The Age of Disruption
Before we delve into what we can do at home and at work, lets get familiar with the term Sustainability.
We live in a world of disruptions. The pace at which our world is changing is unprecedented, being more unpredictable than ever before. These disruptions represent far more than advancements in technology and connectivity. They include challenges to our social institutions through the rise of populism, weather events propelled and amplified by climate change, and vast numbers of people moving across borders.
Sustainable development is a disrupter. It challenges the way we live our daily lives and gives us the accountability we so often fear as decision makers of our own lives. But if we don’t start taking responsibility for our decisions, who will pay?
Sustainability – the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
I am often asked by friends buying a piece of clothing, say a new pair of jeans, “do you know any sustainable jeans brands?”.
It’s an interesting question, and more often or not, they do not mean “does this pair of jeans have the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level?”. And why would they? That’s a weird question.
What they tend to be asking is:
Does this item have a negative impact the environment?
Does the company I bought this from look after their staff?
Does the company provide support to local communities?
Is the item made from responsibly sourced materials?
"Every decision you make will have an impact on the planet. You have the freedom to choose how much."
The word has taken on new meaning. Just searching “Sustainability” gives you an array of green logos and affiliated searches such as “biodiversity” and “eco-friendly”, as well as the first question being asked “what do you mean by sustainable?”. It is clear there is some confusion around the term and of course is leading to being abused as a form of greenwashing.
So, what they are really asking? To incorporate the factors above, it may be better to phrase it:
“Do you know any jeans brands that prioritise sustainable development?”.
The word gets thrown about nowadays as much as “eco” or “green” and is starting to have about as much effect. But it is important to understand what we mean by this word and how to know whether something is as “sustainable” as it says it is.
Jeans, have an impact on the environment. They require energy, water and chemicals to be produced and therefore, yes, have an impact. Large? What is large? What are you measuring? These are important questions we should be discussing and making sure our language is clear.
Sustainable Development - development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future generations
There is a large space between where we are now, and what a sustainable planet would look like. Sustainable development is the compass guiding us in the right direction. This tends to be what people mean when they talk about sustainability. So, let’s go back to that question my friend asked me. Using this definition, the question about those jeans can be phrased as:
“By buying these jeans, am I compromising the needs of future generations.”
This is a very important point for two very important reasons – the relationship between cause and effect; and the accountability that lies with that decision. This is commonly known as negative externality.
Everything comes at a cost. Even as you are sitting there right now reading this, you are using a device that requires electricity. This device was delivered to you via a diesel van that emits toxic gases. All kinds of materials were mined and manufactured to produce the device that was then eventually shipped over to you via air travel or by ship.
All these steps put a negative externality on a third party. The issue is this negative externality maybe; immediate, or fifty years from now; local or someone halfway around the world, with both factors influencing the uncertainty of the severity.
You will often see sustainable development split up between environment, society and economy. I advise you to refrain from believing these are separate entities. If you were to ask a maritime fisherman whether the collapse of fishing reserves off the east coast of Newfoundland was an environmental disaster, a social disaster, or an economic disaster was, he would say, “Yes.” The fact of the matter is society and the economy are confined to the environmental boundaries of our world (for now) and would not be able to function without them.
So, the question asked about those jeans is very important, but extremely complex. Yes, they are made of organic cotton and support local communities. Does this make them sustainable? Who knows? Does it reduce the impact we have on the planet and therefore the negative externalities left for future generations? Yes
The first thing to accept is that you will always cause a negative externality in anything you do. This is part of being human. What we have control over, is choosing where we can reduce our impact.