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The Greenwash Brigade

Sustainability: a proliferation of definitions

Heidi Siegelbaum Jan 11, 2008

I am thoroughly enjoying Janne’s and Jim’s sustainability conversation and agree that it’s crucial we develop a shared understanding of sustainability, whether sustainable development, community, or product design. As the FTC makes its foray into updating its green marketing guidelines, it may not be necessary to address this issue primarily because no one is foolish enough to use the vagaries of “sustainability” on a product label or claim. 2002 Lake Snell Perry & Associates focus group results for a Partnership for Sustainable Washington illuminate the nuanced meaning of sustainability and why the term doesn’t lend itself to a label.

The Kennedy School of Government reports that sustainable development is featured on over 8 million web pages. Well, that’s a good start.

There is no dearth of sustainability criteria, labels and certification systems. Frankly, researching the topic (or rather re-researching it) made my head spin in this doozy of a topic. Check out the newly minted document from Environmental Building News: Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certification.

Implicit in defining sustainability is a discussion of scale (raised by Jim’s building example), carrying capacity, balance, and values. I was positively struck by the underlying values of the Millennium Declaration:
Freedom, Equality, Solidarity, Tolerance, Respect for Nature and Shared Responsibility. Perhaps this should be the new frame for “change” as we approach our frenzied electoral cycle. The 7 Triads of Sustainability for Communities were also of interest as broad organizing principles: participation, decision-making, partnership, governance, knowledge & information, continual improvement and lifestyles. Perhaps combining these values into one set will become a starting point for discussing the intimacy shared by businesses, communities and the envelope of natural resources that makes it all possible.

A critical buyer of sustainable products or services might first start with these questions:

What is the Life Cycle Assessment for this Product?
What is its embedded energy and energy source?
How many miles did it travel?
Has the product been servicized ?
What is its carbon footprint?
What are the working and environmental conditions associated with the products’ manufacture?

If we have to get down to specific product specifications, I liked the work provided by a DC firm on sustainable products.

I appreciate Janne’s desire for a sustainability index although I have to admit I’m not a big fan of indexing, having worked in environmental performance measurement for years. Indexes tend to mask important subtleties and fluctuations in salient data points although they can be a handy tool.

So the question of defining sustainability is not solved at all, is it?

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