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7 Common Myths About Sustainability We Need to Set Straight

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Have you ever noticed how the term sustainability is thrown here and there? It’s become so popular along with terms like “eco-friendly” and “green”.

But what exactly is it? And why is it always being lumped along with these environmentally focused jargons? 

Sustainability is definitely the buzz these days. Consumers and businesses alike are on to it. However, the frustrating thing about hearing and seeing the word everywhere is, it kind of loses its meaning.

Take “green” for instance. It’s practically suspect now, what with all the greenwashing that’s happening on the market. You’d really have to be watchful about brands – and groups – that flaunt the word.

Sustainability Myths Set Straight

Greenwashing and virtue signaling aside, it’s important that we learn the myths and facts surrounding sustainability. After all, it has a deep, multi-dimensional meaning to it that impacts us in many ways.

Here are some common misconceptions we could clarify now:

Myth 1: Sustainability has no clear definition

Because it applies to so many aspects of life, many believe that there’s no single definition of sustainability. The problem here is, if we don’t know exactly what it is then we can’t fully understand it either!

Fortunately this is only a myth.

Sustainability as the concept we know it today was defined back in 1987, when the report entitled,Our Common Future was published. From the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland commission, after its chairperson, Gro Harlem Brundtland), the report explains that sustainable development, “seeks to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future (49).

Sustainability, simply put, is a balance between moving forward economically and protecting the resources so future generations can enjoy them.

Myth 2: Sustainability focuses on the environment 

Okay, this is a big myth, partly due to how we usually come across sustainability in the lens of environmental issues.

But, the sustainability movement actually started with economic issues in mind. The Brundtland commission specified that there’s a need for more equitable distribution of resources. That is, giving poorer countries better access to natural resources.

It relates to the environment because, of course, it’s where all our resources come from, and all our human activities impact it.

If widespread poverty is alleviated – if basic needs and aspirations of people are met – we will have a more ecologically sound world, less prone to social and natural catastrophes. 

In the report, sustainable development is, “not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change,” that involves strong political will to change financial policies, technological development, and institutions.   

Myth 3: Sustainability is the same as “Green”

Photo by Mert Guller on Unsplash

Again, let’s clarify: sustainability is not only about going green!

Admittedly, it can be confusing separating them because there are overlapping philosophies between the two concepts.

Take nuclear power as an example. It’s highly efficient compared to fossil fuel energy. A single nuclear pellet equates to already a ton of coal, 120 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. Plus, it generates far less carbon emissions than fossil fuel.

Even with these pros, people are still wary of considering nuclear energy, largely because of the radioactive waste issue.

Our point is, nuclear power may not be deemed as “green”, but we cannot deny its potential for sustainability. It’s highly efficient, emits no pollutants in our atmosphere, and can be designed as meltdown-proof.

Another example would be a “green” product made from renewable resources. Yes, it can be green if you look at the raw materials used. But what about the entire life cycle of the product? Is it still green when it’s processed in the plant? What about it’s shipping? And will it still be green once discarded?

Sustainability entails higher standards. It’s not meant to solely focus on the environment. It’s about finding ways to satisfy our current needs but also making sure there are resources left for future generations.

We have to consider the whole loop, not just the greenness of a product or service. 

Myth 4: Sustainability is too costly

This is another big one! Many businesses are wary that sustainability is another burden that could potentially lose them profits.

And for the short term, this might just be the case. You’re going to have to invest in sustainable changes after all.

But remember: sustainability focuses on being economically sound. These strategies could actually lower costs and lead to higher profitability in the long term.

One great example is the Environmental Defense Fund’s Corporate Partnerships Program, which enabled giants like McDonalds, Verizon, and Target, to boost energy efficiency. As high as $1 billion in net operational costs have been saved over simple projects like replacing old light bulbs and computers with more energy efficient ones.

Another example is Marks and Spencer. Their clear sustainability blueprint was launched through Plan A, a program focusing on five key issues: climate change, waste, resources, fair partnerships, and health.

According to their results, the brand became the first major retailer to become carbon neutral in 2012, reducing emissions by 75%. They also get 100% of their electricity from renewable sources.

Along the way, the brand has maintained strong profits in the realm of GBP 10 bilion per year.

Myth 5: Sustainability is a population issue

While this may not entirely be a myth, it’s not going to focus on a viable solution, either.

Truth is, every environmental challenge is in itself a population problem. If there were only a million people on earth competing for resources, there wouldn’t be million tons of waste in the oceans now, would there? 

We’re now at over 7 billion, and by 2043 projected to be 9 billion worldwide. Our population definitely places huge pressure on our resources and atmosphere.

But, since there’s no way to reduce the population without egregiously impacting human rights, we should instead continue focusing on how to manage production, consumption, and waste.

Myth 6: Practicing sustainability means sacrificing your lifestyle

Photo by Cherie Birkner on Unsplash 

This can either be a myth or not, depending on how you view things (right, zero wasters?)

With sustainability, it’s not only the government and businesses that are responsible (although they are the galvanizing forces in this situation).

Each of us has choices that matter.

Being more conscious of our consumption, providing support to sustainability initiatives, and pushing for legislative changes are just a few ways we can make sustainable development become the norm.

One example is what happened to the U.S. auto industry. They’ve continued to rely on their low-efficiency, big car models, even with the rising oil prices. And when the inevitable happened and the oil price skyrocketed, the market for these gas guzzlers went downhill. The recession that followed didn’t help, either.

What’s the conclusion here? That rising prices will push people to prefer certain products? Well, partly. But more importantly, that there will always be other technologies and options that may be disruptive at first, but are necessary in the long term.

Myth 7: Once you get what sustainable is, practicing it becomes easy 

This is not to deter us common folks from trying. But all too often, a practice that may seem sustainable at first turns out to actually be problematic.

One example is ethanol. It seemed perfect: produce ethanol from corn, a renewable resource, and replace fossil fuel!

However, a careful analysis showed how energy-intensive corn farming, harvesting, and ethanol production really is. Another drawback is that corn that’s supposed to feed people and livestock will be used for ethanol. This will not only drive the cost of food, but force more land for farming – which increases carbon footprint, and likelihood of forest loss.

Bioplastics are another example. Made from biodegradable materials, bioplastics seemed the perfect sustainable solution to our single-use plastic consumption.

It turns out, if certain bioplastics (e.g. PLA) end up in landfills or oceans, and not broken down in specialized incinerators, they will degrade in the same pace as traditional plastic. It’ll take centuries, too!  

The Takeaway

Sustainability is a big ask. It encompasses our environment, government, economy, lifestyle, and health.  

Now that we’ve set straight its myths, the next step is to act on what we know.

The key is to be aware of the entire life cycle of a product or practice. Unless we have all the info on that, we cannot really declare if it is sustainable or not.

Don’t fret. The awesome thing about sustainability is that it’s where our creativity and unending analysis begin. As our knowledge, policies, and technology evolve, so too will be our approach to sustainability.

And the only sure thing about sustainability is to consume less – something each of us can work on!

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