What does sustainability mean to Laura Tanzer? Since I am an advocate of sustainable action, I thought you might be interested in my perspective on this subject. BEWARE – I have a deep and abiding interest and knowledge of this subject. My ‘mini treatise’ on this subject will be a bit dry…. READ ON, and think!
Intro to Sustainability
The concept of sustainability was introduced in the late 1970s when the United Nations began discussing the social and economic inequities among nation-states, and the Brundtland Report, in 1987, defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Or, in the words of countless kindergarten teachers, “Don’t take more than your share.”
Yet, there is still uncertainty regarding what sustainability is, and how it can be applied to everyday life, social interactions, environmental stewardship, and business enterprise.
Sustainability is not “going green.” “Going green” is a superficial marketing cliché.
Sustainability has substance. It is simplicity itself: essentially it means do no harm and use only what you need.
If you wonder why sustainability seems to be applied to everything from automobiles to power generation to agriculture, it is because of that essential simplicity. The concept is not confined merely to environmental problems, but can and should be applied to social and economic inequities, as well.
This focus on environment, society, and economy is called the triple bottom line (TBL). And, while sustainability should not be focused merely on the environment, we must not forget its importance. Anthony Cortese, founder and president of Second Nature, a not for profit organization dedicated to sustainability education, said in an interview that the economy “is a wholly owned subsidiary of the biosphere. The biosphere provides everything that makes life possible, assimilates our waste or converts it back into something we can use” (2009).
The idea of sustainability is inclusion such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts are integral to the whole. A business strategy founded on principles of sustainability will, therefore, corral the separate energies of the various functions of the organization in a holistic effort to address the organization’s challenges.
Environment, society, and economy are equally important, yet there is a hierarchy of importance. This hierarchy can be expressed in a diagram.
As a clothing designer/maker who intends to create jobs where I live and work, I am very interested in the social and economic impacts of my actions.
Simply put, the ecosystem provides the wherewithal with which we develop our social and economic systems.
Our social system is a product of our needs, geography, climate, and available resources. For example, a fishing community will develop where the abundance of food is caught from great lakes, oceans, seas or other water bodies. A fishing community will not develop in a desert. The rules and social behaviors of that community will differ from those of an alpine shepherding community, and so forth.
Our economic system derives from our social system, our politics, values, rules, and social behaviors. It also derives from the ecosystem – that is the source of our resources and the foundation of our well-being.
If we are to approach sustainable practices with a view to sustaining our selves, our social and economic systems, we must first address our ecosystems (i.e. our natural resources). We must question the conventional wisdom that our natural resources will always be available and productive and abundant.
- Are we taking too much of a resource and putting its viability in peril?
- Are we taking a resource too quickly, jeopardizing its ability to renew itself (typically renewable resources such as plants and animals)?
- Are we emitting toxic stuff into our ecosystem at a rate and/or quantity that will destroy the system, and possibly, our own well-being?
Sustainable business practices ask these questions, and attempt to integrate the ideas behind these questions into better decision-making processes and strategies.
I’ll use my business as an example. As a clothing designer/maker who intends to create jobs where I live and work, I am very interested in the social and economic impacts of my actions. As a clothing designer who wants to utilize ‘clean’ textiles that will not negatively affect me or my workers or my customers, I insist on using natural fiber textiles, minimum impact dying and printing technologies, and ethical sources for those textiles. As a clothing designer who does not want to ‘dump’ more waste into the environment, I re-use, re-purpose, re-cycle as much of my fabric scraps as I possibly can, by donating them to schools and children’s organizations for art projects, or to other artists and craftspeople for their creative uses. Tip of the iceberg – more to come in my next blog!
I leave you with one thought: How might you, as a business person, fashion advocate, or creative (designer, maker, etc.), apply sustainability principles to your life/career/business/industry?
Sustainability Video and Magazine Interviews
In Fashion Revolution: Sustainable Fashion Made Right Here