Is Sustainability a “Buzz” Word?

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By, Mark C. Coleman

Sustainability: Buzz or Bust?

It seems nothing in life of consequence is lost or gained without some level of debate. Of late, I have read and heard more and more people drawing into question whether “sustainability” is a buzzword. In full disclosure, my first book, “The Sustainability Generation: The Politics of Change and Why Personal Accountability is Essential NOW!” was just published. And, given the title, you may believe I already have a predetermined point-of-view on the answer to the question: Is Sustainability a “Buzz” word? I do, but my take on the meaning, value, and use of the word might not be what you think.

There is no doubt that “sustainability” is used in our vernacular more freely than ever. Politicians, entertainers, CEO’s, academic and research elite, and a myriad of other business, community, and government leaders now use the word “sustainability” in their daily deliberations. So do average citizens and consumers. I frequently hear shoppers at grocery stores, people pumping gas, and others in public increasingly asking more informed questions related to sustainability. Our “24-7” news cycle and integration of social media into our personal daily lives has magnified the visibility of the word “sustainability”. My iPhone buzzes each day with Tweets and emails with the world “sustainability” used in a variety of contexts. But is it a buzzword?

A reality check with Google tells us that searching the word sustainability results in “approximately 125 million” results, in 0.18 seconds. But that indicator is the tip of the iceberg. The word, concept, and practice of sustainability have been around for decades, if not hundreds of years. Formal debate on sustainability tied to the earth’s capacity to meet our needs for food, clothing, shelter, and abundant “life essential” resources began in the 1980s. However, civilizations long before our current generation also wrestled with their impact on the environment, and how they chose to live a life of purpose and balance.

Public-and-private universities, including the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) have created new academic and research programs dedicated to educating, training, and developing the next generation of business, government, and entrepreneurial leaders focused on creating a more balanced and sustainable world. Small and large businesses and corporations with brands as global as Coca-Cola and Nike and as local and regional as Wegman’s Food Stores are embracing elements of sustainability into their corporate culture, policies, products, processes and people. And, countries around the world including Ghana, Ireland, Japan and Brazil are taking stock of their impacts and programs related to the role of government in defining and taking action on sustainability. As author and journalist Thomas Friedman astutely pointed out, the world has now become “hot, flat, and crowded”, necessitating the current generation to re-look at how it lives, works, and plays. In this new world, “sustainability” is not a buzzword in the mind’s eye of business, government, and university leaders. Rather it is the word by which positive and necessary change hinge upon, and by which the strategic direction of businesses and nations, are being built.

The notion of a buzzword carries with it a negative connotation that the word is indicative of a fad or something that is fashionable for the moment. And there are aspects to “sustainability” that meet that perception. Recent attention on the “greening” of products and lifestyles is an example. Celebrities, politicians, and others tout their use of hybrid-electric or electric vehicles as “sustainability”, yet addressing personal mobility is but one aspect of a sustainable lifestyle. Mass media and businesses have in recent years generated a lot of “buzz” on the idea that “going green” through the consumption of “greener” products is sustainable. Well, it is and it isn’t. Mass consumption of more goods and services that are “green” still create waste, hazards, inefficiencies, and consume energy. It is logical and appropriate that consumers would want, and feel good, about consuming products that have less of an environmental footprint. But while some “green” products do eliminate waste, reduce energy, and use more environmentally benign materials, they are not, when consumed in mass quantity, always “sustainable”.

The Convergence of Challenge and Change Shaping the “S” Word

With 7 billion people occupying earth and growing, more demands are being placed on earth’s natural resources. This generation is witnessing a convergence of social, economic, energy and environmental challenges that is simply unprecedented. The convergence brings great uncertainty and a sense of “issues overload” and overwhelming odds for many. It is far simpler to throw one’s hands up in defeat, or disregard “sustainability” as a buzzword than it is to accept the challenges and face up to the fact that we have serious issues which require an entirely new framework by which we should occupy the world, letalone Wall Street, if we are to earn the right to live well on the planet.

