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What Does "Sustainability" Mean?

Updated: May 17, 2023

The word "sustainable" is just about as loaded and politicized as it comes these days. Many want to "do better" and "be more sustainable" and others shy away from the word entirely either out of confusion, fear of judgement or criticism of the environmental movement picturing tree-hugging hippies with mason jars full of home-made kombucha and fermented garden-grown veggies. To be clear, there's nothing wrong with hugging a tree... but the word needs to shed all this weight so we can work with it.


Simply put, "sustainability" mean you can take the same action repeatedly, indefinitely without compromising the ability of future generations' ability to take that same action you're taking now (yes, that includes ecological degradation). A sustainable business is one that can be in operation forever because the resources being used are renewable at the same rate the business is using them. Better, yet, plays a role in renewing them. Even better still, helps other businesses sustainably renew their resources.


Sustainability is not a business outcome, a code of ethics, David Suzuki, a recycling bin or the marketing term that's going to save your vegan bacon and grow your sales by meeting consumer demand without actually doing the work. It is a question to reflect back on and guide your choices. The way we work with the term at SPS is as a way to anchor the conversations for example we might ask ourselves "What is the long-term impact of this activity? Can we sustain it?" and if we don't know, we find out. We believe in progress over perfection and it is important to be open to criticism especially when it comes to making sustainability or diversity claims. Sustainable business is not a science but it should act like it if it expects its stakeholders to take it seriously and avoid greenwashing.


Are any of us really living sustainably?

Chances are if you're making $40k or more a year, no, you're not. This socioeconomic privilege means we have more responsibility to do something about it. Many have written about this but Climate Adam is the one who does it for me. Spoilers...population growth has no impact on the rate of climate change.




Why is sustainability such a contentious idea?

Defensiveness seems to come up in folks who believe they are going to have to give something up. I want to be super clear here; those feelings are valid. Trying to shift the late-stage capitalist economy into something viable and liveable for all will require getting our heads out of the sand, sacrifice, bravery and compassion and we haven't exactly been nurturing these concepts in business or our daily lives recently. Resisting the concept of sustainable change might also indicate could indicate you are struggling with eco-anxiety: follow @cloverhogan for more on eco-anxiety.


What comes up in you when you think about the word "sustainability"?

In what ways do you want your business or the business you work at to become more sustainable?

Having doubts that your product or business is truly sustainable? let's talk.



As a reference, here is what others say "sustainability" means:

Oxford English Dictionary (with added context from their School of Procurement and Supply)



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