Sustainability, Guilt and Inaction, Oh My!
By J.J. Fellows
I think most of us know sustainability is important. And I'd guess that most of us find it difficult to act in ways that promote sustainability, or even to know what it means to act in those ways. Which ways specifically? Did an action just have to be environmentally friendly? If so, why did we have this whole new word 'sustainable' when we could just say 'environmentally friendly'? Or is there more to it than that? I—like most of us, I'd guess—didn't know. My lack of knowledge, combined with my vague conviction that sustainability was important resulted in a lot of guilt, and a lot of inaction! So I decided to find out what sustainability was, and how to promote it in my consumer purchases.
According to Gro Harlem Brundtland, an international leader in sustainable development, sustainability “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). This helped me to see why it was that sustainability wasn't exactly the same as environmentally friendly. You could be environmentally friendly in a way that doesn't meet the needs of the present (by not purchasing anything, for example!). After a bit more research, I developed four questions, based on work done by Oliver Chéry and Elise Marcandella, that help me to evaluate the sustainability of my purchases:
Where do raw materials come from? And how are they transported to the manufacturing location? The retail location?
Is the collecting of supplies and raw materials done in a sustainable way?
How do the people involved help maintain sustainability for those who work with the product from the start to the end of its life-cycle? How do they encourage work-life balance, and an awareness of healthy work practices?
Is the product itself designed to be sustainable? Is it designed to last? Is it designed to maintain a classic aesthetic over time such that consumers won't feel a need to buy new furniture to meet changing styles?
Using these four questions, investigations into sustainability of my consumer decisions has become easier. I know what to ask, and what to look for in order to meet my needs while ensuring that future generations can also meet theirs.
If you ever feel as bewildered as I did, and as guilty and full of a sense of vague urgency that something needed to be done—but you weren't quite sure what it was—then follow this link to my article In Search of Sustainability. Hopefully we can eliminate our collective guilt and inaction together!
Brundtland, Gro Harlem “Our Common Future” World Commissions on Environment and Development. 1987. Print.
Chery, Oliver and Marcandella, Elise “Innovation and Sustainable Development in Wood Furniture Design” in Management of Technology, Innovation and Value Creation: Selected Papers for the 16th International Conference on Management of Technology, Mostafa Hashem Sherif and Tarek M. Khalil (eds.) USA; World Scientific Publishing. 2008. Print.