The Greenwash Brigade

Define "Sustainability." Please.

Janne K. Flisrand Jan 10, 2008

I heard my voice on Marketplace this morning. Odd. I heard Heidi, too, for the first time ever. Nice to put a voice to a name, a face, and a personality. I also learned that Heidi and I have differing opinions about the desirability of crafting a definition of “sustainability.”

Sustainability is a simple concept. In 1987, the UN Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.)

Sounds simple enough.

But what does that include? This evening I explored a (currently) well-written Wikipedia article on sustainability. While the discussion is interesting if you want to read for 20 minutes, I came away with principles and no specifics on how to tell if something is “sustainable” or not.

Jim and I recently discussed LEED — we agreed that LEED has its faults, and that it doesn’t accommodate what’s different about each project. It’s a definition with faults. But, Jim highlighted that having “an agreed upon, understandable way to ask for a green building” has been transformative. Now, it’s possible. Thanks to a definition of green building. (I’ve had an identical experience in promoting sustainable building as an affordable housing priority. Once affordable housing-appropriate Green Communities Criteria were developed, getting them implemented has been relatively easy.)

Heidi said that sustainability means different things in different contexts – I agree. But, I also think many underlying principles can be agreed upon. Product toxicity isn’t OK. Massive energy consumption doesn’t pass. Child labor is out. There are more (see the Wikipedia article for ideas).

I like a definition that sets forth and defines specific principles. For example, what makes a product toxic, and what levels of toxicity are acceptable (if any)? That approach gives companies, manufacturers, individuals, governments, etc. a goal to aim for. Not every principle will apply to every entity, but if it’s irrelevant, no worries!

With that definition, advertising a Sustainable Product will have a clear-cut meaning. A Sustainable Product will meet all of the relevant sustainability principles. Then, sustainability claims can be verified, and something can be done about greenwashing.

Until then, it’s the Jannes and Heidis of the world who become the arbiters. Sure, we’ll have a great time discussing what passes and what doesn’t. But we’re not available everywhere to everyone at all times. Nor do we have the information to evaluate everything, and we might even disagree on basic principles of sustainability.

Until then, sustainability is a term anyone can use anytime they think about using organic cotton in a product.

Until then, consumers will struggle to know just what they’re getting, unless they are willing and able to spend lots of time digging before every purchase AND retailers/manufacturers are more forthcoming with their practices.

Would a definition be useful?

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