What Does Sustainability Really Mean?

 

In today’s world, the word “sustainability” seems to be everywhere. Companies market so-called “sustainable” products, people push for more “sustainable” policies, and, of course, people make sustainability memes.

Despite its widespread use, many people seem to lack a full understanding about what sustainability actually means. Many people assume it’s simply a synonym for being environmentally-friendly, but there is actually a lot more to it than that. When people claim they want a more sustainable world, it is in every aspect, not just environmental. So let's break it down.

The dictionary defines sustainability as the “ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.” In other words, sustainability is the ability to last. So, when describing something as sustainable, you are saying that whatever you are referring to - a product, a policy, an action - is going to last. 

In terms of how it is used today, sustainability still means the ability to last. We are simply referring to our species’ and our world’s ability to last. This means that while we meet our own needs, all of which somehow depend on the natural environment, we are not compromising the needs of future generations. It means finding a way to coexist with the environment that allows both us and the natural world to flourish. 

Sustainability is more than just environmental concerns. Sustainability often includes three different “pillars” that work together to create a more harmonious whole. These pillars are three overarching factors that contribute to this unified whole: economic, social, and environmental. 

The best way to understand these three factors and how they interact are through the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. These goals consist of 17 key areas that must be addressed in order to create a fully sustainable world. These goals include environmental (climate action, life on land, life under water), social (quality education, gender equality, health and well-being), and economic (economic growth, innovation, no poverty) factors. The key idea is that all of these goals are interconnected, and only by addressing all of them will we create a better future world for everyone, not just those who can afford it. 

Unfortunately, these goals will never be achieved if citizens and governments across the world do not take action on behalf of them. We must take action because the fate of the human race depends on it. Our current practices are depleting essential natural resources and biodiversity that cannot be recovered, leaving little for future generations to use. Simultaneously, the economic growth we so proudly boast often excludes those lowest in the social hierarchy. Moving toward sustainability means creating inclusive growth that brings us all up, not just those at the top.

So, how can you help, you might ask?

The first way is to vote. Put people into office who are truly dedicated to creating a sustainable world in all three pillars. Talk to your representatives and senators and let them know you support environmentally-friendly and sustainable legislation. 

You can also keep educating yourself on the SDGs and other efforts of non-profits to push for sustainability. Additionally, check out this webpage from the UN that lists volunteer organizations dedicated to the mission of the SDGs. 

Finally, you can work on changing your own life and habits to be more green. This means taking individual action, like swapping out single-use plastics for longer-lasting alternatives, but it also means being aware of the impact of your choices on the world. It’s especially important to pay attention to what you are buying. Your money counts as a vote. By buying from certain businesses, you are telling them you support their practices and want more of that product. Thus, it is important to make sure that you are supporting businesses that are committed to building a sustainable future (like the B Corps) and work to make their own practices sustainable.

Most importantly, every little change matters. Baby steps matter. And the Earth thanks you for your efforts.