EnvironDesign Notebook: The "S" Word

April 8, 2007
By Keri Luly, LEED AP

A cautious, but hopeful look at what “sustainability” really means— and how to preserve its relevance.

  • The Twenty Ninth Day: Accommodating Human Needs and Numbers to the Earth's Resources by Lester Brown, 1978.
  • Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World by Alan AtKisson, 1999.
  • Cannibals With Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business by John Elkington, 1998.
  • Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, 1999.
  • The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift by Andres R. Edwards, 2005.
  • Natural Home magazine

My frustration is that it's used too freely, and often, inaccurately.

My fear is that it might fade from use.

A green conundrum, considering the true depth and beauty of the "S" word in our lives.

So what is this "S" word? "Sustainability" (or Sustainable).

The term "sustainable development" came onto the environmental scene in 1987 in the World Commission on Environment and Development book, Our Common Future. Although many savvy readers are already aware of its definition, it is worth reminding ourselves that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present world without compromising the needs of future generations to meet theirs." The depth of the term comes from binding together the value of the environment with our need for economic development; and their combined connection to our world society. The beauty is from the simple eloquence that captures and links all three. Previously, practitioners in the fields of environment and economy were often at odds with each other and society wasn't on their radar screen. Now we recognize their synergy and refer to their linkage as the "triple bottom line," a term that came later.

In 1992, world leaders gathered at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit) in Rio to debate the "blueprint for survival" known as Agenda 21 (referring to the 21st century). Possibly the most comprehensive solution ever devised, Agenda 21 defined 27 principles "with the goal of establishing a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of cooperation among states, key sectors of societies, and people … ." Agenda 21 was enthusiastically launched in many countries and sectors, such as the Philippines Business Agenda 21, but never really gained the respect it deserved. Sadly, the blueprint has been mostly lost in the shuffle of world affairs. Hopefully, sustainability won't meet the same fate. Thinkers and doers have continued to guide us toward sustainable development, but what does sustainability look like? How do we move forward? And will we like the result?

I usually bite my tongue when I hear someone ask about the sustainability of a company or product. The question gives the impression that sustainability is something that has been or can be done relatively easily and quickly. Just place an order and it will be delivered. In fact, the road to that goal is long and no one has gotten there yet, in spite of advertising.

Herman Daly, former economist for the World Bank, clarified the 1987 definition of sustainability with three conditions. Alan AtKisson, author of Believing Cassandra, simplified the language a bit for us:

  • Condition 1. You can't use up renewable resources faster than they regenerate or they'll run out.
  • Condition 2. If you're using stuff that will run out and you utterly depend on it, you'd better invest in the development of renewables that will someday replace the non-renewable version.
  • Condition 3. You can't dump garbage into nature faster than nature can absorb it without going haywire (and some garbage, like plutonium, can't be dumped at all).

Sounds totally logical, but, unfortunately, it isn't the way we live as we gobble up resources and dump wastes. So what will it take to achieve true sustainability? For the purposes of this article, let's focus mostly on manufacturers and consumers.

Part of economic development is the creation of goods, which has typically required the extraction of minerals; the harvesting of plants; the transportation of raw materials to the place where they are turned into products and by-products (waste, emissions, effluents, etc.) with the use of water and energy and labor; the transportation of the finished products and wastes; and the final disposal of both. Then the process repeats.

A number of ideas are being experimented with to change that cycle, among them The Natural Step (TNS) and Cradle-to-Cradle. Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a vital tool.

TNS was founded by Karl-Henrik Robért, a Swedish cancer researcher and physician who related "systems conditions" to the laws of thermodynamics and cell biology, then applied them to society's need for equitable distribution of quality of life. When society's increasing demand for natural resources (clean water, clean air, farmland, forests, etc) and nature's decreasing availability of such resources are charted on a graph, it looks like the closing walls of a funnel. TNS identifies four systems conditions that must be addressed to re-open the walls by using innovation and good sense. Alan AtKisson's book also makes those conditions more user-friendly:

  1. "You can't dig stuff out of the earth and spread it around indefinitely;
  2. You can't spread human-made stuff around in nature indefinitely, either;
  3. Don't erode nature's capacity to do all the wonderful things nature does, or you'll be sorry; and
  4. Do your business efficiently and make sure everyone has enough."

TNS systems conditions give us a remarkably similar message to Herman Daly's. When economics (Daly) and science (thermodynamics) come to similar conclusions and offer similar warnings, we should take note. Both recognize that we, as a society, extract resources and spread pollutants faster than nature can provide and absorb. Think tanks have benchmarked us as a society, some companies are taking similar steps, and consumers could do the same. We must know where we're starting from to verify real progress.

The cold, hard truth regarding sustainability is that we all have to look at how we live and consume our goods—personally and professionally. Every item we toss into the trash to sit in a landfill represents resources taken from the earth—processed, and wasted. If sustainability is really important to us, are we willing to shop selectively, pay more for things, and keep them longer?

We all must work to complete the resource loop; to keep materials from being wasted in landfills; and to get products back into the manufacturing cycle or the natural cycle of degradation back into nutrients. There are few local recycling facilities because it is not yet profitable to transport and take apart post-consumer goods. Change doesn't happen overnight and it won't happen if the market doesn't demand and pay for it.

We must also look at the bigger picture, whole life-cycles of products, to know the damage done by extraction, the energy used and pollution emitted in transportation, the manufacturing impacts, and the end-of-life consequences. Can a new use be found for the old product or its components? What is "more sustainable"—a take-back program that transports a company's products back to a remanufacturing site or the development of local recycling centers with the capacity to disassemble everyone's products and get the components back into the nearest manufacturing loop? Is it better to buy a product that is recyclable but lacks a recycling market or to buy one that is less recyclable but has less environmental impact when it's produced? Solutions aren't simple.

The other side of the conundrum is that current interest in sustainability might prove to be only the latest wave of interest in the environmental movement that has ebbed and flowed for decades. What will happen if it costs more to purchase locally made products than overseas merchandise? Will we step up to the plate and say it's important to save energy and protect the global climate? Will we pay more for better quality and keep things longer or go back to shopping for the cheapest price, no matter what the cost to society and the environment? What if products that are "sustainable" (easier to bring back into the manufacturing loop) offer fewer design variations? What if the fabric colors fade a bit over time or don't match perfectly but the dyes have less impact on the planet? Is sustainability here to stay or will it fade away because it offers so many challenges?

I'm hoping it remains relevant this time so future generations (my nieces included) are able to meet their needs.

Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally pro-active organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). RMI is an entrepreneurial nonprofit organization that fosters efficient use of resources to create security, prosperity and sustainability. It shows organizations how to create true wealth while protecting the environment, bring new perspectives to resource issues, and emphasize market-oriented solutions. RMI pioneered a new business model, Natural Capitalism, which improves the bottom line and competitive advantage by valuing human and natural capital. Go to for more information.
Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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