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What is sustainability?

Submitted by on July 21, 2010 – 3:24 pm

Sustainability concept.jpg

Although I’ve already written a few blogs, I suddenly realised that I hadn’t actually taken the time to provide a definition of sustainability. So, before we go any further, let’s define the term.

And immediately, I have a challenge. When I  Google “define:sustainability”  (the “define:” keyword is a great Google trick, if you haven’t seen it before!), you will find dozens of definitions.  Finding a defining Images of the concept is even worse.  As an example, check out Computing For Sustainability, where Samuel Mann has collected (so far) 255 different images that attempt to get to the heart of this tricky concept.

The problem gets worse if you expand the consideration to other related terms – “sustainable development”, “sustainable architecture”, “sustainable business” and so on.

And as I read more about how different people and organisations have tried to define “sustainability”, the more I come to realise that the word is a difficult one to define.  That’s not quite true though.  A single word can be looked up in dictionary, and a meaning derived.  The problem here is that we are grappling with a concept.

This particular concept has, over the last several years, become increasingly important as a way of conveying long term integration within a global system.  Living as part of a system, rather than outside it.  I think that in many ways it is odd that “sustainability” has come to represent so many different ideas.  Many people have started to refer to the word as a cliché – but a cliché is “a trite or overused expression”  (thank- you Google define:).  How can a word with such a variety of interpretations be a cliché?  There must be a word that explains what “sustainability” has become, but it’s not that one!

So, where have I got to?  I’ve found out that sustainability means a whole heap of different things to different people.  That there are more images for sustainability models than I thought possible.  And I’ve learnt that whatever sustainability is, it’s not a cliché (oh, and I’ve learnt to type é on my keyboard, too).
However, I still feel that I owe you something – a working definition of the term.  And here, my preference is for a classic definition.  The Brundtland Commission (UN, 1987) said that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In a business context, the needs should include an organisation’s impact on the environment and society as well as a consideration of economic performance.  For a business to be sustainable it must consider (and be actively mitigating its impacts on) each of these contexts.  I’ll talk more about these elements in future posts.
I welcome your comments.

About David Laing

I run Sustained Consulting, which helps businesses to behave more sustainably.  I have an MBA, and fifteen years of leadership experience.  Amongst others, I’ve worked in a mining consultancy (!), for a software vendor, and for large technology services providers. I’m passionate about sustainability and climate change, and in 2009 decided it was time for me to take a more proactive role, and to help businesses become more sustainable. I’m involved with a range of different activities and projects.  Amongst other things I’m:

  • helping to develop a voluntary carbon market in New Zealand,
  • developing sustainability reports
  • developing a number of waste to energy projects
  • leading community projects (community garden, saving the local bowling club from property developers, reinstating civil defence)

I have a wealth of eclectic knowledge and experience, read widely and I enjoy making connections between different ideas and concepts.

Email me: davidalaing@gmail.com

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