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Sustainability - What does IT mean?

Written by Steven Male | Nov 18, 2015 9:43:35 PM

Sustainability is fast becoming one of the most important topics in the world. Sustainability in New Zealand, especially environmental sustainability, is becoming a huge issue.

The question is, what does sustainability mean? The answer is a complex one.


Definitions of Sustainability

If we just look at the word sustainability, we can define it as the ability to continue something indefinitely.

The first modern definition of sustainability came from the Brundtland Commission in 1987. It said, “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The problem with this definition is it talks only of sustainable development and not sustainability as a whole. In the end, it doesn't really answer our question of what sustainability is, though it is a good start.

A more common definition of sustainability as a whole, has three parts (sometimes referred to as the three pillars of sustainability). These pillars are:

  • Environmental Sustainability - the rates of renewable resource harvest, pollution creation, and non-renewable resource depletion that can be continued indefinitely.
  • Economic Sustainability  the ability of an economy to support a defined level of economic production indefinitely.
  • Social Sustainability the ability of a social system to function at a defined level of social well being indefinitely

Here's a more simple explanation for each pillar. Environmental sustainability boils down to the environment being able to handle what we are doing to it without much change. Economic sustainability is whether reasonable economic growth can be met. Social sustainability is whether you can maintain or improve on the quality of life of people. Sustainability is not achieved until you fulfill all three of these pillars.

Understanding how each of these pillars interact is also important to know for this view of sustainability. These three pillars are not separate. Economic sustainability is dependent/within the circle of social sustainability. In turn, we are in the environment around us, so social and economic sustainability is limited by our environmental sustainability.

Some experts also include a fourth pillar. Commonly, this is future generations. Future generations is to keep in mind long term thinking and sustainability for future generations.


What does Sustainability mean?

Well at this point we have all these definitions, but what does it really mean?

Even looking at sustainability with the three pillars, you quickly realise how a person will interpret sustainability will very drastically with their circumstance. One reason is due to social sustainability and how vague it is. Everyone's ideal standard for quality of life will change due to age, culture, political views and other social factors.

Economic sustainability also has these same issues. For everyone, reasonable growth will mean different things. For some people, a defined level of economic production only means gains. You see how this can cause rifts and difficulties in discussion?

Evironmental sustainability is at least easier to measure. It's easy to say whether something is environmentally sustainable just by going through data.

To get true sustainability, you need to tick off all these three factors, which in practice is rather difficult. There are businesses who manage this, but most countries, people or companies will compromise on some aspect.

For me, sustainability starts with environmental sustainability since changes in environment create changes in the other two pillars of sustainability. Social sustainability comes next with economic sustainability coming last. I am perfectly fine with things costing more if it makes lives better and the environment better (this again ties into the fact I think better environment means better social). This is why investment in new tech or greater efficiency is so important to me.

Now other people will put greater importance on other pillars. Some will view environmental sustainability as the end all. Others will worship economic sustainability. Some very nice people will pour everything into social sustainability.

You see how this is an individual issue? Even if we are aiming for the ability for something to be done indefinitely, what we prioritise changes how we view sustainability. Ultimately, you have to come up with what is your priority.


So why is Sustainability an issue in New Zealand

We live in a great country. The weather is temperate, we have abundant natural resources and we have a small population with a lot of land. This made us lazy.

New Zealand is not as sustainable and green as we like to think. As I mention in a previous blogpost, we're behind in CRM, and average in a lot of aspects when it comes to environmental and social factors. On the whole, we're not really living up the 'clean and green' image we have. In other words, we can do better.

Sustainability affects many of New Zealand's major sectors such as dairy farms, fisheries and even electricity. Power consumption is also a sector where there could be improvements. Before even that, sustainable companies/organisations exist in New Zealand, but there is not enough of a shift in mindset for people and businesses.

To be more accurate in this assessment, people do care about sustainability and environmental sustainability.However, there are barriers for them. This may be economic, or life style related.

Here are two examples. According to Colmar Brunton’s 2014 Better Business Report stated that 70% of New Zealanders want to work for a sustainable company. On the surface this is a great statement. You're more likely to attract great talent if you're more sustainable yay! Let me throw in a little wrinkle. What if another job offered $1~10k more? At what point does the money outweigh the satisfation of working for a sustainable company? Unless you really have a passion for sustainability, it is a hard choice for people to make.

A second example comes from our energy usage. Much of our energy usage is reliant on fossil fuels. The main reason for this is transport. Most of New Zealand transport is from diesel and petrol cars, trucks or other means of freight. Despite the improvement of electric cars and charging stations on a global scale, adoption of these in New Zealand has been relatively slow. Two main reasons for this are low interest, and percieved entry cost.

We do have to remember, we improving though. Solar power is becoming more prevalent in supplementing households throught New Zealand and coal power plants are slowly getting phased out. So really, as a country, we're slowly getting there, but we can definitely do better. That's why we need more/bigger sustainable companies and development in new tech.

If you want to take a look at our future for sustainability report, sign up below

Otherwise, go out and do a bit of research on how you can make your country a better place through your company or even just individually.