Sustainability is one of the most important conversations to be had when it comes to the environment, but the language around it can be difficult to grasp, and complicated to understand. There is a lot to sift through and we don’t all have the time. Here we look at sustainable or unsustainable explained in a way that breaks it down and hopefully makes it a little easier to digest!
The idea of sustainability is something that has been around for a while, but only recently has it gained global recognition.
Now, more than ever, we are starting to pay closer attention to the impact that we are having on our surrounding environment.
As we strive towards creating a sustainable society, the first thing that most people think of is protecting the environment.
However, this is not the only thing that determines whether we are sustainable, and this is something that we are going to explore in this article.
We are also going to take a look at what it means to be sustainable or unsustainable when it comes to the environment, economics, and society.
Hopefully, this will help to clear up any confusion that you may have and answer all of your questions.
Sustainable or Unsustainable Explained – What Do The Terms Mean?
Sustainability isn’t a new term. But these days it essentially means living in a way that is harmoniously productive with the planet, animals, and other life we share it with, and in a way that is economically productive and maintainable.
The concept of sustainability is made up of the three P’s, which are:
- Profits (economic)
- Planet (environmental)
- People (social)
Environmental sustainability (planet)
This involves maintaining ecological integrity and protecting global ecosystems, conserving the planet’s natural resources, and consuming them at a rate by which they can replenish themselves.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines it as “meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” This basically means not consuming so much now that there is little left for later, with some pretty horrendous consequences.
Economic sustainability (profit)
This is the ability of an economy to support a level of economic production indefinitely. Meaning without collapse of either the system itself or losing the means with which it needs to keep going the system going. Currently, much of our economic system is built on the need for energy sources such as coal, oil, and gas. Clearly, this is unsustainable.
Social sustainability (people)
This involves being able to identify basic human rights and needs that people require to live healthy and secure lives.
It also covers protection against discrimination and upholding personal, labor, and cultural rights.
In order to help you to better understand the concept of sustainability, we are going to provide you with an example of a company that is sustainable.
If a large department store were to follow sustainable practices within their company, they would source things like food, clothes, electronics, and other items from ethical sources, rather than from cheap labor.
They would also ensure that any environmental practices are following the correct rules and regulations, unlike other companies that may illegally dump chemicals into water sources to save money on disposal costs.
If any unsustainable practices were brought to their attention, they would plan to eliminate the issue and find a new sustainable approach.
They would also have a duty to their stakeholders and investors to be completely transparent with what suppliers they are using and where their money is going.
This would help to ensure that they are held accountable and are really trying to be more sustainable. These are not changes that can be made overnight, and this type of change will take some time.
It can take years for a company to become fully sustainable.
What about Unsustainable?
Something that is unsustainable is anything that cannot continue at its current rate, which can also be applied to the 3 P’s that we have previously mentioned:
- Profits (economic)
- Planet (environmental)
- People (social)
Following on from the same example that we were using, an example of unsustainability would be if this large department store continued its practice of sourcing from countries that exercise cheap labor, poor working conditions, and disregard for the environment.
The only thing that would not be affected straight away would be profit. However, it can be affected over time when consumers realize what is going on behind closed doors.
Another example of unsustainability would be if this department store were harming the planet by dumping their waste in waterways.
As well as this, it would be unsustainable to treat employees poorly by paying them very little or making them work in an unsafe environment, or by following unsafe practices.
If consumers become aware of these conditions, they would likely boycott the company until the issue is solved.
This would affect every aspect of the company, forcing them to come up with ideas for more sustainable practices.
They would also have to become very transparent with stakeholders and investors to ensure that they are making any changes that they claim to be making.
They would also have to earn back the trust of their customers.
What Are Unsustainable Resources?
Unsustainable resources are resources that will eventually run out. This applies to individuals, companies, and governments. Some examples of unsustainable resources are:
- Fossil Fuels – These come from the earth, are not reusable, and will eventually be depleted
- Agricultural Practices like land conversion and habitat loss, like deforestation
- Pollution and contamination of our land, air, and water
- Soil degradation and erosion
- Wasteful water consumption
- Debt – Being unable to pay back a loan, leading you need to default
Sustainable and Unsustainable Materials
Sustainable materials are those that are made from resources that can be renewed or replenished quickly, in order to keep up with supply and demand. Some examples of sustainable materials are:
Bamboo – This is a perennial grass that grows very quickly and does not require harmful pesticides or fertilizers to grow.
Cork – Cork trees need to be at least 25 years old to be harvested and can only be harvested every 9 years. It can also be grown without pesticides, and there are enough trees to keep up with demand. As well as this, cork is biodegradable, easily recyclable, and reusable.
Repurposed Wood and Steel – The practice of recycling wood and steel is sustainable, even if the original harvesting of them is not. Reusing these materials keeps them out of landfills and is much better for the environment than using brand new materials.
Unsustainable materials are made from resources that cannot be replenished. Some examples of unsustainable materials are:
Plastics – Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and many single-use items will end up in landfills or polluting our waterways and soil.
Styrofoam – This is a material that is made from fossil fuels and is not recyclable in most municipalities. It can also lead to litter and pollution.
Anything that is made from fossil fuels – This is because anything that is made from fossil fuels is not a renewable resource.
Sustainable and Unsustainable Energy Sources
Sustainable energy sources come from resources that can be replenished or are renewable. Some examples of sustainable energy sources are wind, sun, water, and wood.
Wind can be used to generate electricity. It is not a finite resource, and we do not use it all up to generate electricity.
Solar power can be used from the sun, which is an infinite resource and does not get depleted to create energy.
Water can be a sustainable energy source when it is used appropriately, and wood that comes from FSC certified forests is a sustainable resource.
Unsustainable energy sources are derived from resources that will eventually get depleted.
The main example of unsustainable energy sources are fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and natural gas. Once the reserves for these fossil fuels runs out they will not be able to be replaced with more fossil fuels.
Unsustainable Vs Sustainable
Being environmentally sustainable involves interacting with the planet in a way that preserves natural resources and maintains global ecosystems for future generations.
We can be environmentally sustainable by protecting ecosystems, using chemicals that are not hazardous, maintaining a high air and water quality standard, reducing the greenhouse gas effect, and minimizing waste generation.
We are also environmentally unsustainable by exploiting resources faster than the planet can handle and replenish.