What is Sustainability Anyway?

I think that I must be getting past it, it seems that I simply don’t understand “Sustainability” anymore.

I recently found it necessary to argue in the Architect’s Journal that teaching “sustainability” as subject matter is nonsense. Sustainable designs arise from a deep understanding of the issues not by adding a separate layer of activity on top.

I’ve recently been told that I am wrong to suggest that sustainability is an inherent characteristic of a construct or system rather than an additional feature. Presumably I must be wrong because that kind of thinking jeopardises the lucrative new industry of Sustainability Consultancy.

I have also come across many discussions about what it takes to be a ‘sustainable business leader” or how to “leverage sustainability” in business. Apparently there was even a Sustainable Leadership Conversation on Twitter, which fortunately I missed completely.

Now this is what I don’t understand:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability simply as “the property of being sustainable”. It also defines sustainable as “to be capable of enduring”. Now we should all want to be sustainable shouldn’t we. Consider the antonym: unsustainable. This is where we start to expose some of the nonsense in the current jargon.

If a business is not sustainable it clearly will cease to function. Definition. A business leader who fails to lead a business sustainably will bring about the death of the business pretty quickly. Therefore the leaders of any viable businesses are sustainable business leaders. Any business that is providing a service, making a profit and investing in its future must by definition also be sustainable. That’s a lot of people and businesses, much more than the self-proclaimed.

The Oxford English Dictionary also defines the term environmental sustainability as “the degree to which a process or enterprise is able to be maintained or continued while avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources”. So environmental sustainability is a property of a system or rate of activity, such as constructing buildings or consuming fuel. Clearly such a property can only be designed into the system or activity as it surely cannot be added as a feature afterwards.

A hero of mine, Ted Happold, once said that an engineer is someone who can do for a penny what any fool could do for a pound. To me that is the definition of sustainability pure and simple. The ingenuity of engineers delivers financial, resource and fuel efficiency as a routine part of their work. In order to continue to do what we want to do as a society we need to be able to do it whilst consuming less. Less money, less resource and less fuel.

Gordon E Moore observed that the number of transistors that engineers could pack into an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This ability to do more operations with less silicon has revolutionised computing and communications. Further, by increasing the capability of individual chips you reduce the overall power demand for computers and equipment. So Moore’s law predicts the increase in computing and communications capability as well as the reduced demand for electricity to run these devices.

Indeed we are now seeing the situation where electricity demands for IT are falling as obsolete equipment is replaced with new more efficient equipment. This is clearly a sustainable state of affairs, social development is accelerating whilst the cost of devices, both financial and energy are falling. This is clearly a property of the system. We simply need to balance the demand for products, to address needs not wants, with the rate at which we can safely extract raw materials.

I find myself in agreement with former CIBSE President, Prof David Fisk when he called for the word “sustainability” to be banned from technical discourse. It has become so corrupted as to not only be meaningless, but actually to obscure the real issues that we need to deal with. Lets talk knowledgeably about resources and energy consumption and social development and the economy and protecting our vital biosphere. If we are still talking about these things in 2050 then surely we will have sustained.

7 thoughts on “What is Sustainability Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Een mooi gebouw... | studio suit | ontwerp + bouw

  2. IT is like a value You don’t born with it, you learn it and then you improve it permanently. If you do it right it will be part of your core business.

    • Thanks for reading. I believe we must abandon “sustainability” as hopelessly corrupted. I’d like to see “sustainable” used in the correct context. Then I’d like businesses to take “responsibility”. I’d like them to acknowledge that they are responsible for minimising and mitigating impacts on the environment, responsible for paying taxes, responsible for conditions and welfare of their staff. Responsibility is personal, sustainability is ephemeral.

  3. This reminds me of a comic: http://xkcd.com/1007/

    I think you are right to question what we mean by “sustainability”. It is probably the only term in business that people use every day with so little understanding of what it really means. “Sustainability” as a business concept relates mainly to the longevity of the business model, which is far too often considered entirely separate from “environmental sustainability”…although as we know, the two are becoming more and more interwoven.

    The other thing is the massive chasm in meaning which lies between the terms “sustainable” and “more sustainable”. A “more sustainable” product can be easily achieved by, say, a 2% reduction in waste (likely owing far more to the continuing improvement of cost efficiency than to a notion of environmental sustainability). On the other hand, a truly sustainable product, process or business is a rare thing indeed.

    • Ha Ha, Thanks Adam. Makes me think of Jargon Bingo.

      Your point shows just how corrupt the terminology has become. There is no such thing as more sustainable or less sustainable – neither is actually English. Sustainable is an absolute adjective. You can only be sustainable or unsustainable. I think that we should abandon the whole sustainability issue and go back to simply being responsible for our actions.

Share your thoughts on this post:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.