What are you getting wrong about sustainability?

For many, ‘sustainability’ is often used in conjunction with environment-friendly initiatives. True, businesses and individuals must make optimal use of resources to be sustainable. But the environment is not all the term envelopes.

The Brundtland Commission, sponsored by the UN, introduced the term ‘sustainable development’. It surmised that sustainable development is meeting present generations‘ needs without adversely affecting the future generations’ capabilities and needs.

Amidst all the hype surrounding global initiatives thereafter, the general population is swayed by their environmental impact rather than seeing the whole picture. In reality, there’s a lot you’re getting wrong about the concept. 

Sustainability is not this

If you’re creating eco-friendly clothes using lowly paid workers or, even worse, children, you’re not sustainable. Likewise, if you’re producing electric cars but mining for lithium above specified limits, you’re not sustainable. Plus, if you don’t possess the capability to recycle all or most car parts, you’re not sustainable. Similarly, if you’re manufacturing green products consistently at a loss, you’re not sustainable.

You may be doing the current generation a favour, but the future won’t look so bright. 

Here’s what Sustainability really is

Traditional sustainability models will show you three pillars. However, when researching, we found that one of the pillars – people – can be broken down into employees and society, which deserve individual spotlights. 

Pillars of Sustainable Development

Employees = Ownership & Engagement

Sustainable development in an organisation is not the upper management or CSR department’s responsibility alone. To succeed at it, employees at different levels of hierarchy need different persuasion methods.

Organising awareness programs gives employees a holistic perspective about sustainability (an appeal to the heart). Companies can then equip them with skills to monitor, streamline and improve processes. On the other hand, C-suite employees and line managers need convincing via profitable ROI projections through sustainable strategies (an appeal to the head).

Society = Social Equity & Responsibility

Social sustainability focuses on creating a community that supports social equity to empower whole communities. Social equity shouldn’t be confused with equality, though. Equality provides the same resources to each group. But equity understands different backgrounds and, therefore, allocates resources accordingly to reach an equal outcome.

Sustainable supply chains are also a part of this pillar. For example, building a close-ended system for waste recycling, rewarding labourers for undertaking eco-friendly work, passing on all-encompassing knowledge of sustainable practices to vendors, and more – constitute a socially responsible supply chain network.  

Profit = Long-term Success

According to Jeffrey Hollender, professor of corporate sustainability at NYU Stern, being sustainable isn’t a drag on profits. On the contrary, it improves profitability.

Using resources responsibly and finding alternative solutions ensure that your business is more than ready for a better future. Practices that work include – 

  • Rewarding investors for long-term investments in sustainable options
  • Not blindly focusing on output as an economic growth indicator
  • Taking note of your ecological footprint to set new standards

Planet = Environmental Progress

Much has been spoken about environmental sustainability. So much that we don’t need to write any further about it, but for the sake of clarity, let’s get the concept right.

What does this pillar include? Nature.

This involves restoring all the damages we have done to the natural habitats. Then, comes bio-conservation where we will have to use natural resources fairly and prevent any more damage to these ecosystems. 

To preserve the existing habitats, we will have to constantly monitor the soil, air and water quality. Not just that, but we will have to analyse our carbon footprint as well and do everything in our power to reduce it or offset it. This will obviously lead us to one inevitable concept: waste management. 

We can go a step further and promote biodiversity by protecting endangered species and helping them thrive in their local habitats, engaging in afforestation activities,  giving a better quality of life to indigenous tribes and marginalised communities and so forth. 

Follow all of the above, and you’re good for the environment. Just don’t fall for greenwashing.

The Sins of Greenwashing may blind you

Some brands put across sustainable claims but don’t have research or certifications to back them. This practice of propagating false or misleading green marketing claims is ‘Greenwashing’.

Owing to greenwashing, your efforts to support the environment may be having the opposite effect. So how can you check yourself? Terrachoice in 2007 suggested avoiding the below six sins of greenwashing that erode your faith in genuinely sustainable practices. 

  1. Sin of Hidden Trade-off

When a brand markets a product as ‘green’ based on a single sustainable attribute or a small group of features, it’s committing the sin of a hidden trade-off. The brand ignores other important (and in some cases, significant) attributes harmful to the user and planet.

For example, selling eco-friendly clothes that are made using child labour. Or promoting paper as biodegradable, knowing that not all forms of paper are as such.

  1. Sin of No Proof

Often, companies market claims of a product or service being eco-friendly. However, such claims aren’t supported by valid and objective third-party certifications or easily accessible information about their manufacturing process.

Instances of this sin are commonly found. Personal care products claim not to have been tested on animals, but no research backs this. Or articles made from hemp and bamboo don’t provide valid certifications for chemical-free processes.   

