What does environmental sustainability mean, and what makes it so valuable?
To help us be more informed, we asked experts to shed some light on this topic.
Here are their insights:
Table of Contents
- Sustainability is building a just, resilient, and thriving community now and in the future
- Sustainability is about balance; not just for the interests of humans, but for the greater good of the planet
- Sustainability means we each do what it takes to reduce our carbon footprint, both personally and professionally
- Sustainability means doing our best to not only leave no trace but to leave our planet better than we found it
- Sustainability means creating systems that allow for reuse of materials, approaching or achieving zero energy, and zero waste
- Sustainability, in my specific expertise, is in reducing household food waste
- Sustainability is being thoughtful on how we meet the needs of people today without adversely impacting the abilities of the people of tomorrow
- Sustainability is about maintaining balance
- Sustainability is the capacity to maintain a process over a long period of time
- Sustainability means to use resources responsibly
- Frequently Asked Questions
- How do human activities impact environmental sustainability?
- What role do businesses and governments play in environmental sustainability?
- How is environmental sustainability related to social and economic sustainability?
- How does environmental sustainability affect urban planning and development?
- How can education and awareness contribute to environmental sustainability?
Climate Action and Sustainability Coach | Sustainability Manager, Western Technical College
Probably the most used definition of sustainability comes from the 1987 Brundtland Report which reads that sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
I shy away from that definition as it positions sustainability in a frame of scarcity–it’s a difficult stance for people to rally behind. Instead, when I work with people and businesses on issues of climate action and sustainability we focus on the ideas of thriving and abundance.
Sustainability is building a just, resilient, and thriving community now and in the future
In order to thrive we, of course, all need clean air and water and healthy ecosystems, but we also need equitable access to decent work, equitable access to healthcare, equitable access to basic utilities and resources, equitable access to education, we need to feel accepted for how we identify, we need downtime, we need to have voice regarding the decisions that impact us, and the list goes on. Much of this is what the United Nations Global Goals are all about.
Why do we need it? It’s no secret that the course we’re currently on isn’t working for us. Look around between the civil unrest, rampant inequity, environmental degradation, and the real kicker, climate change, which exacerbates all of these and is forcing our hand to change our ways.
Think about the abundance we would have if we took sustainability seriously. We would have abundant cheap energy, abundant transportation options, abundant clean air and water, abundant social capital, abundant health, etc.
We have a golden opportunity to re-imagine how our society operates to reduce the severity of climate change and its impacts while helping build healthier, cleaner, safer, more equitable, and more vibrant communities. That, to me, is why we need sustainability. And it’s also a much more compelling way to help people take part in the needed transformation.
Author | Professor | Environmentalist
Many people seem to believe that sustainability is about keeping an industry viable. Typically, we hear about fisheries or logging interests. To me, that seems a bit selfish, a bit short-sighted.
Sustainability is about balance; not just for the interests of humans, but for the greater good of the planet
While we might be able to ‘sustain’ our needs for pine lumber, in pursuit of that, we might actually destroy ecosystems and environments. Over-harvesting, over-planting, over-fishing, over-development can destroy diversity and leave mono-environments that are actually sterile, almost barren, in their wake.
Often the destruction of these things, under the guise of ‘sustainability’, industrial sustainability, if you will, does much more harm than good. We should be mindful of collateral damage.
Managed fishing and logging based on good science that preserves the host environment that produced the, for lack of a better term, resource, should be the goal. There will be times, which we’ve seen before, that in pursuit of future sustainability, one might close or restrict exploitation. And we should beware of ecological initiatives that cloak themselves in environmentalism that do more harm than good.
I live in the woods and a local theme park has decided to go solar. What a great idea! But they propose to do it by clear-cutting 200 acres of virgin, vital forest. They will sustain their electric needs by destroying an already imperiled habitat.
Sustainability demands that we take a wider, more careful view of the ripples in the stream; where they go, what they touch.
