Sustainability. It is a concept and a buzzword that is now bandied about with frequency. So much so, in fact, that a good number of business executives and individual consumers talk about sustainability without actually taking the time to understand what it really means. This lack of thoughtful knowledge has led to something we refer to as unsustainable sustainability.

Sustainability is defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as the practice of developing and using resources in a way that prevents damage and/or depletion. This definition is vitally important if society wants to eventually reach true sustainability. Why?

It's one thing to use resources and replace them as you go. It's an entirely different thing to use those resources without causing damage elsewhere. It is the latter half of the equation (i.e. using resource without causing damage) that has created unsustainable sustainability.

Sustainability Requires Reduction

Part of a credible sustainability strategy is to reduce carbon emissions while still using resources responsibly. Carbon emission reduction is essential to sustainability because of the devastating consequences increased carbon has on the environment. In other words, it would make no sense to run a timber harvesting business without making appropriate efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

To make this clear, let's talk about a fictional timber company that we'll call Big Timber. This company harvests wood from its own land, processes it at its own large-scale mill, and ships it to buyers around the world. Big Timber is constantly planting new trees in order to maintain its supply of lumber.

Big Timber's planting of trees is sustainable in the sense that they are replacing the resources they are using. Nevertheless, what if their mill and transportation operations still produce unnecessarily high levels of CO2? They do not qualify as a truly sustainable company because their CO2 emissions are still damaging to the environment. And a damaged environment may not be as capable of producing as much lumber in the future as the company hopes.

Sustainability in Energy

Another area of unsustainable sustainability is that of energy consumption and production. Once again, a company that replaces its resources is on the right track, but if their energy consumption is still based primarily on fossil fuels, they are participating in unsustainable sustainability.

To be truly sustainable a company needs to look at ways to purchase and/or generate its own green or brown energy. Obviously, green energy is the better of the two. Sources of sustainable energy include:

  • wind and water
  • solar - both photovoltaic and solar thermal
  • biomass in its many forms.

When companies seek to adopt sustainable energy consumption strategies they are helping to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. At the same time, reduced fossil fuel use also reduces carbon emissions, which, in turn, positively affect climate change. You could make the case that converting to green energy is the most important thing we can do towards achieving genuine 100% sustainability.

Sustainability Begins at Home

Like most things being implemented on a large scale, sustainability really begins at home. After all, are our government agencies and companies not merely extensions of our smaller communities and individual homes? When each individual adopts a personal commitment to sustainability, that commitment is then passed on to our workplaces, community organisations, and government entities.

Each one of us can get off the treadmill of unsustainable sustainability by ensuring our activities are not contributing to resource depletion or environmental damage. And make no mistake; even the little things are important in the drive to true sustainability. Little things like:

  • reducing excess energy consumption
  • engaging in recycling activities
  • opting to avoid plastics when possible
  • deploying small-scale green energy options.

Consequences on Sustainable Sustainability

If we continue down this current road of unsustainable sustainability, we could eventually end up doing more damage than good. It all comes down to perception. Individuals and businesses that replace resources without consciously avoiding environmental harm often find comfort in the false assumption that they are doing everything they can to contribute to sustainability.

In reality, this actually does nothing because environmental harm is still being practised. Eventually that harm will catch up with us in ways we never imagined. In order to be truly sustainable, we must make the effort to deal seriously with the environmental harm issue.

Failure to do so could result in any number of negative consequences, including worldwide economic collapse as a result of completely depleting fossil fuels without being adequately prepared and replacing these with green alternatives. A worldwide economic collapse sounds scary, but it is entirely possible.

Now is the time to break the cycle of unsustainable sustainability. Now is the time to begin developing strategies that not only replace our resources, but also bring an end to the environmental damage our activities cause. Only then will true sustainability be a goal within our reach.