Updated: Jun 29, 2020
You are entirely forgiven if you're feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information out there about how to be more “environmentally friendly”. Zero waste, plastic-free, carbon neutral, climate change, renewable energy, waste management, veganism, recycling rates, palm oil, melting ice caps, mass extinction events...the list goes on.
Most of us want to do better in our lives and our workplaces but it's really hard to know which steps to take to make the most difference. It feels like there are a million different opinions out there – all insisting they are right – and every time someone gets an idea about the direction we should all be going in, another five voices furiously shout them down with “evidence” supporting the exact opposite. Who has the time to sort it all out and work out what's really going on?
The reality is that it's a very big, very complex, very broken system, with many interrelated problems. Actions that make one part better will often make another part of the system worse and that makes it rather hard to choose one “right” action to take, even if you have the patience to wade through all the science behind it in the first place.
To make matters worse, workplaces can differ hugely from each other and need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, making it even harder to come up with a roadmap that will suit everybody. This is why there are a lot of tips and hints and posts out there aimed at the home market, but we don't see nearly as many resources aimed at helping businesses go green; there just isn't a “one-size-fits-all” solution available.
But that doesn't mean it's impossible.
WHERE DO WE START?
To cut through all this noise and confusion, it helps to start with the basics. If we focus on the term “sustainability” then, it literally means “the ability to sustain, or continue, indefinitely”. This idea is pretty intuitive, and can be applied not just to the environment but to everything we do.
Most of us already know that spending more money than we earn is not sustainable; it might be ok for a while but eventually we are going to go broke. We are also coming to understand that if a company expects more from their staff than they are prepared to pay for in some kind of value, then eventually they are going to lose their workforce.
Likewise, if we plant 100 new trees a year and we cut down 101 old trees a year then that is unsustainable, it's impossible to continue that forever. But if we plant 100 and use 100 trees a year then that IS sustainable: we are not going to run out of trees because we are not taking more than we are putting back.
Yes, we might be able to weather a shortfall in any of these areas for a while, but eventually a prolonged deficit will catch up with us. So even if it takes a long time to show, anything less than being able to continue forever means the action is not actually sustainable. It's that simple.
I want to suggest an alternative term for Sustainability then, one that encapsulates its importance and urgency a little more accurately:- Survival.
When we talk about sustainability we are talking about the survival of humans and life on this planet, the survival of our societies and our communities, and yes, the survival of our businesses and economies too. Because true sustainability is not just about sustaining our environment (as vitally important as that is). We have cultures and societies and businesses and infrastructure that are important to us as humans too, and to be fully sustainable in every sense of the word, we need to be able to sustain those too.
With that in mind, our next post is going to expand the definition of Sustainability just a little bit.