3 overlapping circles with the words "people, planet, profit" in them. Where they overlap there's an arrow pointing to the word "sustainability".

Sustainability – an attempt of a definition

There is a lot of talk about sustainability these days but I have the feeling that the conversation becomes more and more confusing. Since more people and companies are aiming for greener ways, the word sustainability is everywhere. There are sustainable lifestyle blogs, green living tips, sustainability conferences and agreements. All these things show steps into the right direction. 

Here comes the catch: Sustainability means different things for different people and companies. Nowadays, when we talk about sustainability, we imply that we are talking about the environment, climate change and changing our behavior towards a healthier lifestyle for us and the planet. At least, that’s what I imply… Unfortunately, there are a lot of different definitions out there for this single word and depending on your background, it my provoke a different meaning in you than it does in me. 

Different meanings of ‘sustainability’

My personal favorite and go-to definition of the word was published in 1987 by a UN commission called the Brundtland commission. This commission was established because world leaders became more and more aware of the fact that we are destroying our environment. The commission came up with the term sustainable development which is defined as: 

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

I like this definition because it says that we cannot overuse our resources. If we use all the clean air, the fertile soil and the freshwater that is available now, we will basically make future life impossible. Our resources have a limit. It may seem like there is no way we will ever not be able to breath the air outside or that we won’t have drinking water anymore. It is not impossible, though.

You probably know the pictures of smog in Beijing. If you live in a city, you may know that the air can be pretty bad some days. Imagine, this is every day if we don’t stop spilling garbage into the air. 

The definition above kind of says that that’s not what we as humans would want for other humans. We should take care of what we have, in a way that other people can have the same, comfy lifestyle in the future. 

There’s more than one meaning to the word

In other definitions, sustainability just means to be able to maintain a system. And that’s where it gets a bit more tricky. A system can be anything from our planet Earth, to a computer to a company. And that creates a huge discrepancy in the pursuit of sustainability as we defined it above. 

When talking about our planet, the first definition that I gave you still holds up. To maintain our natural system, we would want to use our limited resources in a way that we can also preserve them for future generations. In other words, we know deep in our hearts, that we are not those selfish monsters and would like to leave something for our kids, their kids, their kids and so on, so that they can lead a good life too. We want them to be able to play outside, to take a dip in a nearby lake or river, to experience holidays on beautiful tropical beaches and reefs. 

the planetary boundaries as published by Steffen et al., 2015
The planetary boundaries as published by Steffen et al., 2015. Green depicts a safe operating space, yellow shows a zone of uncertainty (increased risk) and red is a high risk zone with high uncertainty.

For computer systems, it’s pretty simple, it just means that you’d want to have a developer or administrator who is able to keep your system up and running. That’s a sustainable system, one that doesn’t crash for example.

(Many) Companies have a different view on the matter

For companies, to maintain their system, the whole thing is a different story. A company is sustainable if it can pay its bills and its employees and make profit above that. A company wants what is called ‘sustainable growth’. This means they want to grow the profit they make in a realistic, long-term maintainable way. In general, they do not care if they have to chop down more trees to make more money. As long as they are able to make profit, they are good.

In that sense, for oil companies sustainability means ‘how much longer can we burn those dinosaurs that took millions of years to decompose until we run out of them and have to wait another 100 million years until we can extract oil again’. So, you can see, we sometimes have to do a bit more research if we want to know what a company is talking about when they use the word sustainability.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I painted a very negative picture here, partly also to make this clearer. A lot of companies – even Coca Cola and Nestlé – incorporate our first meaning of sustainability in their business models nowadays. They realized that the sustainable growth they aim for, can only come if accompanied by sustainability in the environmental sense. For example Unilever, a company that relies on agricultural products, knows that if we don’t do anything about climate change there will be no profit anymore in the somewhat near future. 

That’s where we come in…

There are a lot of small, ethical and sustainable new brands popping up and they definitely deserve some credit.

Also, established companies did not only realize that they have to change their business models to act in a more sustainable way. They also recognize the power of the consumer. A lot of us want to buy sustainable, low-impact products with the least amount of plastic wrapping possible.

3 overlapping circles with the words "people, planet, profit" in them. Where they overlap there's an arrow pointing to the word "sustainability".
Sustainability is at the center point of the 3P’s, people, planet and profit. The 3 P’s have to be balanced to ensure a good quality of life.

A lot of us already started to buy one product instead of the other because it checks some boxes on our personal sustainability list. You may often think that you are the only one doing that and feel discouraged. Sometimes you may relapse and buy the unsustainable product again because it’s a bit cheaper or tastes a tiny bit better. 

It is sometimes a bit discouraging that – at least in my case – the people surrounding me don’t really seem to care.  That can make you feel like you can’t have an impact because you’re the only one doing it. But let me tell you, that is not the case. You are not the only one! I swear!

If it were like that then why would companies change to a more sustainable way? Why would companies put pressure on governments to make more regulations so that all companies have to change? Why would a ‘fair trade’ or ‘organic’ label be found on increasingly more products then let’s say 10 years ago, if no one would care? 

You see, we do have an impact together.

And if we can change our lives gradually, we can also reach our friends and family with it. Maybe not all of them or not all of them at once. But if you get one friend to start using textile shopping bags instead of the plastic ones, it is a win. And those small wins will add up after a while. 

If I got you interested and you wanna know more, I can really recommend ‘Pursuing Sustainability‘ (I do not get a commission from this) by Pamela Matson et al. I know, it sounds like it’s a very dry and heavy read but it is actually surprisingly light and really not only for scientists. The authors really manage to get you thinking and I loved the great demonstrative examples they use.

Anyways, this in short, is how we can live up to the definition of sustainable development. This is how we make it possible for future generations to live a good, healthy life. It’s small steps, but that doesn’t mean they are dispensable. Are you up for the challenge? I sure hope so, I’m looking for some company here 😉

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