"Sustainability" is one of the most popular business buzzwords. Celebrities endorse "sustainable products." Companies incorporate "sustainable business practices" in their operations. Governments enact laws promoting "sustainability."
Despite its popularity, “sustainability” remains a vague concept for many people. Not surprisingly, myths regarding sustainability abound. Worse, these myths can lead to unsustainable practices such as greenwashing.
Myth 1: There Is No Single, Clear-Cut Definition of Sustainability
The term "sustainability" is associated with a broad range of images, from the "Recycle" symbol to tree-hugging activists. Thus, people assume that there is no single, clear-cut definition of sustainability. As long as it's "green," or, at the very least, promotes "greenness," then it must be sustainable.
There is, in fact, a formal definition of sustainability. In its 1987 publication, Our Common Future, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland commission) defined sustainability as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." In everyday language, this could be translated to, "Take only what you need."
Myth 2: Sustainability Focuses Solely on Environmental Protection
Since sustainability is popularly equated with "green," people may assume that sustainability focuses solely on environmental protection. This belief is valid to a certain extent—the sustainability movement originally focused on environmental causes such as pollution and wildlife preservation.
In recent years, however, the sustainability movement shifted its focus to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). Compared with pollution and wildlife preservation, ESG is more holistic and inclusive in nature. ESG believes that sustainability also addresses the root causes of these issues. For example, poverty, joblessness, homelessness and gender inequality may force people to resort to unsustainable practices in order to survive. Unsustainable practices, in turn, may result in sustainability issues like pollution and species extinction.
ESG also believes that sustainability is a community effort. When all stakeholders pool their time, resources and ideas, they develop more and better ways to attain sustainability. Moreover, the solutions they come up with tend to have longer-lasting effects than those created by a single stakeholder. When everyone is involved from planning to execution, sustainability solutions created by stakeholder collaborations can outlast management and regime changes.
Myth 3: Recycling Is the Only Way to Achieve Sustainability
Another result of the popular association between sustainability and “green” is the belief that recycling is the only way to achieve sustainability. Recycling is definitely important. Reusing paper, metals and plastic instead of discarding them, for instance, means reduced consumption of natural resources. The truth, however, is that recycling is not the only way to achieve sustainability—and ESG is proof of this.
True to its name, ESG offers various ways to achieve sustainability. Aside from recycling, people can also employ impact investing or investing in companies that aim to generate social impact alongside financial returns. Companies can use renewable energy to run their facilities, and promote a healthier workforce with healthy meal options and by educating employees regarding workplace safety. Governments can reduce their reliance on fossil fuel by enacting laws supporting renewable energy. These measures can be more effective in attaining sustainability than recycling alone.
Myth 4: Sustainability Means Lower Standards of Living
Hollywood sometimes portrays environmental activists as tree-huggers who live in tents or camper vans and lack personal hygiene in an attempt to save water. They may be portrayed as vegans, wearing hemp, riding bicycles everywhere they go, regularly attending environmental events, and strongly against modern lifestyle and technology. Sometimes, activists are portrayed as sabotaging laboratories and power plants in protest of environmental destruction. As a result, people may have an impression that those who support sustainability have simpler standards of living.
Sustainability does involve doing more with less. This idea doesn’t have to be taken to the extreme. Technology companies now regularly promote sustainability . Clothing companies have also followed suit . By doing so, they are able to conserve natural resources which, in turn, may enable them to produce more goods and services in the future. Sustainability can actually equate to more resources that can keep us prosperous, fed, clothed and secure in the future.
Myth 5: Government Intervention Is Not Necessary to Attain Sustainability
Consumer choices and grassroots activism have made great strides towards achieving sustainability. According to the 2014 U.S. Trust Insights on Wealth and Worth survey , 67% of Millennials (the demographic born between 1980 and 2000) regard their investment decisions as “[ways] to express [their] social, political or environmental values.” This may explain the increasing popularity of impact investing in recent years . Grassroots activism has also heavily influenced governments and other decision-makers. In China, public protests over massive pollution prompted the government to create a public environmental policing mechanism. China’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can now sue polluters on behalf of the public.
These are not the only activities essential for achieving sustainability. Government intervention is also very important. COP21 was attended by, among others, 147 heads of state . Strong government commitment to COP21―as evidenced by this significant participation―can help ensure that COP21’s provisions are carried out. Governments can enact laws promoting the “green economy” (sustainable energy, agriculture, manufacturing, etc.). Taxes can be used to fund “green economy” programs and facilities. Given the huge amount of resources and power the government has, its potential for helping attain sustainability cannot be underestimated.
Myth 6: Sustainability Is Too Expensive
Sustainability will certainly take a lot of time, effort and money. However, sustainability’s expenses lie mainly in the short term. In fact, unsustainable practices can cost more―both in monetary and non-monetary terms. In many cases, the losses incurred by unsustainable practices are difficult, if not impossible, to recover.
According to Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action , a June 2015 report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), climate change-related droughts and water shortages can cost the US economy up to USD180 billion in losses. The World Food Program said that climate change can lead to stronger and more frequent droughts, floods and storms . These natural disasters, in turn, can destroy crops and make it difficult for communities to produce sufficient food in the future. Inadequate food access can trigger massive social unrest, potentially leading people to turn to illegal activity in order to survive.
In sharp contrast, sustainability can save more in the long run. A safe workplace, for example, means fewer cases of work-related illnesses, accidents and deaths. These outcomes translate to greater employee productivity and reduced staff turnover. When employees feel safe in their workplace, they may be more motivated to work harder and be more loyal to their employers, potentially making companies more profitable.
Myth 7: Sustainability Is Just a Fad
Skeptics may dismiss sustainability as a fad presented by “hipsters” and alternative lifestyle enthusiasts. Skeptics may believe that while people will embrace sustainability and try to live sustainably―especially when bombarded by media images of celebrities endorsing sustainability measures―but once they realize how expensive hybrid cars are, or how inconvenient it is to return their old mobile phones to the store for recycling, they’ll revert to their unsustainable ways.
The truth, however, is that sustainability will and must continue to be popular in the future. People are increasingly aware of various sustainability issues and the ways these will affect their lives. People are now heavily involved in sustainability. From eco-business intelligence to legislation promoting the “green economy,” sustainability has become a community effort. This makes sense; since sustainability issues will affect every inhabitant of this planet, it is logical that people will work together to address them.
The growing popularity of sustainability renders it vulnerable to myths that mislead people. Myths regarding sustainability may drive people and institutions to practice sustainability measures that aren’t really sustainable to begin with. In some cases, sustainability myths may even cause people and institutions to not practice much-needed sustainability measures.
It is extremely important that people and institutions are informed regarding what sustainability really is. A correct understanding of sustainability is the first step towards creating and implementing sustainability measures that are effective and long-lasting. When people and institutions understand sustainability, the sustainability measures they will create will be faithful to sustainability’s goals. This outcome, in turn, will ensure that sustainability issues will be effectively addressed.
FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS) is a leading sustainability solutions provider to organizations and governments around the globe. FCS gives expert advice on sustainability solutions to improve ESG performance and your bottom line.
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