I will try to get the hold of it!

  2. Nice post. I would even argue that sustainability does not only embrace 3 key areas (business, environment, society) but that there exist 4 very distinctive perspectives to look at it (systemic, cultural, behavioural, psychological). Most discussions and programs around sustainability tend to focus on the first, the technological, systems perspective. No wonder the concept doesn’t fully convince people. Without culture and behaviour changing too, “sustainability” will never be sustainable. Tricky, isn’t it …

  3. I agree that folks need to know what sustainability covers, but I was suprised that you let him get away thinking that anything real has changed with the need to respond to our impacts on the climate. I have seen nothing substantial that should change anyone’s mind on that and it is still a major problem that we should be facing. Don’t let the climate deniers twist the reality even for a moment. We need to stand up to their false claims.

  4. Yes there is still much to do. I remember using the term in 1985 and being asked what Sustainability ‘meant’ – in an agricultural context – but now that the term is in widespread use – in agriculture , often hi-jacked from its intent – its easy to assume that the work is done. In 1994 ‘economic rationalism’ was alive and well and Western enlightened ‘Big 4’ accounting firms closed down most of China’s canal based composting plants (green waste, animal waste/ residual sewage sludge, mixed organics). At the time I was worried what would happen to those wastes. Shanghai opted for a 40 m3 per second sewer straight into the Yangtse (Chiang Jiang) River. Not sure what the other cities did but assume they followed suit. At the same time, the ‘industrial revolution’ on the east coast was breaking up the family farm with aging parents and grandparents left to deal with the labour shortage the best way they could. In many cases the ‘enlightened west’ helped out with weedkillers and pesticides – the solution to one child per family (farm labour) moving to factories to work. The result has been and will continue to be an exponentially increasing level of organochlorine residuals as well as faecal coliforms and wastes – in downstream river waters. The Chinese industrial revolution will have huge and far reaching global consequences impacting family life, air and water quality – truly a global challenge. Sustainability ? – we haven’t even touched the surface !

  5. this is a great discussion and thank you for bringing it up. I think it’s up to us who understand it to educate others. I was surprised when I spoke to a friend this morning in India who works in the IT industry and hadn’t even heard of the term below. Then I went on to explain how getting involved in it is good for companies because he immediately categorized it as something only NGOs would be interested in.
    When people ask me which area of sustainability I am interested in, it’s hard to answer because they are so related. Polluted water aquifers caused by mindless usage, excessive waste and deforestation impacts the food we eat in terms of agricultural productivity and quality. So right here we covered 4 different sustainability industries- water conservation, waste management, forestries, and sustainable agriculture.

  6. Hi Jesse,

    I know that feeling well, all too well.

    Whilst it is incredibly frustrating watching too many people blindly trotting through their daily routines blissfully ignorant of the chaos surrounding the wider sustainability agenda, there is a far scarier scenario.

    When business leaders are in positions of authority or ownership, and ARE aware, but still do nothing. Ignorance is almost an excuse, sustainability apathy is criminal.

    Unfortunately I see this far too often with smaller organisations who feel ignored on every level and develop a very insular mentality.

    We all have a lot of work left to do.


  7. You’re right on and it’s a difficult discussion to have because so many people have translated sustainability to mean only environmental sustainability and ‘global climate change’ to only ‘global warming.’

    You might respond by asking them if they think efforts to have ethnical business practices that prevent fraud, abuse and financial meltdowns is ‘over.’

    Ask them if they think that the fight for human rights, equality, fair treatement, women’s rights, against child labor, abuse, etc. is ‘over.’

    Ask them if the need to reduce the pollution we dump into our land, rivers, lakes and streams – as well as air – is lessened, or if we should stop all the work to curb our ever-increasing use of limited natural resources is ‘over.’

  8. Jesse,
    Thanks for the discussion. I am also amazed at how quickly people assume sustainability only effects one area of business. I work with corporate organizations that are still grappling with
    their footprint, however, when they get it they really understand that the benefits cross many disciplines …..and ignoring it can lead to future
    disruptions to their supply chain and corporate well being.

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