Simon Nurse says definitions of sustainability are gaining a viral circularity

February 16th, 2010

I’m not sure if there has ever been a more widely used yet cloudy concept than ‘sustainability’. It has an ethereal existence, strangely intangible, but increasingly woven into the fabric of our rapidly changing society. If it were a metal it would be ‘Unobtainium’: difficult to find and near impossible to refine.

You might wonder what has drawn my ire to the sustainability concept. Consider for a moment what it means to you. Can you adequately define sustainability? If so, what form does it take? Are there different forms of sustainability? Do they compete for space? When placed under close scrutiny the subject offers far more questions than it answers. Yet it embeds itself within almost all public policy documents and has become a stated requirement for many contracts with local government, as the following example perfectly illustrates.

A colleague working for a Welsh owned engineering company based in the Midlands is tendering for work with a local council. He recently attended a week long workshop offered by the council to prepare contractors for the tendering process. In essence, this is a good idea designed to stimulate industrial activity and keep investment local. The council trainer stressed the importance of ‘sustainability’, an essential component of the process, requiring the completion of a complicated and weighty vendor assessment questionnaire. Failure to complete the paperwork to less than complete satisfaction results in the vendor falling at the first hurdle. Previously I’d suggested that he ask the council for clarification of ‘sustainability’ and its application to the service on offer. The council trainer, caught in the headlights of an unexpected, yet obvious question, was embarrassingly unable to define it.

I checked for a definition of sustainability on the Welsh Government website and couldn’t find one In fairness, it might be there. It’s a big site and the detail may be buried. However, I did find a definition of sustainable development which, I was informed , entails::

“…enhancing the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of people and communities, achieving a better quality of life for our own and future generations:

Ø    In ways which promote social justice and equality of opportunity; and

Ø    In ways which enhance the natural and cultural environment and respect it’s limits – using only our fair share of the earth’s resources and sustaining our cultural legacy.

Sustainable development is the process by which we reach the goal of sustainability’.

Thus we go full circle. Starting with a look at ‘sustainability’, we are led to ‘sustainable development’, before being returned to ‘sustainability’. Not that I wish to single out the Welsh Government for lack of clarity as the sustainable development statement is quite detailed. Nonetheless, indistinct use of the sustainability concept is spreading through public and business life like a virus that’s found a willing and welcome host.

The simple definition of sustainability is the ‘capacity to endure’ a trait efficiently displayed by Japanese knotweed, jingoism, malaria, the beano and BBC repeats of Dad’s Army. I’d recommend shying away from using that one.

Clarification and context is incredibly important as ‘sustainable’ approaches are fast becoming a de-facto requirement of working with local government and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) savvy big industry. Organisations lacking the intellectual capital to deal with this issue, including many SMEs, are destined to lose out to PR and ‘greenwash’, demeaning the concept and moving us away from what it is purportedly – I think – trying to do. I presume this is to ensure financially viable goods and services are supplied on a consistent basis, while making positive contributions towards an improved environment and society.

Simon Nurse is Head of Operations with Cardiff’s Capital Coated Steel and Editor of the Industrial Ecology and Sustainable Business website www.iesme.org

2 Responses to:“Greenwash Threatens Sustainable Endurance”

  1. David Thorpe says:

    It’s easy to answer your question. Wales has defined sustainability in relation to five indicators including its ecological footprint. To do this work it has partenered with WWF Cymru with its One Planet Wales project. The idea is that we only have the ecological impact equivalent to that which the land area of Wales can supply and absorb. That seems to me an excellent definition as it means we do not sue more than our share or “buy into the future” to feed the present.

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  2. Simon Nurse says:

    Thanks David, always good to talk this important issue through.

    I agree that ecological footprinting is an excellent measurement of our likely impacts on ecological processes/our environment. The thrust of this piece is defining sustainability in terms of what it means for the supply of goods and services from businesses – in particular SMEs (there are 4.5 million businesses that fit this description in the UK ). This definition should also address the long term viability of the supply of those goods and services, including profitability for the supplier – running alongside the consumption and use of resources. Small business squeezed from all sides cease to be sustainable enterprises and local employment is clearly part of the equation. Your brief definition focuses solely on the higher aims of sustainability (along the lines of Brundtland).

    Businesses dealing with public bodies are often asked about their sustainability practices, yet it often – though not always – cannot be clarified by the procurement departments of the public body in question. I have seen the confusion and lack of direction this causes firsthand.

    What I really don’t want to see, is for the sustainability debate to be solely about concepts such as ecological footprinting and high- though clearly important – ideals, without these thought processes being distilled into workable practise. Sustainability must move from theoretical debate into practical use.

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