CEO & Founder, SunShare Community Solar
Sustaining a planet with a climate that can support life, including human life, is one of the most important issues confronting our global population.
Just this week, the home of one of my good friends burned down in California wildfires – this is a direct result of climate change, even in the state where people are most aware and conscientious of their climate impact.
As the owner of a renewable energy company, it’s my job to think about this issue every single day. But as a human, I also have to live with the choices and consequences that I and all other individuals have made. We as a global population must choose to slow the warming of our planet by taking personal steps toward sustainability and the reduction of carbon emissions.
Sustainability means we each do what it takes to reduce our carbon footprint, both personally and professionally
Personally, we can choose to walk or ride a bike instead of driving; turn lights and ceiling fans off when we’re not in a room; be water conscious around the house and in the yard; take every opportunity to generate renewable energy, like enrolling in a community solar garden or wind program; purchase an electric vehicle; and, most importantly, vote for elected officials with strong climate change and sustainability perspectives at every level of government.
Professionally, we can start environmentally focused businesses; request and reward our employers for making sustainable choices, and choose vendors with sustainable business practices.
While every contribution we make as individuals matters, we are still limited by our access to more impactful, larger-scale renewable energy options. So driving change through unifying our voices, in the voting booth and with policy-makers, is our biggest chance to make a meaningful difference for future generations.
Since 75% of U.S. homes are not suitable for rooftop solar installation, and 40% of U.S. homes are renters, community solar subscriptions are one of the easiest, fastest and most cost-efficient actions an individual can take to promote energy sustainability.
We must all lobby our representatives until every home in America can choose renewable energy.
Founder & CEO, Luna Volta
Our land has been severely degenerated since even before the Industrial Revolution began. To sustain the soil we have is not a long term solution. Instead, I offer a new frame of thinking, we must first regenerate, then we can sustain.
Sustainability means doing our best to not only leave no trace but to leave our planet better than we found it
It should be in a regenerative state, a net positive loop for generations to come. Soil is the biggest carbon sink on our planet. By reframing our perspective and rethinking our food system, we can find solutions to regenerate our soils and draw down carbon. Every day, take small steps to begin to shift your perspective, then your thoughts, and finally, your actions.
The easiest place to start as a consumer is by refusing single-use plastic.
Once you begin to become aware, you may start noticing single-use plastic everywhere and can begin to think of alternate solutions that fit your lifestyle. Look for biodegradable or reusable packaging. Say no to the plastic straw. Bring your own lunch. Grab a set of reusable produce bags.
Think about where your food comes from.
Ask questions. Connect with Terracycle, a company that takes hard to recycle plastics and repurposes them into things like park benches and gymnasium floors. Educate yourself. Bring the skill set you already have and get involved in a cause you care about.
Author | Green/Transformative Biz Profitability Expert, Going Beyond Sustainability
Sustainability means creating systems that allow for reuse of materials, approaching or achieving zero energy, and zero waste
But I also say that sustainability, as I define it, isn’t enough. We need to take the whole business world beyond mere “sustainability” (status quo) to “regenerativity” (making things better). Thus, I help develop and market profitable products/services that turn hunger/poverty into abundance, war into peace, and catastrophic climate change into planetary balance.
CEO, Ends & Stems
A simple way to think of sustainability is balancing the give and take, present and future. Can we keep doing what we’re doing now indefinitely into the future?
As a chef, applying a sustainable mindset to food and the kitchen means more than just the present state of your dinner plate; it means thinking about where your food comes from and what happens to it afterward.
Sustainability, in my specific expertise, is in reducing household food waste
In the U.S. we’re currently wasting 40% of the food we produce and when that food is wasted, all of the other resources that went into growing it are also wasted. Perhaps most notably, water. Around the world, agriculture uses 80% of the available freshwater. How much more food can we grow and waste until there is literally no water available and the system hits a disastrous limit.
