Sustainability is a word that gets used a lot. We talk about sustainable living. Businesses promote themselves as having sustainable practices. Clothing and shoe companies claim to make sustainable products. Hotels and the transportation industry discuss sustainable travel. And farming and food practices that may or not be organic often talk about being sustainable, too. But what exactly does all of this mean?
Sustainability seems to be a bit of a buzz word with elusive or vague meaning. Is everything sustainable monitored by some agency, given some award or recognition, or taken at the company’s word in good faith? Or is this, maybe, determined by industry? (Such as the LEEDS certification for green buildings.)
It turns out the definitions and answers to those questions vary by industry. For example, when it comes to development, being sustainable means “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
When it comes to fashion, sustainability means “the garments and accessories and shoes are produced and/or accessed in an ecologically and socially responsible manner,” writes Conscious Life and Style. And while the United Nations has an Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the fashion industry is notoriously under-regulated in regards to how and where clothing is made.
Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, has a legal definition in the United States (U.S. Code Title 7, Section 3103): “An integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long term: satisfy human food and fiber needs, enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends, make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls, sustain the economic viability of farm operations, and enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.”
And as for the travel industry, the definition of sustainable is fuzzy. It can mean traveling in a way that minimizes our negative impact on the planet. But what does that look like in reality? Does that mean buying carbon offsets to counteract the CO2 emissions of your flights? Or staying in eco-friendly accommodations—which again may have vague definitions? (Does an eco-friendly accommodation have a “green” building standards? Or is it one that runs on alternative energy? Or does it sell organic and local foods in its restaurant? Or does it need to do a number of these things to be considered “eco-friendly” and “sustainable”?
Sometimes when it comes to travel, sustainability means the place “preserves natural heritage and biodiversity” or is a place you can access by public transportation or uses no single-use plastics. According to ecobnb.com, in order for travel to be considered sustainable, it must meet or provide many of these things.
But let’s consider the complications that arise when talking about sustainability. For example, the Coca-Cola Company has won accolades over the years for its plant bottles and other packaging breakthroughs, and it has over and over again won worldwide sustainability awards. And yet, Coca-Cola produces 120 billion bottles of single-use plastics each year (for, arguably, products that no healthy bodies really need). Despite the awards, can we call Coca-Cola a sustainable company?
Sustainability itself has three or four pillars, depending on what source you use. They are: human, social, economic, and environmental. Because of this, it is likely a business or a practice can be more sustainable in one, two, or three of these pillars than it is in all four. And therein is where the paradox lies. When we focus on buying things that are good for the planet, we may end up creating unintended other problems.
A recent example that comes to mind is the switch from plastic to metal straws. (This started with a viral video of a plastic straw being pulled from a turtle’s nose.) But a study in 2020 found that the manufacturing of a single metal straw caused more greenhouse gas emissions than the creation of 1000 plastic straws. So if you switch to a metal straw, are you practicing sustainable living?
This vagueness and the paradoxes could seem somewhat depressing for someone who wants to live sustainably. But I wrote about this topic so we will all think more intentionally about our actions and our word choices, and when we see places and products advertised as “sustainable,” I urge you to question what the word means in context.