29th January 2020
Looking beyond the dictionary: what does sustainability mean
Sustainability is no doubt having its day, trending across the media, business and cultural landscapes. But sustainability is a complex concept that encompasses much more than just environmentalism, and a great deal of greenwashing takes place under its banner. The lack of a clear understanding of what the term represents risks reducing it to a mere cliché, void of meaning for consumers and businesses alike.
Different perspectives on sustainability
It’s worth noting that the meaning of the term ‘sustainability’ does change based on the domain or field where it is being applied.
Corporate sustainability was defined in a research paper in 2002 as meeting the needs of a firm’s stakeholders without compromising future stakeholders.
Engineering sustainability was described in 2009 as allowing people globally to meet basic needs while improving their quality of life and increasing opportunities for future generations.
There is also a general definition for agricultural sustainability: the use of the agricultural ecosystem to ensure that it maintains biological diversity, vitality, and regeneration so that it can fulfil the requirements of today and the future without harming other ecosystems.
Regardless of the lens through which sustainability is viewed, there are consistencies throughout. Each of the above definitions addresses the needs of the future as well as the needs of the present.
But one of the biggest issues with the term itself is its ambiguity. ‘Sustainability’ can be interpreted in various ways to fit the needs of those who are citing it, and it can be measured with inconsistent indicators across industries, prompting one to question how sustainable a reported activity truly is.
Frameworks of sustainability
Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to create a framework of sustainability. A framework addresses this issue of ambiguity, ensuring that businesses have a clear path toward achieving sustainable goals. For example, the Six Rs is a popular framework created by the group Practical Action to allow product designers, manufacturers and consumers to evaluate a product’s proximity to sustainability.
The framework requires that we consider the following:
● Recycle: create new products out of old materials
● Reuse: use materials for new purposes
● Reduce: cutting down on the amount of material or energy used
● Rethink: design in a way that considers all forms of sustainability
● Repair: design products that are fixable, or use resources that do not damage the environment
● Refuse: discover substitutes that are more suitable and less harmful to the environment
Another framework of sustainability is the ‘Quantifiable Definition of Sustainability’, or QDS. QDS is considered the most robust of the available frameworks because it takes into account the historical debate and definitions within the sustainability literature. It was conceived by ecological economist Robert Costanza and asserts that a development is sustainable if it meets the minimum threshold of performance in the following domains:
● Environmental domain
● Economic domain
● Social domain
The environmental domain is based on both renewable and non-renewable resources as well as levels of pollution and waste. For example, it suggests you should only use renewable resources at a rate no faster than their rate of regeneration. In terms of pollution, harmful chemicals should be emitted no faster than natural systems can absorb.
The economic domain is met when finite resources are not treated as wealth, but rather are equitably distributed and efficiently allocated. The idea is to promote the use of those resources in an efficient and responsible way that provides long-term benefits and establishes profitability.
The social domain refers to the basic human needs that should be met worldwide. This includes everything from clean water and clothing to healthcare and education.
QDS is arguably the most useful definition of sustainability today due to its versatility. However, it still has notable limitations and issues. One mistake often made in using the QDS framework is considering the three conditions to be mutually exclusive. This isn’t the case. Researchers instead suggest that people are not fully aware of how the three parts of the framework combine to form the true concept of sustainability and argue that QDS offers a succinct, holistic perspective that is applicable across multiple disciplines.
QDS is perhaps the closest we can get to a true definition of sustainability, and even this does not provide all the answers. However, it’s important for businesses to analyse what frameworks like this do explore and what they do not. In doing so it is possible to ensure that the appropriate measures and lessons can be taken and applied from each framework available.
There are countless research articles and thought leadership posts on the concept of sustainability. The reality is that none provide the full answer. As such, it’s important for us all to continue to develop our understanding of sustainability and to seek out innovative ways to incorporate it into our business models.
At bio-bean, we view sustainability as a call to operate not only to benefit both people and planet, but also with longevity and real impact. Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do, and for us means taking responsibility for how we consume resources and how we develop our economy for the longer term.