Ask an Environmentalist: What do you mean when you say ‘sustainable’?

In my field, versions of the word “sustainable” are thrown around quite a bit, often with different meanings and referring to different things.  I was speaking with a colleague the other day and dropped the “s” word a few times before she questioned me. 

“Isn’t that word a bit overused? And what does it even mean?” she asked. 

As a consultant on how to reduce waste for the Department of Environmental Management, I was surprised to hear this at first. But I had to acknowledge that she has a point.

I do mean different things at different times when I refer to something as “sustainable,” and I rely on my listener to sort it out. I’m often encouraging people to adopt a more “sustainable lifestyle,” or asking businesses to operate “more sustainably,” or telling economic development organizations to work with the “principles of sustainability” in mind.

But I’m starting to think I might be doing a disservice to my own goals and those I advise by resorting to the same word over and over again without spelling out what it looks like in each circumstance.

Let’s start by taking a look at the definition of the word “sustainable.” It refers to: 

  1. Something that can be continued indefinitely.
  2. Something that has the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. OR
  3. Something that meets the needs of the present without compromising the well-being of future generations.

What I am most often referring to when I use “sustainable” is “environmental sustainability,” but the idea behind the word is the same as when it is used in other contexts. For something to be financially, physically, socially, or otherwise sustainable, it must be able to continue on without consuming more of whatever resources are needed to keep it going. 

It’s also important to note that all types of sustainability are linked. If corporations or countries aren’t being financially sustainable by conserving money, that often leads to individuals and businesses doing whatever they can to get by and paying less attention to environmental concerns, too.

That said, when the word “sustainable” is used as a blanket statement without any more actionable information, it’s probably not useful. 

For example, if I fill out a comment card at a restaurant and suggest “more sustainable packaging choices for food,” I might not be getting my point across. What I should say is: “I suggest the containers used in food preparation and service to be sourced from a company that uses renewable resources, non-polluting practices, and has a plan for the end-of-life of its products that can return it to a valuable use, like recycling or composting.”

It might take longer to articulate, but spelling out exactly what we mean when we use the term “sustainable” will ultimately make our advocacy more effective.

Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at [email protected]
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