When food trimmings or leftovers aren’t utilized in your home kitchen, they most likely end up in the landfill. As they decompose, they emit methane gas (20x more potent than CO2) which is driving climate change.
The system we’ve built and take for granted is not sustainable. One can easily see why balancing our food system and reducing waste is of utmost importance because both food and water are essential for every human being’s survival.
Owner, Discover Containers
Sustainability is being thoughtful on how we meet the needs of people today without adversely impacting the abilities of the people of tomorrow
It’s actively trying to prevent the old adage of “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul” from happening, but from a more holistic perspective that considers various types of resources.
Sustainability is important up and down the value chain and throughout the lifecycle of a product: everywhere from ideation, to design, to manufacturing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. So whether you’re a producer (or work for one as an employee), or a consumer (hint: everyone is!), sustainability is relevant to you.
And it even applies to services, as most services ultimately have an impact on material goods as well, whether directly or indirectly. We have to consciously think about the downstream effects of everything.
The importance of sustainability is baked into the definition. If you can step outside yourself and consider other people, you’ll realize the gravity of the actions you take and the decisions you make today. Not just those people living now, but those who WILL live generations from now (the dozens of people who will likely be your grandkids’ grandkids).
The purpose of sustainability is not to frighten or paralyze you into doing nothing. Both humans beings and the Earth are remarkably resilient, and it’s irrational to think you can live with zero impact. Instead, you should focus on minimizing negative impacts as much as practical while maximizing positive ones.
Sustainability is about maintaining balance
It has to do with the environment, but also humanity’s place within it. If something is sustainable, then that something may continue on without the worry that resources will no longer be sufficient to maintain the means of fueling it.
For example, using solar power is potentially sustainable, because the energies produced do not cause damage to the environment and the atmosphere. However, they are not one hundred percent sustainable, because they require materials to create solar panels that may not be recyclable, will need to be repaired with additional resources, and are not biodegradable.
Sustainability is important because there is a finite number of resources in the world. These resources may be renewable – trees, for instance – or can be reclaimed – like water – but if our use of them overwhelms our ability to replenish them, then we risk a) no longer having those resources and b) no longer have the things which cost us those resources.
Certified Health & Wellness Expert, Maple Holistics
Sustainability is the capacity to maintain a process over a long period of time
This term is more generally used in regard to our ecosystem and the planet. This has begun to include concepts such as social responsibility, economic values, and environmentally friendly practices.
This means that sustainability goes beyond more than just being green. It includes a trifecta of core concepts namely people, planet, and profit. When all three overlaps, sustainability is achieved.
The main reason for its importance is the fact that it ensures long-lasting practices for both the planet and society.
When something is unsustainable it’s essentially not made to last. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that living sustainably, and keeping sustainability at the forefront of our day-to-day lives is in everyone’s best interest socially, financially, and environmentally. As the saying goes “There is no planet B.”
Content & Social Media Specialist, EnergyRates.ca
We hear people talking about sustainability all the time, but do we take the time to think about the meaning behind this word?
Sustainability means to use resources responsibly
This responsible use includes socially, financially and environmentally conscious attitudes towards our main habits, especially day-to-day life actions and consumption habits. Our lifestyles can define how much sustainability we have in our lives.
However, this isn’t related only to individual actions but also to macro decisions. For example, some countries choose to follow a sustainable development path, whereas others choose short-term development, which doesn’t take into consideration the world’s limited resources.
The importance of sustainability is due to its far reach and broad coverage when it comes to world issues. There is a strong financial, environmental, human and social impact by choosing or neglecting sustainability.
In general, sustainable development means that this is going to last in the long term. Economical and technological development, of course, are great, but they don’t tend to last if they are not sustainable. This is perhaps the main idea behind sustainability, taking a look not only at short-term goals but also at long-run targets.
CEO, Eco Enclose
Sustainability is about consciously making decisions that take our environment into account that aren’t just about doing less harm to our planet, but actually restoring and regenerating its resources and communities.
Sustainability is complex. An easy way to remember this is by using the “3Ps”, also known as the triple bottom line: People, Planet, and Profit. It does away with the antiquated thought that businesses should only focus on profit their bottom line. It encourages businesses to think of all three as necessary so that more and more people take up sustainable practices.
As a female entrepreneur who makes sustainability a huge part of both my business and home life, there are numerous reasons that I choose to make it a priority in my world.
Something as simple as removing the printers from each individual office can result in less paper usage, but perhaps more importantly, it can make a person consider just how important it is to print that email, and if there are other alternatives.
Sustainability can completely change your life. When you begin to put the environment first, it can pass over into so many other areas.
You may find that even put other people first, and you will become much more mindful of the choices that you make.
At the end of the day, what can be better than that?
Frequently Asked Questions
How do human activities impact environmental sustainability?
Human activities can significantly affect environmental sustainability positively and negatively. On the negative side, unsustainable practices such as deforestation, pollution, and over-extraction of natural resources can lead to habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and depletion of essential resources.
These actions can disrupt the balance of ecosystems and contribute to climate change, exacerbating existing environmental problems.
On the other hand, adopting sustainable practices such as reforestation, recycling, and transitioning to renewable energy sources can help reduce our ecological footprint, conserve resources, and promote ecosystem health and resilience.
What role do businesses and governments play in environmental sustainability?
Businesses and governments are critical players in promoting environmental sustainability. Companies can adopt sustainable practices such as waste reduction, energy conservation, and using environmentally friendly materials in their operations.
They can also participate in corporate social responsibility initiatives, such as investing in renewable energy projects or supporting environmental conservation efforts.
Governments, in turn, can develop and enforce regulations to protect the environment, incentivize sustainable practices, and invest in research and development of green technologies.
Both companies and governments can work together to create a sustainable future by supporting innovative solutions, raising public awareness, and promoting a culture of environmental responsibility.
Environmental sustainability is closely interconnected with social and economic sustainability. These three pillars form the basis for sustainable development, which aims to balance the needs of current and future generations while maintaining the planet’s health.
Environmental sustainability ensures the conservation of natural resources and ecosystems, supporting social and economic well-being.
Healthy ecosystems provide essential services such as clean air and water, climate regulation, and food production, contributing to human society’s overall quality of life.
Sustainable economic practices can create jobs and stimulate growth while minimizing environmental impacts, such as promoting green industries and investing in renewable energy.
By addressing all three dimensions of sustainability, we can work toward a more equitable and resilient future for all.
How does environmental sustainability affect urban planning and development?
Environmental sustainability plays a significant role in shaping urban planning and development. As cities grow and urbanize, integrating sustainability principles into their design and management becomes increasingly important.
Sustainable urban planning focuses on creating environmentally friendly, resource-efficient, and socially inclusive spaces that can adapt to the changing needs of communities and ecosystems.
This includes designing cities with green spaces, promoting the use of renewable energy, encouraging sustainable transportation, and implementing efficient waste management and water conservation systems.
By incorporating environmental sustainability into urban planning, cities can improve the well-being of their residents, reduce their ecological footprint, and contribute to global efforts to combat climate change and other environmental challenges.
How can education and awareness contribute to environmental sustainability?
Education and awareness play a critical role in promoting environmental sustainability by empowering individuals and communities with the knowledge and skills to make informed decisions and take action.
Environmental education can help people understand the complex relationships between human activities, ecosystems, and resources and encourage them to adopt sustainable practices in their daily lives.
This can be accomplished through formal education, workshops, community programs, and public awareness campaigns that highlight the importance of sustainability and identify practical ways to reduce our ecological footprint.
By fostering a culture of environmental stewardship and cultivating a sense of responsibility toward the planet, education, and awareness efforts can help drive positive change and support global sustainability goals.
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