It's a complex, multifaceted concept that means different things to different people. From consumers, to brands, to boardrooms and beyond, sustainability is a subjective battleground influenced by personal values, cultural norms, and social, economic, and environmental contexts.
What is sustainability?
At its most basic level, sustainability refers to the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This means finding ways to use natural resources and human capital in a way that does not deplete them, damage the environment, or create social and economic inequality.
Sustainability involves balancing the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of human activity to create a more equitable and resilient society. At its core, sustainability is about creating a better future for all, not just for a few.
As global attitudes towards sustainability are changing, there is a growing awareness of the need for more responsible and sustainable practices in business and everyday life. This is driven by concerns about climate change, environmental degradation, social inequality, and economic instability. People are recognising that the current models of consumption and production are not sustainable in the long term, and that urgent action is needed to address these challenges.
Not as simple as ‘good’ and ‘bad’
Sustainability in any industry, is an issue that involves a wide range of environmental, social, and economic concerns. Our understanding of things like overproduction, overconsumption, waste and waste management, reliance on fossil fuels, biodiversity loss, land degradation, microplastic pollution, chemical use, and human and labour issues all contribute to how we view, value and prioritise.
Given the complexity and breadth of these issues, it is understandable that people may try to simplify sustainability into "good" or "bad," and ultimatums. But in doing so, we miss the science and overlook the nuance.
It’s easy to have a view of sustainability that privileges our personal circumstances or values. Less easy, is taking a holistic view.
For example, it is scientifically accepted that eating less meat would be more sustainable for our planet, and many people will be familiar with the reductionist framing of meat = bad.
Animal agriculture is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane and nitrous oxide. It requires large amounts of land for grazing and growing animal feed, and is a water-intensive industry. Animal agriculture can contribute to water pollution and soil contamination through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and manure; and has negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem health.
But there are also examples of animal agriculture transforming the way that meat is produced, and a groundswell towards regenerative agriculture and environmentally conscious farm models. There is a vast spectrum of impact.
It’s also important to acknowledge that in many parts of the world, plant-based alternatives to animal products may be more expensive, less available, or culturally unfamiliar.
Furthermore, millions of people worldwide work in animal agriculture and related industries. Any large shift away from animal products needs to take into account the impact on these livelihoods and provide support for workers to transition to alternative forms of employment.
Sustainable decision-making is not black and white. One person's "good" is another's "bad", but we can all make better sustainability choices.