Sustainability – Back to Basics

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Sustainable Development” is increasingly revisited as issues of global warming and environment become more contentious. The term is used and recycled in the context of global development and protection of our environment. Sustainable development is then broken down into complex sub-categories of society for which its application fits into. The UN, in their Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development from 1987 explains that sustainable development “implies meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The same was expressed in the Brundtland Commission’s report from 2007.

However, this article will take a step back and instead create a definition for “Sustainability”. Although some may argue that the introduction and application of Sustainability into environmental law and policy making has put the concept into the spotlight and given it much needed exposure, this article will argue to the contrary.

This is because the use of Sustainability as such, through its association, has become viewed as akin to environmental protection, ecology and intergenerational equity. Thus, its strength has diminished amongst the contentious debates about the protection of the environment, anthropocentric global warming theories and the likes as its macro-management continues to overlook the micro-use of the word. However, as will be demonstrated below, “Sustainability” is much wider and this wider approach is what individuals, professionals, consumers, businesses, law makers and the likes can all benefit (and profit) from.

The Oxford Dictionary defines Sustainability as the ability “to be maintained at a certain rate or level”. With a more in-depth search one can find a barrage of legal, commercial, economical, ecological and environmental definitions and elaborations. However, in this author’s view, sustainability simply equates to far-sightedness.

In the Swedish book Framtidsutmaningar (Future Challenges) (2013), Jesper Stromback describes, at page 11-23, the need to step out of the “curses of short-sightedness” in order to avoid short term solutions which, in the longer term, are detrimental to both our being and our society. He further elaborates on common problems:

When we experience an urge we want to satisfy that urge as quickly as possible. We do not want to wait and we put no consideration into the saying ‘Good things come to those who wait’. If we fall ill we want to be cured straight away, even if it may not be good to take the drug or seek medical attention for the smallest of ailments. When we get hungry we want to eat now, even though there is only fast food available and it might be better to wait until one can have a proper meal. If we get bored we want to be entertained now, even though life is not always fun.”

Although Stromback does not mention Sustainability his article encapsulates the short-sightedness which negates Sustainability. Therefore, to reiterate, Sustainability is the art of acting with far-sightedness.  The way to do this is by adopting the following formula to one’s situations:

i)               Anticipate problems and concerns à

ii)              Assess the potential Causes à

iii)            Consider ways of avoiding the causes from happening à

iv)             Revisit your system to consider its development.

Lastly, avoid the saying “If it’s not broken don’t fix it”. Instead, adopt a future plan of “Even if it’s working, find ways to improve it”.

For the entrepreneur, employer, business or organisation this means considering how all aspects of their business will develop and stay profitable long term. Here, micro-management becomes crucial. The most common and crucial example in this context is that of the well-being of employees. Overly worked, tired and/or emotionally drained employees see a decrease in their performance. Long term, this will affect profits, functionality, and overall sustainability of a business or organisation.

A simple example of how this is a problem can be found be examining work-life balance issues. An employee whose professional career and life is “bad” will see this affecting his or her personal life. As a result, the quality of his personal life may deteriorate which in turn affects his or her performance at work. To think and act in a sustainable way in this context will therefore increase productivity, profits, performance and well-being of all.

Similarly, Sustainability is a way of life in the personal sphere. Each individual should consider the longt-term effects and improvements in everything they do, from buying products that break every few days and have to be replaced (causing much headache, extra travel costs, and being time consuming), to maintaining living conditions which are good for their well-being. A very basic example is how to maintain a hygienic and clean lifestyle. Investing more time at the start on developing good logistics for the cleanliness of one’s premises and being would result in a long term benefit by having a resilient system. As a result, one would have to spend less time on this at a later stage, thus resulting in having more spare time to spend on other things.

Although the examples are quite basic the essential principle is always the same. Sustainability is the art of thinking long-term, to strive for far-sightedness, thus alleviating oneself of problems and issues and brining forwards unexpected positive repercussions. The key tool to adopting a far-sighted (Sustainable) approach is to remember that the absence of evidence of benefits does not equate to the evidence of absence of such benefits. Actions come with chain reactions many of which can be positive ones that are unforeseen.