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What is Sustainability Anyway?

24 Nov

Sustainability. The notion of sustainability has quickly become integrated into the vocabulary of corporations, world leaders, environmentalists, and society as a whole – but what does sustainability truly mean? With no concrete definition of what sustainability is, and an established standard of how to measure progress towards environmental sustainability, this concept seems to lack the teeth required to really make a real impact on the world.

Perhaps one of the main reasons why sustainability has not become a driving force in today’s world is because there too many definitions out there with different visions and agendas. The lack of agreed definition, objectives, and path to achieving sustainable development has meant that the term “sustainability” can, and has been, stretched to mean almost anything. Sustainable development can mean all things to all people, which is probably why it has found such widespread support. Environmentalists, international government organizations, corporations, business associations and governments all endorse this concept. But what definition does each group subscribe to? Consider the following examples of different definitions various groups feel what sustainable development:

World Bank:

[M]eeting the needs of the future depends on how well we balance social, economic, and environmental objectives–or needs–when making decisions today.

Shell Canada:

Integrate economic, environmental and social considerations in our decision-making across all of our business activities. It means addressing both short-term and long-term needs.

Federal Government of Canada

To satisfy human needs and improve the quality of human life. At the same time, development must be based on the efficient and environmentally responsible use of all of society’s scarce resources – natural, human, and economic.

As can be seen, the above commitments to “sustainable development” not only have different focuses, but they fall short of concrete commitment and action required to meet the demands needed to preserve a healthy environment for future generations. Before society continues to use the term “sustainability”, it is crucial that an official definition for “sustainability”, and a standard to measure progress in sustainability be established. Sustainability must not only be incorporated into all aspects of life, but these actions must be aligned towards a common vision for it to be most effective.