The Definition of Sustainability is on the Chopping Block


When you think of sustainability, you probably think of practices and sources of energy that don’t deplete the earth’s resources and/or make it easy to renew the earth or materials that are harvested in order to maintain ecological balance. This is a basic definition of sustainability and it’s a valid definition. It just doesn’t apply to everything we think it does.

Sustainability is layers deep

In order for a practice or material to be sustainable, it has to be sustainable at every point in the process. For example, materials can be sustainable, but if the methods used to harvest them aren’t sustainable, then those materials can’t really be considered sustainable.

For example, organic cotton is surprisingly unsustainable. Cotton is already a resource-intensive crop, but organic cotton takes even more resources and you have to use more of it to make something. 

For instance, it takes an exponential amount of resources to make a reusable organic cotton tote compared to a plastic bag. This means organic cotton reusable totes aren’t actually environmentally-friendly and plastic bags are actually more sustainable.

You’d have to reuse one of these totes 20,000 to make up for the resources required to produce it. Using your bag twice per week, it would take 192 years. That’s a lot compared to paper and plastic reusable totes, which only require 35-85 uses to make up for the resources used in their production.

Organic doesn’t mean sustainable

In a world where people are concerned with organic and sustainable materials, it’s easy to conflate the two. However, just because something is organic doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.

Organic materials are just materials that haven’t been grown or harvested with chemicals and toxins that are commonly used on conventional crops. It sounds crazy to say it, but since some of those chemicals increase yield and decrease crop loss, organic materials are often far less sustainable than conventional crops. Cotton is just one example.

Long-lasting doesn’t mean sustainable, either

You may have the impression that if something will last forever, that makes it sustainable. After all, it won’t need to be repaired or replaced frequently, if ever, so that’s what makes it sustainable. The truth is, even things that last forever can be unsustainable because of the way they’re made. 

Take the controversy over the vertical forest housing complex in Milan. It’s featured in plenty of articles about sustainability, but the building itself required an excessive amount of concrete to build.

In addition to the concrete, the building’s creator added a Valcucine kitchen made of glass, which is advertised as a sustainable kitchen. The designer created a space that makes residents feel like they’re outside even while they’re inside. It looks amazing, but the big question is whether or not a concrete building with a glass kitchen can be considered sustainable.

The upfront carbon emissions from producing glass are 0.9 kilograms per kilogram of glass. Glass isn’t exactly sustainable. In fact, it’s less sustainable than kitchens made from other materials. People who want the outdoor kitchen experience and go for traditional outdoor pizza ovens and modular kitchens are making more sustainable choices. 

Sustainability isn’t just about durability, and this is perhaps one of the biggest issues with the sustainability movement. 

Is anything truly sustainable?

The idea of sustainability is something many people get excited over, but is it really a “thing” or is it just a concept? If you break down the process required to produce anything in this world, you’ll find that hardly anything is completely sustainable, and it’s just a matter of choosing the lesser of all evils. Sustainability, then, is a relative term, not an absolute. To say anything produced by humans is absolutely sustainable would be missing the mark. However, some things come close to perfection, like hemp.

Hemp is a truly sustainable plant because it doesn’t require much water to grow and it’s naturally insect-resistant. It also replenishes the nutrients in the soil as opposed to other crops that deplete the soil. Hemp is also biodegradable.

People have been using hemp to make clothes, ropes, sails, and other textiles for centuries. It’s strong, almost indestructible, and it’s truly a sustainable crop.

While there are other plants, materials, and items that can be considered sustainable, it’s safe to conclude that sustainability isn’t an exact science and as long as we’re harvesting and processing a material with equipment, it won’t be completely sustainable. However, we can still all do our part to make smart choices and choose to spend our money with businesses that make the effort to maintain as much sustainability as possible.

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