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 idea 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.

21 comments so far

  1. Darron Spohn on

    The biggest problem with all this talk of sustainability is everyone ignoring the core problem: overpopulation. Nothing is sustainable as long as our population is past the planet’s carrying capacity. We are ravaging the Earth’s resources to feed the current population, and our population keeps growing.

    Our lifestyle in the U.S. places an inordinate strain on the planet’s resources, but that can change. Unfortunately, unless we draw down our population nothing else we do will make much difference.

    • GiGi on

      It isn’t that we have overpopulation; it is that we have people in such concentrated masses (e.g., urban areas). We think, “aaaah! Too many humans!” If we spread out the global population, we likely wouldn’t think about it in the same light. Think of all the earth’s uninhabited land mass!

  2. Andrew Williams on

    Thanks for writing this – it certainly is food for thought. I have to say that unfortunately I disagree with you on some of your points, but I respect your views. Just a few specifics:

    1. I think a lot of your points boil down to semantics rather than considered arguments. If people really think oil or tobacco are “sustainable” i’d say that was because they have misunderstood the meaning of the term rather than because there’s a debate about the issues. There is a pretty well established definition of sustainable development – the Bruntland Report.

    2. Interesting comment about the Bluefin tuna. I would say that destroying the possibility of a sustainable (that word again!) food source for generations to come would be a poor choice in that situation.

    3. I absolutely agree that meaningless jargon is a bad thing. I think the solution is to make the words more meaningful though, rather than not using them at all. If people don’t understand what I mean by “sustainable events,” that’s an opportunity for me to engage with them, not an indication that I am spouting nonsense.

    Not that I don’t frequently spout nonsense of course!

    Thanks again for a thought provoking blog.

  3. Jeff Moriarty on


    Though I don’t know much about the sustainability literature in business ethics, I’m sympathetic to your point 8. Also, it gives me a good opportunity to share my favorite passage from George Berkeley: “We have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.” If a new concept adds to our understanding of an issue, by all means use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t. It just adds another conceptual layer to debates that we need to penetrate to get down to the vital normative issues.


  4. Mike on

    Chris, are you familiar with the Spiral Dynamics model? Sustainability is a clear case of “green” meme, that is now in fashion in the West. The progress and benefits that oil and oil-related bring to our life is an Orange meme, is mostly surpassed in developed countries, but still going very strong in developing countries.

    And I guess what you advocate here is that it’s about time that we started moving to the Yellow meme: seeing things in a more integrative way. Oil isn’t evil, and sustainability isn’t the highest value. And most importantly, that we don’t live in a zero-game world: in our time, it’s increasingly possible to do good and be successful in the same time.

  5. Celesa Horvath on

    Thanks, Chris, for yet another provocative post.
    Further to our Twitter exchange, thought I’d add here, for the record, my brief comment that re your point #3, I’d argue that it’s our USE of a resource that is sustainable or not.
    Otherwise, I’m with you on the terminology and jargon points, and agree that we need more texture in our dialogue around “doing the right thing”, not just in business but in other aspects of society.

  6. Bill Baue on


    Here are my responses to this interesting post from my Twitter feed (see below my signature for links):

    I strongly agree AND disagree w/this post

    1) agree oil itself isn’t “bad,” but our use of it has unintended consequences that are indeed unsustainable

    2) Cigs may be financially sustainable, but are socially unsustainable (use leads to death, rising health care costs, etc…)

    3) sustainable means we live w/in thresholds of replenishing resources. Hard (but not impossible) to estimate thresholds

    4) agreed common use definition of #sustainability wld benefit from more discipline. Join @MarcyMurninghan on this project.

