In praise of a word: sustainability

in Sustainable Design

Sustainability is a hugely important subject.
Lately, it has become a hot topic (and rightly so), but this risen popularity is causing some confusion, to the point of casting doubts on the very value of the term sustainability.

In this article, we’re going to address some of the criticisms that are sometimes moved to this word and explore what exactly it means to be sustainable.

Sustainability: an empty word?

Now that sustainability has become such a common term, somebody says it has in fact lost its meaning, becoming an empty buzzword used only to attract attention. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to use it anymore and we should replace it with other terms such as circular (from the circular economy).

Well, this is happening for sure. The label sustainable is too often used superficially, giving it a diluted meaning. But this is an inappropriate use!
So what does sustainability really mean?

Back to basics

Let’s begin with what the dictionary says. Sustainability is defined as
 

the quality of being able to continue over a period of time.

 
Going back to this general definition is useful to understand that sustainability has to do with long-term consequences.

So we can say something is sustainable when it can continue over time. But this is not yet enough. For something to be sustainable, it needs to continue over time without causing bad consequences, or at the very least not too bad (more on this later).

Hourglass resting on a stone beach.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: Aron Visuals (opened in a new window/tab)

The definition of sustainability

In particular, the definition of sustainability spans 3 different dimensions: environmental, socio-ethical, and economic.

The environmental pillar refers to the consequences of what we do onto nature. In this sense, being sustainable means not exceeding nature’s capability to absorb man-caused changes. In other words, preventing irreversible ecological degradation.

The socio-ethical dimension has to do with the human factor.
Here is where a famous definition of sustainable development best belongs. The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development has defined sustainable development as a "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Even further, socio-ethical sustainability also refers to the importance of achieving social equity and inclusion everywhere in the world.

The last pillar of sustainability touches the economic side.
This relates to the capability of running profitable activities that contribute to a flourishing economy.

Putting this all together, something is sustainable when it respects all 3 dimensions.
Of course, whatever we do or make will always have impacts, but we can say it is overall sustainable if those impacts aren’t too bad – namely if they respect ecological balance, don’t compromise the needs of future generations, promote global equity, and are economically viable.

The 3 dimensions of sustainability: a forest, people's hands, a working desk.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credits (left to right): Margaret Polinder (opened in a new window/tab), Shane Rounce (opened in a new window/tab), Olena Sergienko (opened in a new window/tab)

One step forward: regeneration

Another criticism that’s sometimes moved to the concept of sustainability is that – given the gravity of the current environmental situation – sustainability is no longer sufficient. Since we’ve been causing so much harm to the environment so far, it’s no longer enough to prevent negative impacts on the natural world. Instead, we should aim at having positive impacts on nature, helping it restore and reconstruct its balance.
In other words, we should aim at being regenerative, not just sustainable.

This is an interesting argument that stresses a much-needed sense of urgency, highlighting how crucial it is to act – and fast – when it comes to our impact on the environment.
However, this is focusing on the environmental pillar only.
So should we really abandon the word sustainability?

Plant growing from a dry wood trunk.<span class="sr-only"> (opened in a new window/tab)</span>
Credit: qinghill (opened in a new window/tab)

Rescuing sustainability

As we’ve seen, the term sustainability has a three-fold meaning. This inherent complexity makes it harder to define something as perfectly sustainable and possibly even encourages a superficial use of this word.

Still, I personally don’t think this is enough of a reason to dismiss this term altogether. And that’s exactly for its complexity.
Sustainability is a complex topic, and embracing its complexity is the only road to achieve truly sustainable development.

So I say, instead of not using the word sustainability, it would be better to promote its right use, highlighting its complexity and promoting constructive discussions on how to combine its 3 dimensions in real life.
Building a sustainable society is no easy task, but – in my opinion – calling things with their name is a crucial step in the right direction!

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