What is sustainability?

Sustainability is a well-known and frequently used 21st century term.  With how often you likely see or hear the word, have you ever stopped to think about what sustainability really means?

Sustainability is widely defined as “the ability to have something or an activity maintained at a certain stable rate or level”. This term has been used in various contexts. Corporations, such as the  oil industry for example, are using it to show that they will be profitable and operational for a long period of time.

Sustainability comes from the practice of “nachhaltigkeit”, a term coined in 1713 by German foresters that is translated to mean “sustained yield” in English1.  Sustained yield refers to the practice of taking only enough trees as will allow forests to naturally regenerate well into the future. The concept of sustained yield eventually moved beyond the forestry discourse to include the conservation of plants, animals, and other food necessities now also. It is still mainly confined to research and science, however.

Most definitions of sustainability today also include concerns for the environment, social equity, and economic prosperity2. For instance, environmental sustainability aims at reducing the depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance. Sustainability, in the context of the environment, looks at the activities required to protect the environment while balancing social, cultural, and economic needs. It is generally accepted that the goals of environmental sustainability are related to the need to conserve our natural world, with a shift away from the current resource-intensive way of living2.

Sustainability in the business world, however, does not always relate to the protection of nature or social justice. It is often associated with efficiency, profitability and even growth. But things are changing. Recent research shows that businesses which embrace environmental and social governance approaches tend to not only reduce their environmental impact and increase diversity, but also reduce costs, as well.

When we think about sustainability, it is important to remember that the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas on Turtle Island have been practicing this concept from time immemorial. Indigenous Peoples have been long-time practitioners of sustainability, as for them, it relates to being stewards of the land — you only take what you really need and can use. Sustainability for the Indigenous underlines the importance of looking at the past 7 generations to make informed, respectful, and balanced decisions for the next 7 generations to come. Sustainability is a long-term vision and process of continual environmental commitment to improvement.


References

  1. Grober, U. (2007). Deep roots-a conceptual history of sustainable development (Nachhaltigkeit). Retrieved from: https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/11077/ssoar-2007-grober-deep_roots_-_a_conceptual.pdf?sequence=
  2. Baker, J., Dupont, D., & Vasseur, L. (2021). Exploring Canadian Ramsar Sites Ecosystem Governance and Sustainability. Wetlands, 41(1), 1-11.
Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog