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What Are We Even Talking About?

By Taylor Gray, Ph.D. on August, 23 2021

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Taylor Gray, Ph.D.

The world is a better place when companies are good corporate citizens. I remain focused on developing meaningful and actionable insights from empirical data in pursuit of a better world.

It’s so easy to talk about much so that all this talk actually becomes an obstacle to sustainability.

Look to any recent government pronouncement, trending social media threads, or countless brand reports and marketing campaigns and we can see countless calls to enhance and prioritize sustainability, to be more sustainable in our decisions and choices, or simply to celebrate sustainability. 

But in all of this, the one thing we never see is an actual definition of sustainability.

And this is intentional. Without a definition, sustainability can mean anything to everyone. It is a vague concept that has the power to stir positive emotions and optimism--and just try to find one politician or brand manager that does not want to ride the coattails of positive emotions and optimism!

We simply cannot afford to let politicians and brand managers off the hook with nebulous promises and vague and aspirational statements.


From Talk to Action

Without a definition of sustainability, all this talk about sustainability is just that--talk. If we really do want to enhance and prioritize sustainability, to be more sustainable in our decisions and choices, or simply to celebrate sustainability then we need an actionable definition of sustainability. We don’t all need to agree on the exact same actionable definition but we do all need to be acting toward one we believe in, or else we are simply talking and not acting.

Even though we see it less and less as time goes on, the foundation of most understandings of sustainability is the Brundtland Report of 1987, or the Report of the World Commission of Environment and Development: Our Common Future (full text here), as it was properly titled. In this, sustainable development was defined as: “[...] development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”.

This report was, and still is, a very powerful turning point in the global development narrative, but the early definition of sustainable development was never intended as a final actionable definition. Rather, it was presented as the guiding parameters of a discussion of sustainability.


[Side note: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) would be added later in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The SDGs are a set of aspirational goals providing further parameters to the discussion of sustainability but, again, are not an actionable definition of sustainability.]


Yet this is a discussion we are all still waiting to have. We keep talking about sustainability but we don’t define it. It’s been 34 years that we’ve had the guiding parameters to steer this discussion, so perhaps now it is the time to finally have it. We simply cannot afford to let politicians and brand managers off the hook with nebulous promises and vague and aspirational statements. We need action and we need it to be guided by a clear objective.


...But First, More Talk

So, what does sustainability mean to you?

  • Is it sustainable for us to focus intently on decarbonizing our economies and leaving concerns over ecosystem degradation and water conservation for a later date?
  • Does sustainability give equal footing to environmental, economic, and social developments, or should one be prioritized over the others?
  • Does sustainability require us to reframe our needs vs. wants? How do we include the needs and wants of the future in this calculation? Who speaks for the future?
  • If a brand takes action on one issue, does that make them sustainable? Sustainable/Unsustainable seems like a binary state--but what is the threshold from one condition to the other?
  • Is sustainability about reaching an objective or more generally about minimizing relative impact?
  • Does sustainability apply to all equally, or is it to be engaged differently from different personal, cultural, political, or historic contexts?

I definitely do not have all the answers to these questions--or to many, many, many more just like these that keep my mind far busier than I would like--but I do have opinions and thoughts. What I do know is that these are questions that I want us to collectively untangle. We don’t need empty talk, we don’t need vague optimism, we don't need cheerleading. We need action, and for that we need clarity. 


We Can Lead Where 'Leaders' Won't

There is no objective definition we can discover--data will not tell us what is and is not sustainable. Rather, we will craft a definition and at some point it will reach a sufficient scale of buy-in so as to become an objective reality. But we can only craft this definition through discussion and performance. There will be disagreement, there will be power imbalances, there will be pivots, changes, and start-overs, but this discussion is too important to leave idle for any longer...or to leave in the hands of politicians and brand managers who find ways time and time again to profit from the lack of actionable definition to sustainability.

Personally, I am at the point of considering any political announcement or brand report that I read or hear that invokes sustainability without defining what is meant by sustainability as just more greenwashing. If they mean it then they can define it--if they can't define it then they don't mean it.

Sustainability is for us and of us--We all need to participate. So, what does sustainability mean to you?


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