    5) Tobacco co finan #susty may raise ethical issues, but cos can apply enviro (eg (organic) & social (eg living wage) #susty

    6) Agree fully. #sustainability complex. Much #susty talk is BS. We need more clear definitions (& understanding) of #susty

    7) in isolation, your hypothetical makes sense, but in aggregate, unsustainable behavior is… unsustainable

    8) I agree with your final conclusion. Thx for sparking this line of discussion…

    Finally, see PhD by Mark McElroy of @Deloitte for review of susty defs & forthcoming bk on susty context

    Bill Baue

  7. Keith Rye on

    On Darren’s point of growing populations, many countries including the USA and China are at or below the “replacement rate”. This will continue as more females within the developing nations make the decission that it is not necessary to have large families and become aware of the benefits of family planning.

    On the bluefin tuna, why should they “get it”? Once they have gone, what then? The villagers will continue to starve. I appreciate this may be a “devil’s advocate” example, so how about keeping the tuna to breed and selectively reducing the population of the village in the meantime? If the village is large enough, would they not survive far longer than consuming the tuna? Let the tuna stock grow so that the remaining villagers can then farm them to continue to survive.

    I also agree that the word “sustainability” has been hijacked for many reasons (greenwash or otherwise). If set in its original Bruntland Report context, it has meaning. Taking out of context makes it meaningless.

  8. […] Ein paar interessante Gedanken zum Thema finden sich übrigens auch hier im Blog von Chris MacDonald unter der schönen Überschrift “Sustainability is Unsustainable” […]

  9. Oren Wool on

    Just us at the Sustainable Enterprise Conference – – and discover how universal the word sustainable can be. We’ll discuss Sustainable Education, Sustainable Communities, Sustainable Business Practices and even Sustainable Health Care.

    Is the word overused? YES! Are the solutions? NO! The concept of operating today with respect for tomorrow is not over rated even if the word is. Did you find it appropiatr to use it in your title? Of course. Why? Because it draws attention to the issue.

    I think there are great examples if you loopk for them. How about a sustainable food system? If we look at systems and ask if they are sustainable before they crash we may not need to eat the last fish in the sea.

    I thank you for raising the topic, but really we must not let semantics cloud the issue of an unsustainable future. Greenwash the hell out of it if it makes change happen.

  10. Chris Milton on

    Ooof Chris .. but then again I tend to write “OK I’ve had enough of Business Ethics” blogs, so fair dos 🙂

    Actually you’re right in alot of ways, but in the end it all boils down to Points 5 & 8 .. if a word gets over used, or used in the wrong (greenwash) context, it loses meaning.

    Sustainability has suffered as a concept ever since the United Nations’ pronouncement that it means not exhausting resources future generations will rely upon.

    Implicitly this means you can exhaust other resources: or exhaust at will and create technologies to replace. Cover the world with cities: so long as we can scrub the atmosphere clean and pop nutritional pills, who need nature anyway?

    Rubbish: as sustainable as some of your other examples.

    Sustainability is a resource based methodology. It’s all about harbouring and nurturing those resources. using them preciously and to the point that they replace at the level of our use, either naturally or through our agency. Similarly, waste is only created at the level it can be absorbed naturally or through our own agency.

    Yes, this makes all extractive industries unsustainable. Live with it .. it has to be that way. At the moment all sorts of whoopee green carbon-free technologies are being invented which rely upon rare earth minerals. And population is exploding so we’ll need more of those. And run out. And then what, start digging up more of the planet? Patently unsustainable, so stop the rot now.

    However, the real reason I advocate sustainability above all other forms of business practice (above, not to the exclusion of) is that it can be measured.

    You cannot measure ethics, nor can you measure responsibility. You can measure what resources you consume and what waste you produce, as a person, business and species. It’s the only way I can see us solving the mess we’ve got ourselves into.

    Oh, and as Darron kicked off at the top, stop having (so many) babies!

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Being measurable is good, but it’s not all that matters. Lots of harm is done in the world by people who focus on maximizing what can be measured, to the exclusion of things that are more important, but harder-to-measure.. Sustainability simply isn’t the only ethical value that matters — it is one among many. (Actually, the way you define it, it’s not even an ethical value — it’s just a factual description of a state of affairs. It describes a usage level, without saying why that usage level is best.)


