Sustainability is Unsustainable
I was tempted to call this blog entry “Sustainability is Stupid,” but I changed my mind because that’s needlessly inflammatory. And really, the problem isn’t that the concept itself is stupid, though certainly I’ve seen some stupid uses of the term. But the real problem is that it’s too broad for some purposes, too narrow for others, and just can’t bear the weight that many people want to put on it. The current focus on sustainability as summing up everything we want to know about doing the right thing in business is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.
Anyway, I am tired of sustainability. And not just because, as Ad Age recently declared, it’s one of the most jargon-y words of the year. Which it is. But the problems go beyond that.
Here are just a few of the problems with sustainability:
1) Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, not everything unsustainable is bad. Oil is unsustainable, technically speaking. It will eventually get scarce, and eventually run out, for all intents and purposes. But it’s also a pretty nifty product. It works. It’s cheap. And it’s not going away soon. So producing it isn’t evil, and using it isn’t evil, even if (yes, yes) it would be better if we used less. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of oil. It would be great if cars could run on something more plentiful and less polluting, like sunshine or water or wind. But in the meantime, oil is an absolutely essential commodity. Unsustainable, but quite useful.
2) There are ways for things to be bad other than being unsustainable. Cigarettes are a stupid, bad product. They’re addictive. They kill people. But are they sustainable? You bet. The tobacco industry has been going strong for a few hundred years now. If that’s not sustainability, I don’t know what is. To say that the tobacco industry isn’t sustainable is like saying the dinosaur way of life wasn’t sustainable because dinosaurs only ruled the earth for, like, a mere 150 million years. So, it’s a highly sustainable industry, but a bad one.
3) There’s no such thing as “sustainable” fish or “sustainable” forests or “sustainable” widgets, if by “sustainable” you mean as opposed to the other, “totally unsustainable” kind of fish or forests or widgets. It’s not a binary concept, but it gets sold as one. A fishery (or a forest or whatever) is either more or less sustainable. So to label something “sustainable” is almost always greenwash. Feels nice, but meaningless.
4) We’re still wayyyy unclear on what the word “sustainable” means. And I’m not talking about fine academic distinctions, here. I’m talking big picture. As in, what is the topic of discussion? For some people, for example, “sustainability” is clearly an environmental concept. As in, can we sustain producing X at the current rate without running out of X or out of the raw materials we need to make X? Or can we continue producing Y like this, given the obvious and unacceptable environmental damage it does? For others, though — well, for others, “sustainability” is about something much broader: something economic, environmental, and social. This fundamental distinction reduces dramatically the chances of having a meaningful conversation about this topic.
5) Many broad uses of the term “sustainable” are based on highly questionable empirical hypotheses. For example, some people seem to think that “sustainable” isn’t just an environmental notion because, after all, how can your business be sustainable if you don’t treat your workers well? And how can you sustain your place in the market if you don’t produce a high-quality product? Etc., etc. But of course, there are lots of examples of companies treating employees and customers and communities badly, and doing so quite successfully, over time-scales that make any claim that such practices are “unsustainable” manifestly silly. (See #2 above re the tobacco industry for an example.)
6) We have very, very little what is actually sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. Sure, there are clear cases. But for plenty of cases, the correct response to a claim of sustainability is simply “How do you know?” We know a fair bit, I think, about what kinds of practices tend to be more, rather than less, environmentally sustainable. But given the complexities of ecosystems, and the complexities of production processes and business supply chains, tracing all the implications of a particular product or process in order to declare it “sustainable” is very, very challenging. I conjecture that there are far, far more claims of “sustainability” than there are instances where the speaker knows what he or she is talking about.
7) Sometimes, it’s right to do the unsustainable thing. For example, would you kill the last breeding pair of an endangered species (say, bluefin tuna, before long) to feed a starving village, if that was your only way of doing so? I would. Sure, there’s room for disagreement, but I think I could provide a pretty good argument that in such a case, the exigencies of the immediate situation would be more weighty, morally, than the long-term consequences. Now, hopefully such terrible choices are few. But the point is simply to illustrate that sustainability is not some sort of over-arching value, some kind of trump card that always wins the hand.
8 ) The biggest, baddest problem with sustainability is that, like “CSR” and “accountability” and other hip bits of jargon, it’s a little wee box that people are trying to stuff full of every feel-good idea they ever hoped to apply to the world of business. So let’s get this straight: there are lots and lots of ways in which business can act rightly, or wrongly. And not all of them can be expressed in terms of the single notion of “sustainability.”
Now, look. Of course I don’t have anything against sustainability per se. I like the idea of running fisheries in a way that is more, rather than less, sustainable. I like the idea of sustainable agriculture (i.e., agriculture that does less, rather than more, long-term damage to the environment and uses up fewer, rather than more, natural resources). But let’s not pretend that sustainability is the only thing that matters, or that it’s the only word we need in our vocabulary when we want to talk about doing the right thing in business.