The word sustainability consumes me. I hate it if I am being brutally honest. It’s misused and contorted and coopted for personal narrative. And yet, far too many hours of my time are spent thinking about it.
Here’s a musing on the matter.
As there is no standardised, clear definition of #sustainability, I find this the most explanatory, inclusive and useful to describe the interdependent systems of what we are trying to achieve as the following:
“maintaining finances at a certain rate or level, without the depletion of natural resources, or infringing on human rights”.
I know others have also found it useful, like the brilliant Roxy Erickson who has been using it in her incredible workshops.
See, here’s the thing. I take issue with diluting an already insufficient word by only talking about one aspect of a system and calling it sustainability. We don’t have time to think in siloes…
So I want to challenge my colleagues in this space to make a commitment not to co-opt the term for only one aspect, but to use it as an all-encompassing definition to drive real change. We don’t have time to come up with another word to try to explain what it is we need to do in order to survive as a species. We have to retrofit the tools we have so they are suitable for the future. This is what we tell clients, so why aren’t we doing this? If you’re working on environmental solutions… call them environmental solutions. If you’re working on social impact, call it what it is. If you’re working on governance, accounting or any single aspect of nuanced sustainability… then call a spade a spade. Spades are vital, but they aren’t the whole building.
I will use the film and advertising industry as an example… a production should not be deemed “sustainable” if the only initiatives being addressed a GHG emission and waste deduction is factored in. That is an environmentally responsible film, but it doesn’t take into account the human costs and casualties (the human rights aspect)…or the budget for that matter.
In the beauty industry… we are hearing sustainable beauty as a trending marketing tagline more and more. But what is sustainable beauty…really? It’s not simply organic ingredients…or reusable packaging. It’s responsible messaging that builds self-esteem, its investment in recovery streams so the recyclability claims are accurate, it’s reducing carbon emissions across the entire value chain, its equitable pricing and its transparent reporting. It’s all of these things (and more) together!
To me, it was Dana Meadows who said it best, in a journal entry in 1995. It was in response to Herman Daly’s explication of sustainability. She wrote:
“Sustainability means all that to me and more, it means a complete vision of the world I want to work for and live in.
It contains components of spirituality, of community, of decentralization, of a complete rethinking of the ways we use our time, define our jobs, and bestow power upon governments and corporations.
“Sustainability” is a terribly inadequate word for what I mean. Any word of six syllables is way too long to organize a popular movement around and at the same time way too short to encompass a whole vision.
And too many people hear it as “sustaining” the world we have now, whereas I really mean fomenting a revolution!”
These words roused me into action, into taking a stand – even if it’s uncomfortable or unpopular. I hope it stirs something in you too. If it does, I’d love to hear about it.
We have to keep pushing and driving deeper change. Not wider…deeper. Not more. Deeper.
If you find my and Betsy Reed’s definition useful to help shape understanding of the term, please consider signing our petition to get the definition of sustainability updated in the world’s leading dictionary.