Sustainability and ‘Stuff’

Image: Brian Barnett (http://www.flickr.com/photos/isdky/3460713256/)
Image: Brian Barnett (http://www.flickr.com/photos/isdky/3460713256/)

In researching the practice of corporate sustainability, many of the people I interview highlight the problem of trying to promote and live in a more sustainable way. Here, they stress how trying to take public transport, reduce your carbon footprint, choose renewable power, or build a sustainable home, seem to be increasingly difficult and costly, as if our entire economic system is biased against sustainable options. As one manager put it ‘I feel like I’m working upstream all the time.’

Given I teach organisational sustainability, I was pondering this idea when I came across a revealing insight in a sustainability textbook chapter by Gillen Wood entitled ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green: Anti-Environmental Discourse, Behavior, and Ideology’. In this chapter, Gillen makes the point that our current economic system focuses solely on the immediate satisfaction of consumer desires and blinds us to the broader connectivity of our actions. Moreover, he notes this narrow, short-term perspective has been normalised. We are conditioned through advertising and popular culture to constantly demand more and newer stuff, blind to the broader impacts of our hyper-consumption. As this video titled ‘The Story of Stuff’ highlights, our economic system is based inherently upon ‘unsustainability’:

So is ‘sustainability’ in fact possible in an economic system reliant upon ‘unending’ material economic growth in a finite world? The Brundtland report in 1987 set down the now widely acknowledged definition of sustainable development as ‘…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This is fine as an aspirational goal, but is it realistic given the nature of a capitalist economy? As the recent work on ‘planetary boundaries‘ highlights, we are as a species now crossing fundamental ecological limits. Things like climate change, loss of biodiversity, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, freshwater depletion, and atmospheric aerosol loading. In this context, ‘sustainability’ appears more a form of obfuscation. For example, witness the recent debate surrounding ‘sustainable palm oil‘. Here, the industry body has ratified the concept despite the clear environmental evidence that clearing rainforests and draining peat marshes to make way for palm oil plantations is anything but environmentally sustainable!

One of my favourite reality checks on ‘sustainability’ as a concept is from a soon to be released book Flourishing by John Ehrenfeld and Andy Hoffman (2013), where they make the point that:

At this moment in time, almost everything being done in the name of sustainability entails attempts to reduce unsustainability. But reducing unsustainability, although critical, does not and will not create sustainability.

Says it all really! Being less unsustainable is a good start but it isn’t the same as sustainability. So what would real sustainability look like in our modern, globalised, hyper-consumptive economy – and is such a concept even possible given the powerful economic forces driving in the opposite direction?

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3 thoughts on “Sustainability and ‘Stuff’”

    1. Short answer – no. But I’m reading Andy Hoffman’s new book written with John Ehrenfeld called “Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability” (http://www.amazon.com/Flourishing-Frank-Conversation-about-Sustainability/dp/0804784159), and there are some good insights which suggest that true sustainability requires a fundamental change in the nature of our economic system. I’ll update the post once I get through the book, but its thought-provoking and candid. Current corporate environmentalism and “natural capitalism” clearly doesn’t come close.

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