What Does "Sustainability" Really Mean?
We all have those words or phrases that have been used in front of us so many times, but we’re never really sure what is being said, and it feels like we’d be a laughing stock if we tried to clarify what the exact word is and what it even means.
For example, a friend of mine thought that ‘rude awakening’ was actually ‘brewed awakening’ because that’s a coffee shop in her hometown. Another friend thought that when you’re trying to say you’ll see how things pan out, the phrase was to ‘play it by year’ and not ‘by ear’. One of my personal favorites, though, is when Joey Tribiani believed that facts that are now irrelevant are “moo points”.
‘Sustainability’, my friends, falls into this category. Maybe most of us can pronounce it, but for a word that is getting an increasingly large amount of airtime, can any of us define what it really means? And, for those who can pull a definition together, will all our definitions be the same? In early 2020, searches around the phrase “what does sustainable mean” increased by 100%. On this fourth Wednesday in October, which has been dubbed Sustainability Day by the Society for College and University Planning in 2002, let’s figure it out.
THE HISTORY OF ‘SUSTAINABILITY’
While the concept of sustainability has been around for as long as humans have, the original term appeared in a handbook of forestry published in 1713, called Nachhaltigkeit, meaning “sustained yield” in German. The translated term appeared in English in the 1850s and evolved to refer not just to forests, but all biological systems.
In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The commission later noted that there are three main pillars of sustainable development, which include economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality. Economic growth reinforces the importance of finding methods to generate growth without hurting the environment, environmental protection leads to investments in renewable energy and less resource extraction, and social equality and equity are pillars that focus on the social well-being of people.
HOW WE DEFINE ‘SUSTAINABLE’
For something to be sustainable by today’s common definition, it must balance how it meets human needs with its ability to continue to do so for the foreseeable future, without degrading the natural environment.
When we think about sustainability, we think about how the UN’s three main pillars intersect, meaning that we think about the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the products we use, the way we travel, the way we purchase things, and so on.
At Finch, you’ll see us continue to use the words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ because we haven’t found a perfect replacement that embodies all the smaller details that make our world a better place. When we say it, we mean something that can meet the needs of our current generation without compromising future ones, and we will only use it when our claims can be backed up by science.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SUSTAINABLE VS. GREEN VS. ECO-FRIENDLY
One of Finch’s core beliefs is that words have meaning. Sustainability is complicated and confusing enough as it is, and words like ‘clean’ and ‘green’ aren’t helping. Because there is no regulation around the use of these types of words, companies have co-opted them to be used for their own marketing purposes, like Fiji Water’s slogan “every drop is green,” or this overnight cream that wins a “Clean & Planet Positive Beauty” badge (oh hello, greenwashing, how not nice to see you!).
Our rule of thumb is to think twice when a product tells you it’s green, clean, or even sustainable. Certain components may be more sustainable than that of other more conventional products on the market, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a homerun. For example, that cream is packaged in a glass bottle that, hypothetically, you could put in the dishwasher when you run out of the $1.30/mL Triheptanoin, Panthenol and Xanthan Gum-filled cream. But, would you really, I don’t know, use it as a dog bowl for your 3lb Yorkie?
We are optimistic that products will soon highlight which specific aspects of it can be preferred over competitors without a catch-all phrase of green, non-toxic, chemical-free, ethical, eco-friendly, all-natural, biodegradable, or compostable.
No matter where you are in your “sustainability” journey, please let us know what the word means to you and how you plan to live in a way for which your great-great grandchildren would thank you. We all have a long way to go, so this is definitely not a moo point.