  11. […] Ein paar interessante Gedanken zum Thema finden sich übrigens auch hier im Blog von Chris MacDonald unter der schönen Überschrift “Sustainability is Unsustainable” […]

  12. […] I’ve been critical of the term “sustainability” before (see “Sustainability is Unustainable.”) A lot of what I’ve said before has to do with confusion over the meaning of the term, and […]

  13. I was confused at first when I heard sustainability. But I admire this idea of protecting ourselves by protecting our nature and environment first. I do believe that this idea should be implemented as wide as possible.

  14. Jaho on

    Considering your conclusion, you told that sustainability is not the only word that makes business right, however as we all know, first goal of every business is to sustain successfully in a long run. Consequently as far as a business is sustainable it is actually working well. Then the word sustainability is the word, to make business right.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      A business being successful in the long run is not what almost anyone really means by “sustainability.” A company can, in principle, be successful without being, for example, environmentally responsible.

    • britesprite (@britesprite) on

      “as we all know, first goal of every business is to sustain successfully in a long run”

      I have to disagree. There is a large proportion of businesses out there which seek to make short term profits. This is something which effects SMEs, large conglomerates and investment houses alike.

      In short, financially unsustainable betting has driven forward much of merger and acquisition activity of the last 50 or so years. The idea that sustainability is part of business’ wholesale DNA is therefore laughable and should be treated as such. A new model, please.

  15. Elise Houghton on

    As a proponent of sustainability in education, I appreciated reading this examination from the practical business side of a term that, granted, can be interpreted by anyone using it as he or she wishes. I don’t agree, however, that it’s simply a vague, overused, trendy or unmeasurable notion. The fact that it HAS become ubiquitous suggests that consuming societies are increasingly recognizing that many things about the way we live and do business are clearly, and very worryingly – UNsustainable.

    As Bill Rees (co-author of the Ecological Footprint) points out, we’re better at identifying things that are unsustainable than at figuring out how to make them sustainable, but that’s a good start. Oil, an example you cite, is certainly very useful, and has played a key role in letting us consume and “progress” to the extent that we have. Burning some eighty-something million barrels a day, however, and pumping the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide is not sustainable – for us – if we’d like to keep on enjoying the degree of climate stability that has allowed us to build this kind of civilisation.

    Government decisions not to regulate carbon (potentially a great incentive to business to move on renewable energies), or make commitments to a second-generation Kyoto agreement, simply prove that humans are better at thinking in the short term than the long term. You could consider ignoring unsustainability as a human ecological trait that will ultimately knock our species back to more manageable proportions, with nature making the decisions instead of us. We seem to be hard-wired for success, not restraint – so perhaps William Catton was right, in his 1980 book, Overshoot: the Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, when he pointed out that we’re inexorably making ourselves “victims of our own success.”

    If you don’t relate oil/fossil fuels to carbon emissions and climate stability rather than just non-renewability … it’s tricky to debate what sustainability might mean. Unsustainable isn’t a good-bad value judgement, but rather an assessment of whether or not something can continue. As in, unsustainable consumption, fish harvesting, soil loss, carbon build-up, toxic bioaccumulation, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, wars for oil, financial game-playing, resource depletion. “Just do it!” is much less irksome, if not precisely measurable bit of trendy jargon that Ad Age would no doubt approve of – but we all know (beneath our grumbling at sustainability) where that would take us. So we can perhaps agree that it might be wise to press for a qualified “more sustainable, “if we care about our kids and next generations. There’s a point where cological overshoot isn’t negotiable. But we choose not the study that, much.

  16. Aijaz Rehman on

    Being irked by ‘sustainability’ because it cannot be measured seems to be more common to those occupying the middle ground, neither to the right nor left…

  17. […] See also: “Sustainability Isn’t Everything” and “Sustainability is Unsustainable” […]

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