Sustainability is a trend that continues to stir up a variety of reactions. Some believe it is a fad. Others are steadfast supporters.

When I ask people what it means, I never hear the same answer. In fact, the sweep of the answers is broad, wide, and mostly shallow. What do I mean by that? Well, I think the problem stars with the lack of a clear definition of sustainability.

Which Is It? Sustain, Sustainable, Sustainability and Sustainable Development

Let’s start first with the dictionary.

In my 1982 American Heritage Dictionary, we find the definition of sustain.  I will use that definition here, since one of the forms of the word is sustainable:

  • ⦁    To keep in existence; maintain.
  • ⦁    To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for.
  • ⦁    To support from below; prop.
  • ⦁    To support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of; encourage.
  • ⦁    To endure or withstand, bear up under:  sustain hardships.
  • ⦁    To experience or suffer (loss or injury).
  • ⦁    To affirm the validity or justice of:  sustain an objection.
  • ⦁    To prove or corroborate; confirm.

No mention of the form sustainability.  I looked in other printed dictionaries we have here in the office, including 2010 editions, and can't find a reference to sustainability.

If I Google the word sustainability, we find references to sustainable and sustainable development, but limited references to sustainability, except for a Wikipedia entry.

Here is how the definition of sustainable in Webster’s online reads:

  • ⦁    capable of being sustained

a :  of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged <sustainable techniques> <sustainable agriculture>

b :  of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods <sustainable society>

Over the past 30 years, the meaning of the word sustain morphed, and we created the word sustainability. I am sure some folks will automatically go to Wikipedia and look up sustainability. Go ahead and make that effort. If your head starts to hurt, you can thank a number of writers that do not agree on how to present the topic. Perhaps the better Wikipedia entry to look at is sustainable development. Here is the reference the MHI Roadmap authors chose for their definition:

“Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

I tend to stick with the 1982 dictionary definition of the word, with the notion that it applies to multiple constructs of thought.

Constructs of thought? Yes. Environmental sustainability is just one construct of thought. Economic sustainability is another construct of thought, as are legal sustainability, cultural sustainability, and technological sustainability. These thinking constructs are not freestanding; they intertwine and influence all of the rest of the constructs. Economics influences culture, culture influences legal, and technology influences environment. Each of these five constructs influences the other four, as they are part of a much larger system.

This complexity defies the notion that there are simple solutions to global questions about sustainability. While we think that interest in sustainability is a recent trend, people have actually embraced the concept for a long time, under different names, like conservation, resource management, and nature preservation.  In some ways, we put a new name on an old problem and called it a new trend.  However, I think the concept of sustaining (nature, economics and culture) is really much deeper in depth of meaning and age of conscience.

This is why I believe that most definitions people use to describe sustainability are overly broad and shallow. I find that people lack the necessary depth to match the breadth of their view of the subject, so they espouse overly simplistic ideas that are insufficient to meet our current and future needs.

Depth in Age

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that the household had to be self-sustaining, at least to a certain point; in his mind a true household could not survive if all it did was consume. This teaching, while it focused on household economics, applies to the broader application of general commerce, resources, and culture. A culture that only consumes will perish. "Self-sustaining" did not mean you had to create all of what you needed, but that you made excess that you could trade in kind for what you did need.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, landowners and monarchs managed the resources of their holdings through forestry and game management. The concepts of game wardens and hunting seasons started in these historical periods, as game provided food for people and trees provided lumber for buildings. The idea of managing the present for the sake of the future is not new.

Barring the development of time travel, trade only happens in the present. We cannot go back in time and trade with our ancestors. Nor can future generations step back in time and trade with us. The modern idea of sustainability is deeply rooted in this construct:  conserve now for the sake of the future.

Cultural and Economic Discord

forest.jpgI can argue that environmental application of sustainability is an altruistic construct of the rich that the poor can ill afford. Consider again the relationship between the game warden and the peasants of the 16th century. If the hungry peasants hunted a great elk in the Royal Forest, and got caught by the warden, what happened? From the perspective of the king, the peasant was stealing.

This same point-of-view concept applies today. On a global scale, our developed world has harvested and squandered many of the world's raw materials. Under the guise of “we learned from our own bad behavior,” the wealthy developed nations  look to the developing world, to the deforestation of Brazil, the air pollution in China and India, and the pollution in West Africa, and issue demands. Domestically, the US struggles to control carbon emissions while developing sufficient internal energy to power our continued economic growth.

The common frameworks for addressing sustainability use three pillars—economic, culture, and environmental—for structuring strategies and tactics. Balance is the key, and any solution that helps preserve and sustain must address each of these three pillars.

There are examples of companies that have achieved balance. Reducing power consumption, curbing material waste, recycling scrap—all these measures address environmental and economic needs, the so-called “more green to be more green” idea that economic growth and environmentalism are not mutually exclusive. But measuring the contribution to social needs is sometimes harder.

Touching the Supply Chain

buy fresh.jpgOur complex supply chains tend to be resource hungry. Ships, trains, trucks, and planes consume oil and create carbon emissions. Warehouses consume space, mineral resources, and electrical power. Factories consume energy, space, and raw materials while creating numerous waste streams. In all cases, people provide the motivational power of the supply chain, from supply to demand and all points between.

No matter what method we use, all supply chains adhere to a form of Newton’s law, "for every good there is something bad." Consider the following:

  • ⦁    The move to localized food supplies, the “grow local, buy local” campaigns, can come with a higher economic price and exact a higher environmental toll because of fuel and emissions impacts. Offsetting these costs are the social gains of better food quality and maintaining the local economy.
  • ⦁    Driving distribution networks to smaller regions with more distributor points reduces fuel, emissions, and delivery costs. Higher inventory safety stock, more redundancy in personnel and equipment.
  • ⦁    Slow steaming of cargo vessels reduces fuel consumption and emissions, but increases transit time, increasing inventory demands.

Whatever we do in our supply chains to address sustainability, we must maintain a systems approach to balance the three major factors:  environment, economy, and society.

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