Going Green: What is Sustainability?


Sustainability is a word that is used a great deal in today’s society, and in fact may be applied in a foolish or misleading fashion to products which clearly do not fit the guidelines of sustainable practice. There are sustainable shoes, soda, and toothpaste that are being marketed to the public with little proof that their content, manufacture, and distribution pathways meet sustainability standards. Marketers are able to use these tactics because consumers do not generally ask questions about whether or not the products are actually sustainable. Even though most buyers would say that they like to buy from a socially and environmentally responsible company, they may have little clarity about what it means to do so.

The definition of sustainability is to use resources in such a way that we leave a habitable world for tomorrow’s citizens. To do so, our present wasteful habits must be reframed, a process which involves the concepts of survivability, adaptability, and resiliency. Each of us interprets this challenge in a personalized and different way, but the key is to take responsibility for yourself, your community, and your planet; in short to care about those who come after you, because your words and actions can indeed change the future.

Many ask why sustainability is such an important concept to understand. As humans, we are all in search of prosperity, growth, and success within our lives. As we race to meet these objectives, we are destroying the very system that we as humans depend on for survival. In a sense, we have become a threat to our own way of life. In order to live sustainably, we need to consider the four basic principles that scientists in Sweden developed over twenty years ago (The Natural Way). These are to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, to reduce dependence on synthetic chemicals, to reduce destruction of nature, and to make sure that our actions do not stop people globally from meeting basic needs. By pursuing these four principles, a population wastes and pollutes less. This in turn contributes to renewal and enrichment of society’s values, while improving our planet’s chances of providing us what we need to survive. Thus, we create a healthier planet and a better quality of life.

The Earth is an interconnected system. Society, the environment, and the economy all work with each other to balance the system. Frequently, discussions about sustainability are disconnected from the economy and social factors, as if they are separate entities. A great example of how all three are linked is to consider natural capital as an integral part of a capitalistic system, i.e., recognizing and accounting for natural, financial, human, and infrastructural capital. None of these fundamental resources can be wasted or discounted.

In other terms, if we consider forests as a type of natural resource (i.e., principal), and the environmental services provided by a living forest as being equivalent to adding “interest” to the investment, then cutting down that forest destroys not only the principal, but also the ongoing increase in value that would have accumulated had the forest been left standing. In turn, society would then have to find other ways to filter pollution or protect soil and water.

Not knowing about environmentally-friendly and sustainable products is not always the consumer’s fault. There are five barriers to sustainability that vary by product, industry, and region. In a study in 2007 by Stanford Social Innovation Review that sampled 7,751 consumers around the world, researchers identified that there are at least five barriers that complicate green buying at every stage of the purchase cycle.

There is general lack of awareness about the product and factual information about the topic of sustainability. Many consumers have negative perceptions that green products will perform worse than conventional items. There is a distrust in the market because of products claiming to be environmentally-friendly are later found to have been based on misleading or false information. Purchasing sustainable products often comes with a higher price tag. Lastly, there is frequently low availability or poor placement of the items within a store. Consumers in this study did believe that there were ways to reduce these barriers. The answer is to alleviate the barriers by educating consumers, building better products, being honest, offering more choices, and improving access to the products for consumers.

In the end, practicing sustainability means that you will not only help yourself, but will continue to help future generations to be able to live on the planet that we currently occupy and enjoy.