Being sustainable as a company, but also as an individual, seems to be irreplaceable in today’s world. But if everybody claims to be sustainable, what distinguishes sustainability from non-sustainability? Exactly that vagueness of this concept is the most interesting part and therefore it’s time to take a closer look at it.
While doing groceries, you’ll encounter many products with a certain type of certification that it is sustainable or organic. However, we often don’t really know what this includes. Therefore, one of the biggest airline alliances OneWorld has recently decided to stop using the word sustainable. According to their spokesmen, “sustainability has become more of a buzzword than something that defines a company. It is a popular word that has been used in multiple contexts that its actual meaning has been lost”.
Read more about the definition of sustainability in this blog.
Because most companies use the word sustainability to promote their products, there’s a lot of confusion about the actual meaning of sustainability. Therefore, a researcher from the Utrecht University in The Netherlands conducted an investigation on this subject. She has researched the meaning of the word when it was used and in which context, by whom and for what reason.
As sustainability became more of an empty concept over the years, more and more people got annoyed by that word. There are so many definitions for the concept that it confuses many people. However, the research also has taken a look on the other side of it: the positive side of the vagueness of the concept. Thanks to that vagueness, it’s easier to keep debating, reforming and discussing the topic for activist, politicians and businesses. Because it’s so undefined, everybody can give their opinion about it, which can ensure new insights about sustainability.
Different definitions of sustainability
Since the nineties, the amount of definitions of sustainability has been increasing and today there are over 70 definitions. Most likely, with new developments occurring every year within this topic, more definitions will be created. Some definitions focus more on nature, forest management and biodiversity. For instance, people talk every day about the development of the rainforest in Brazil. Other definitions focus more on economic growth such as companies like Shell. For instance, Shell is already debating many years with Greenpeace about sustainability and trying to find a way for both parties in that. As if that’s not enough, often we see definitions of sustainability that focus on social development, equality and human rights.
The origin of sustainability
The concept of sustainability was launched for the first time in a policy document on nature conservation in 1980. It’s an English-language concept that over the years, maintained his English identity. At that time, the concept was mainly associated with nature conservation and biodiversity, thanks to the policy document. Sustainability in this document didn’t even seem to matter that much since it only appeared in the subtitle of the document. Ecologists at that time started to use this word more and more in the context of sustainable development. They used it as a form of economic growth that didn’t harm the flora and fauna of mother nature.
Since the birth of sustainability in 1980, the concept has grown into a complex word. Nevertheless, in theory, it is a quite simple idea. Sustainability covers the balance between social equality, environmental protection and economic growth. This is called the three P’s in many communication-and marketing theories: people, planet, profit. This includes for businesses but also for individuals that when working on sustainability, you work on the three P’s. You need to reduce poverty by helping the local economy, make that economy grow without harming the natural or historical surroundings. Nevertheless, many scientists claim that sustainability and economic growth are a difficult combination. In the climate top in Katowice of 2018 countries didn’t seem to be eager to become more sustainable.
How to be sustainable
After above’s explanation, you can distinguish a sustainable product from a non-sustainable product. For instance, a jar of peanut butter should have been made by local farmers, that are growing the peanuts naturally without expending their fields that harm the local nature and by buying this jar, you improve the economic growth. It’s usually hard to see if the peanut butter you’re buying went to this whole process by just looking at the package.
Therefore, it might be smart to look for a Rainforest Alliance quality mark. Of course, there are several other important quality marks. However, the Rainforest Alliance quality mark focuses on all three of the P’s, while others usually focus on one. For instance, Fairtrade focuses on the ‘People’ out of the three P’s. However, with a Fairtrade logo, it can still be possible that they have used rainforest wood in order to produce their products by local farmers.
Although that the word sustainable lost a bit of its meaning, it still provokes a positive reaction out of people. By buying anything sustainable, consumers have the idea that they are making better choices and therefore feel a sense of rewarding. To use the example of Shell again, they claim to consider sustainability as an important factor in their day-to-day business. Nevertheless, we all know that what Shell is actually doing is very unsustainable. However, most consumers feel less bad about using the product since Shell does work on sustainable development where they can. By using this word, Shell also becomes more vulnerable since many critic activists will say that this is not true. This can be another strategic move from Shell in order to prove them wrong.
As an individual or consumer, it is often hard to take sustainable actions. It is for instance simply nearly impossible to buy a bottle of shampoo without it being in a plastic bottle. Companies own the power to more sustainable, daily-life choices, and they choose in which way they deliver our products. Instead of talking about sustainability, Dutch company Aliter Networks talks about ‘making a difference’. They described 10 companies making a difference with IT. Still, taking no actions at all will for sure not help the world and therefore there are many things you can do to improve the 3 P’s. Try to eat less meat, choose public transportation over private one and use reusable bottles and bags. Little by little, we can all help the world and be more sustainable.
Interested? Read more about how to live a sustainable life.