Sustainability – what is actually meant by that?

Sustainability – what is actually meant by that?

Everybody is currently talking about sustainability. The topic is also covered a lot in the media and mentioned in advertisements, but what do we actually mean when we say that we want to have a more sustainable lifestyle?

Looking at the term etymological „sustainability“ is since the 18th century standing for „long-lasting“ and „continuous“. The meanings are also nowadays very similar. That means when we talk about sustainability we are considering how far a certain behaviour is suitable for a longer period of time and therefore future-proof.

The three dimensions: ecological, social and economical

Sustainability is in many studies divided into the three following areas: ecologically, socially and economically. The term sustainable is in the media currently used as a synonym for ecologically or green. That means only one of the three areas is taken into consideration.
When a company talks about being more sustainable and they actually only mean the ecological dimension with that they might e.g. use biological certified cotton for their products. It does not at the same time mean that workers are paid a fair wage.

The ecological sustainability is about the environment whereas the social dimension of sustainability addresses topics like human rights or the relationship of the global north to the global south (many people call this the third world and first world). Also, topics like inclusion, equal rights and equality of opportunity that also belong to the social dimension are currently not addressed with the term sustainability.

Ecological sustainability is commonly measured as Co2 emission. If we take the example of an electronic car this means that the Co2 that the car uses is measured. The manufacturing process and the Co2 emissions thereof are not taken into consideration.

Regarding the pollution of the environment, there are many things that can be measured in terms of money and Co2 emissions. An example is the emission trade. Human rights cannot be measured quantitatively as well as many other factors in the realm of social sustainability.

Nevertheless, calculating Co2 emissions can be helpful when making decisions. They give us new insights, but I also think it’s important to keep the other dimensions in mind.

I don’t use the term sustainability is anything fixed. For me, it’s rather an overarching idea. To live more sustainable I try to keep the ecological, social and economic dimension in mind when making decisions.

How to use the concept in our everyday life

When I think about consuming I often have the following rectangle in mind. The part on the bottom should take up the biggest share of my decisions where I wouldn’t buy anything. I often ask myself if I really need the thing I am currently wishing for or if there is another wish hiding behind it. I don’t do impulse shopping and I write everything on a wishlist for some time, before I buy anything. If I check back after some time I sometimes completely forgot about what I wanted to buy at that moment, so it wasn’t that important.

For me, it’s important to buy products of high quality, because I want them to last as long as possible. That’s why I clean, maintain and repair them if needed.
Another option is to borrow or exchange some items. When I cannot find a book in the local library my next step is to check whether I can buy it somewhere used. Only if all other options didn’t work out I’m actually buying something new.

I try to integrate the social dimension e.g. by thinking about the firms I’m a customer of if they are regional, if they produce in the region and if they have fair working conditions.
All three dimensions are to my mind to a certain extent contrary. Economic sustainability could e.g. mean continuous economic growth which excludes ecological sustainability to some extent.

Can I still buy anything?

It would be regarding all three dimensions most sustainably to not buy anything, but I think other aspects like happiness and dreams can’t be measured in Co2 emissions and should also be taken into account when making decisions. Therefore I’m also e.g. buying books that I really want to read, although I could live without them.

In general, I’m using sustainability as a concept to question my behaviour. I try to strike a personal balance, but this balance looks different for everyone.

In my opinion, not only the social dimension of sustainability is currently neglected in the media, but also do I think that the term is misleading.

The manufacturing of a car is in itself not sustainability. It can be more sustainability if aspects of the three dimensions are taken into account, but in general, it will never be sustainable to produce a car. Therefore I think it’s misleading to speak of sustainability in the context of cars and how the term sustainability is currently used in the media.

What is your opinion on this topic? How do you integrate the concept of sustainability in your life?

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