What Does Sustainability Mean?
The term ‘sustainability' is fast becoming a misnomer. It’s meaning its losing potency.
At a talk I gave the other night on the topic, I asked the audience what they thought the definition of sustainability was. Silence. A few people eventually braved an answer with words like ‘future generations, staying stable, consistent resources and endless cycles’ being thrown around. These are all very good words to use. But nobody was actually sure. Frankly, neither am I sometimes.
But, I offered up this analogy nevertheless to explain how I think about it.
Sustainability is like a bank account. You head off to withdraw cash because you need it to invest in things to live. You go back again. And again. Each time drawing out a bit more without putting anything back in. Luckily for you, if you leave your account, or manage it properly by investing the remaining funds available to you, you can grow it without much trouble. But, sadly, you’re rushing to withdraw and all of a sudden you’re in the red. You have taken out more than you own, you’re borrowing from the bank.
Only this debt is global and is significantly more dangerous.
“Sustainability” is, in some ways, still a descriptor of traditional capitalism. It just makes you feel less guilty about taking part. Christmas in particular, is a time when shoppers fall prey to this labelling scheme. Wasteful packaging surrounds mass-produced, plastic, non-recyclable ‘stuff’ that, three months later, is donated, thrown away or left to gather dust. But, if the packaging says it is ‘sustainable’ or even ‘organic’ it gets the green light and we feel good about our purchase. Planet protected.
But, we're wising up.
Conscious consumerism is a trend firmly riding on the back of the ocean plastic crisis and consumers are paying attention. The environmental discord we are experiencing is reaching its pinnacle, with governments and consumers moving to refuse, reduce, reuse or recycle plastic and prevent irreparable damage.
Quotes plastered on graphic photos shouting at us that ‘by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish’, or '85% of sea birds now contain plastic', scare us into action. We care where our produce comes from, whether it has palm oil, whether those who made it are living in fair conditions and earning fair wages. The world feels smaller, resources seem tighter, and people are prepared to take action. And, when faced with images of beaches choked with dying animals, tampons and toothbrushes, it seems about time.
But, I believe that focusing on doing LESS is distracting us from doing MORE. Only by contributing to building new systems and cultural norms will we create a way out of our throwaway culture.
Whilst a small minority are busy buying from farmers markets, swapping our toothbrushes for bamboo, cleaning our houses with vinegar, knitting handmade hemp washcloths and coveting string bags, the rest of us are unaware. We’re not yet engaging in the creation of a greater vision for the planet. We’re just slowing down the destructive narrative of the vision we currently live in.
It is still all too easy to ‘one-click’ from Amazon or even to put litter ‘in the bin’ and feel like a good, entitled citizen. There is no blame to point at anyone in particular now either. We are all implicated in this by means of messy supply chains and secret geo-politics. We are where we are, but it is time for us all to take responsibility for our passivity and embrace the challenge of claiming responsibility and moving forward.
I am excited for a world where creating our products does't just deplete fewer resources, or use ’sustainable’ materials, but where it gives back in the process. Where we don’t rely just on vegetable ink and organic materials to make a living and we don’t need a million criteria on our labels before scrupulous millennials will commit their cash.
I want to see a world made better buy our being here. I am excited for a consumer market where carbon neutral companies are not the gold standard, but are entry-level and oxygen producing and air purifying ones are.
And, whilst we’re not there right now, we’re on our way - and I find that even more exciting. Now is the perfect time to find pioneering visionaries, consolidate best business practice, and collaborate together to experiment with living differently.