You might have heard the term “sustainability” being thrown around, especially among individuals concerned about the environment, specifically climate change and pollution. Sustainability is one of the reasons Corporate Responsibility became a thing in many companies.
What is Sustainability?
Sustainability, as defined by the United Nations Brundtland Commission, is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a 2013 report, emphasizes our dependence on the natural environment for our survival and well-being. The report states that “sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”
In essence, sustainability requires a shift in mindset and a change in our lifestyle so that we don’t only satisfy our needs but also maintain the planet in a condition where life can continue to flourish for more generations after us. It’s about keeping a balance between the Earth’s limited resources and our consumption of products that directly or indirectly use these resources.
Why is Sustainability Important?
To put it simply, we’re demanding too much from the Earth. Thanks to increasing population and other factors, we have gone over the planet’s biocapacity.
Biocapacity is defined as “the capacity of ecosystems to produce useful biological materials and to absorb waste materials generated by humans, using current management schemes and extraction technologies” by the WWF. And, depending on climate and which wildlife or ecosystems are considered useful inputs in the local economy, biocapacity can change, according to the Global Footprint Network.
What Does Sustainability Look Like?
A sustainable world is one where the environment is given primary importance because people realize the environment is necessary to nourish a robust society without setting aside social and economic needs of the community.
With this line of thinking, sustainability is depicted as requiring the support of three main pillars: environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability.
- Environmental sustainability: Basically, this happens when people consume natural resources at a rate where they’re able to replenish to continue to meet our needs and environmental systems are kept in balance.
- Social sustainability: This happens when everyone in the community enjoys equal rights (universal human rights) and equitably shares in decision-making and societal benefits. This also means that people have access to their basic needs and resources to keep the community healthy and secure.
- Economic sustainability: This takes into consideration not just profit margins and sustained growth of resources but also the full life cycle of goods as well as the social and ecological consequences of economic activities. Economic sustainability happens when a community has access to the resources that they require to meet their needs and economic systems and activities, such as secure sources of livelihood, are available to everyone.
Other pundits have put forward other pillars, such as Personal Values (can we recognize unsustainable things and have the resolve to change them?), Organizational Capacity (can we enact change while preserving cultural values?) and Institutional Capacity (can we implement systemic change?).
Good Examples of Sustainability
There are many examples of sustainability, but here are some of the good ones.
- Resource sustainability – A resource is used in a way that does not deplete it in the short-term or long-term. A great example of this is how Rothy’s recycles plastic bottles into shoes and bags. In Maine, people who catch lobster for a living have agreed not to harvest female lobsters that are known to be fertile. If they see that the shell has a notch, they don’t include that lobster in the catch. So, even if newcomers arrive, there’s still plenty of lobster to catch for everyone.
- Social sustainability – Refers to how extreme poverty is unsustainable as poor communities can become a hotspot for sickness, crime and other social issues. In Kenya, pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, in partnership with Kenyan firm Biogas International and the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability, has installed biogas stoves in the country’s rural communities to replace firewood and charcoal fires.
- Economic sustainability – Is characterized by slow inflation, stable currency, secure livelihood, and safe investments. The opposite of what happened during the foreclosure crisis of 2009. An example economic sustainability efforts include Bank of America’s Catalytic Finance Initiative, a program that has invested $10 billion into typically high-risk sectors. This includes early-stage clean energy companies, which is in line with the United Nations’ sustainability goals.
- Environmental sustainability – Happens when natural resources are preserved for the next generation. A good example of how to achieve this would be crop rotation, the practice of planting several different kinds of plants on the same plot of land over successive seasons. Through this practice, nutrients that were depleted from the soil by a particular crop can be replenished next season by another plant. Crop rotation provides many other benefits, including nitrogen management, improved soil structure, reduced soil erosion, improvement in pest and disease control, and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.
What is a Good Example of Sustainability?
Let’s Do Our Part to Live Sustainably
Sustainability entails a shift in the way we think about the Earth, its resources and how we use and manage them. We can start with ourselves, our homes, our workplaces and our communities. You can begin doing the following:
- Use your devices for a longer period, i.e., you don’t have to upgrade every year, and make sure to dispose of the old ones responsibly.
- Stop buying too many clothes and give away what you don’t use. When you do purchase new clothing items, choose those made from sustainable materials, such as cotton, instead of synthetic fibers, which can add to the microplastics in the oceans.
- Try carpooling, you can save on gas, create stronger bonds with friends or create new friends, and help the planet all at once. Taking public transportation is another good alternative to driving a car to work. Or, you can bike to work or walk to your workplace if you live nearby.
- Aim to live a zero-waste lifestyle or as close to it as possible. Don’t hoard what you don’t need, reduce, reuse and recycle.
- Buy produce that is in season at the local farmer’s market, and purchase only what you’re sure you’ll be able to eat or use.
- If your company hasn’t gone paperless yet, it’s high time to suggest this to management.
- Minimize single-use plastics by bringing your own shopping bag to the market or stores.
Furthermore, let’s voice our concerns and encourage politicians, businesses and organizations to do their part as well. They can start with making better decisions, those that take into consideration the long-term consequences and future generations into account.