Is Sustainable X Really Sustainable?

Conversations about sustainability only rarely refer to it as a noun. Most articles talk about “sustainable something,” like sustainable development, buildings, business, and so on and on. When sustainable is used in this adjectival sense, the object of attention is always on the word it modifies. Sustainable development is not really about sustainability, a noun, rather it’s all about [economic] development albeit a particular form of [economic] development that is supposed to be more benign than the way the modern world works today.

Most people who talk this way do care about the sad state of the world and would like to do something about it. But the way they speak traps them into ineffective patterns of behavior, focused on the wrong problems. In other cases, the conversation is not about sustainability at all, but rather how a business or other organization can out-compete others by greening its products and services. Using the web as an indicator, I did a search using “sustainable.” I didn’t look at all 73 million hits, but scanned the first few pages. Here’s the list—some were repeated: development, community, table, business, agriculture, economy, style, architecture, Northwest, South Bronx, buildings, choice, industries, and conservation.

Sustainable style jumped right out of the screen. The header blared, “look fabulous, live well, do good.” A little further down, the site offered a strategy to everyone seeking to capture the sustainable style market.

  • Be the premier resource on sustainable lifestyles and design: 
provide useful and up-to-date information and resources to both design professionals and consumers so that they can more easily incorporate sustainability into their work and/or lives
  • Use the market: increase both the supply of and demand for sustainable products and services in the many and diverse style/design industries
  • Dangle cocktail carrots: When it comes to using a carrot or a stick, we choose the carrot as there are lots of other groups out there that are very good at the stick approach. Better yet we use tiny cocktail carrots…sometimes even the smallest positive reinforcement can create big change.
  • Surprise consumers: highlight the amount and breadth of sustainability already underway across the many and diverse style/design industries
  • Keep sustainability in the media. Insure continuous forward progress to counteract the perception of sustainability as ‘fits and starts’ (a green building here, a fashion designer using organic cotton there…)
  • Promote cross-industry awareness and inspiration: work to promote cross-industry learning and projects so that industries are aware of innovations in other industries that might be applicable in their own industry
  • Use popular culture to influence consumer choices: provide high profile lifestyle role models to inspire consumers to make more sustainable personal lifestyle choices themselves

Because the way we are immersed in and use language can easily create blindness and deafness, it is easy to attribute “greenwashing” to people who talk about their sustainable activities. Some may indeed be dissembling, but most are genuine in their desire to lessen the load on the Earth. The only way to help the latter is to give them a new vocabulary, with which they can create a new story.

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3 Comments

John Ehrenfeld said:

First, there isn't any earth-friendly way. One can only create relatively less impact. If there actions make them think they are solving the problems of unsustainability and fail to make them aware of broader responsibility to care for the Planet, then, in the long run, nothing much will change in the culture that leads us in the wring direction.

Second, sustainable development is only a slightly modified economic model than the one that has created the problems. Growth on a finite planet has to stop at some point, but economic theory rests on ever more production and consumption.

skaclmbr said:

The difficulty I see is the balance between "raising awareness" and actually being effective at living within a sustainable system. I agree that we have to make a complete shift from our current model of consumption to a "life cycle" approach to living on the Earth. The big question to me is: How do we make the transition? In my opinion, it has to occur on a personal level. That is, it cannot be effectively "forced" on a population through legislation, etc., but must be realized/understood by all individuals. So, can this transition be done by degrees (encouraging "sustainable development" today so that it raises awareness of the actual impact of living in our culture today), or does it require a relatively rapid "paradigm shift" in how we live our lives on this planet?

John Ehrenfeld said:

I agree with you. Change has to happen one person at a time. The strategy is my book is grounded in creating awareness in individuals through the use of encoded values and norms in the everyday artifacts they use. The Kuhnian paradigm shifts you mention can happen quickly in a tight scientific discipline like physics, but societal paradigm change can only occur slowly. But at some point it can reach a "tipping point," at which time change would accelerate.