To address the constraints and challenges of our time it is equally critical for our generation to develop more “green” products and policies as it is for us to find altogether new ways to conserve, protect, and consume fewer natural resources. Sustainability then is not just about consuming more “green products” to save a buck or reduce a kWh or electricity. The use of “green” products is but one dimension of a broader, much deeper and lasting virtue of social accountability that is needed in all facets of society, and which empowers citizens to ask “what is my personal, and this generation’s responsibility, as conscious citizens and consumers, to address our needs and aspirations for today, and for future generations?”

Perhaps some people simply do not care about their collective impact on future generations. I have had many personal conversations with others that say “why should I care?”, “who is doing anything for me?” Those kinds of responses are very reasonable sentiments and perspectives considering that the basic life needs of billions of people remain unmet each day around the world. Addressing extreme poverty, providing access to potable water, building suitable shelter, feeding the hungry, and providing basic education and healthcare represent a sample of the global challenges at home and abroad. It can be personally overwhelming and simply illogical to have to account for the needs of future generations when we cannot get things right for ourselves in the present moment. But there is more to the equation of life than simply our own sense of entitlement and selfishness.

Are We a Fashionably Unsustainable Generation?

The basic tenants of life require clean water, food, and the freedom to grow and flourish. When these tenants are constrained, we all suffer. With so much focus on the economic crisis, we often forget what the fundamental building blocks of the modern economy are. Yes, the backbone of our financial management systems are “ones and zeros” of data stored in high efficiency data centers and server farms. But the materials, energy, and resources that are mined and processed to provide us with state-of-the-art electronics, energy systems, telecommunication networks, healthcare products, entertainment, and so on come from the myriad of rare and abundant resources of the earth.

Today, lifestyles have become “fashionable” whereas in the past fashion was an allure to model, a higher-end luxury, but not an everyday necessity to have. As we consume more “stuff” to remain in fashion with the fad of the day, our upstream impacts on natural resources intensify. Coupled with enormous population growth and new pressures from emerging economies like China, India, Latin America, and elsewhere, the earth’s global ecosystems (Rainforests, Coral Reefs, Wetlands, Arctic Biota) and banks of natural resource reserves (oil, gas, metals, ores, materials, water) are squeezed more and more. The net result: we don’t fully know yet. But if we don’t connect the dots in our lifestyles related to our impact on the natural world, a financial crisis won’t crush us, a sustainability crisis will.

In a democratic society no one wants to be told what to do. I cannot disagree with that. However, no one citizen, political, or business leader can address all of our competing needs or solve our interrelated sustainability challenges. A more balanced and sustainable future can only be achieved if “you, me, and WE” work together in an equation where an engaged and accountable citizenry equates to better choices and better living. In this model we should recognize that (1) sustainability cannot be mandated, dictated, or legislated, and (2) it is possible that sustainability will never truly be achieved.

Getting to “WE” – Defining your Stake in the Sustainability Generation

Sustainability has to be defined, embraced, and enacted by everyday citizens and consumers if it is to have a shot at capturing the mind and spirit of this generation, and being a value that transcends time and place to have long term impact. Because sustainability is tied to our “life context”, to our needs as individuals, and as a generation at a specific moment in time, we will always be readjusting, tweaking, and refining our behaviors, values, and intended goals and outcomes. Thus, sustainability is something that we will continuously strive for with the best knowledge, data, and information we have at hand. We will make mistakes. And we may even fall back a few steps. But, if we remain committed to enveloping critical thinking and accountability into our daily lives regarding our fate and future, and as a symbiotic relationship with each other and the earth, then we will be moving in the right direction.

A buzzword does not have to carry with it a negative connotation. Something that is“buzzworthy” can be more than a fad and fashionable. “Sustainability” might just be the evolution of a higher purpose for people playing out in real time across society. Even if you are sick of hearing the word “sustainability” there is something to its allure. The word evokes debate, critical thinking, and personal reflection within individuals’ attempts to realize a better lifestyle and for society at-large and as a generation attempting to finds its foothold amid financial turmoil and ongoing geopolitical uncertainty.

Regardless whether you believe in certain “green” virtues others have placed on the word “sustainability”, it should be important to discover for yourself the role you will play as a conscious citizen and consumer and as a positive contributor to society, in creating and leaving a legacy which you can be proud of. What does that look like for you? And what role will you choose to play throughout your life? Living life with a strong sense of purpose, passion, self discovery, happiness, and accountability are the building blocks to your personal sustainability.

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