  1. Sin of Vagueness

Brands commit this sin when their claim is so terribly defined that the real meaning is confusing for the end consumer.

Consider beeswax packaging papers that are labelled green but don’t specify how the product is made. Or 100% natural soaps or bathroom cleaners that don’t list all their ingredients. 

  1. Sin of Lesser Two Evils

If you had to choose between using paper and going paperless, which option would you consider? Did you say option B? Then you may have just fallen for the sin of lesser two evils. 

Sometimes, businesses choose to spotlight specific green claims that may distract consumers from the more significant negative impact of the product. In the above example, e-products are backed by servers, electricity grids, and the internet, all of which consume energy (oil, gas, and coal). Plus, all our gadgets are difficult to dismantle — especially the circuit boards that have a combination of metals fused with each other — are near-impossible to recycle, surviving in landfills for decades.

  1. Sin of Irrelevance

Brands may have truthful claims to make, but what if they’re unimportant and irrelevant to the issue at hand? They end up deflecting consumer attention from real problems. 

Take the example of sanitary pads. Traditional sanitary pads are labelled as polluters and drain-cloggers. However, based on reports, menstrual waste comprises only 3% of the annual waste India generates. On the other hand, 66% comes from plastic bags and food packaging. Promoting eco-friendly pads undermines the fundamental issue of plastic waste from other significant sources.

  1. Sin of Fibbing

Sometimes, brands make outrightly false claims. 

For instance, promoting farmers’ welfare is a promotional tactic some brands use. They claim they’re providing farmers with livelihood-sustaining jobs. But the same brands import materials and products from abroad, selling them in India labelled as ‘Made in India.’

All of these sins play a role in inhibiting sustainable development. But wait, there’s more.

Why are we not sustainable yet?

Economic failures stemming from environment-harming activities aren’t punishable offences. For example, FMCG manufacturers use legal loopholes to find their way out of paying fees for unsustainable processes. Similarly, subsidising unsound practices in agriculture, energy, transport, and water harms the environment.

Political failures are a result of inaction. Governments don’t want to implement sustainable policies because they interfere with dominant industries in the economy. Then there’s harmful action wherein they clear forests to build commercial infrastructure. As a result, sectors like construction, mining, oil and gas go unregulated to serve political interests.

Communication failures happen when substantial efforts aren’t made to educate the general population. Even sustainable companies hard sell their products and promote more consumerism but forget the essence: the ‘conscious’ bit of ‘conscious consumerism’. They are not transparent about how these products are made and how much ecological footprint the products hold. However, the most important problem is that even such ‘ethical’ companies don’t share enough information on how to discard or recycle their products responsibly or help with reverse logistics to ensure that the customers are able to give back the products once used. Poor community involvement, mistrust, and misleading information – all contribute.

However, there’s room to improve and be better, green citizens of this planet. Wondering how? Well, when in doubt…

…follow these Global Yardsticks

In 2015, the world came together to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These yardsticks help develop the right and complete sustainable approach.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals as set forth by the United Nations are:

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life below Water
  15. Life on Land
  16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

Notice that most of the goals focus on uplifting human quality of life. However, in mainstream media, only a few of these goals ever get noticed – the environment-related ones. Each SDG deserves equal, if not more attention than the other, for our planet to be fully sustainable.

To sum it up

Sustainable development doesn’t just involve the environment, flora, and fauna alone. It includes us, humans, too!

Often, sustainable enthusiasts or businesses take humans out of the equation and point fingers at them for having destroyed habitats, not realising that humans a part of that too. When habitats are torn down, we humans, especially the disadvantaged ones, end up dealing with the consequences of our actions.

Individuals, businesses and governments need to take up sustainable responsibilities actively. It won’t happen in a day or year. Sustainability is complex but achievable. Each little step you take towards incorporating sustainable practices in everyday life saves the world from years of regression.

On your part, educate yourself about what’s sustainable and what’s not. Plus, vet the brands you purchase. There are several criteria to make a note of, which we’ll be covering in one of our upcoming articles. In addition to that, we’ll show you some good sustainable brands that are talking the talk and walking the walk.

Stay tuned for more from ecoHQ!


Deepa Sai is the founder of ecoHQ and Quill Ink.

Ayesha Tari is a content writer and editor with a keen, developing interest in sustainability. In a marketing career spanning five years, she has helped build brands across industries.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Published by ecoHQ

ecoHQ is a platform advocating for sustainability and conscious consumerism in India. At ecoHQ, we help Indians make educated choices about sustainable practices through awareness, advocacy and accountability. We spread awareness about sustainable development, advocate conscious growth and help brands be accountable for responsible solutions. Our ultimate goal is educating you to make the right choices for our people and planet.

3 thoughts on “What are you getting wrong about sustainability?

  1. Awesome. Excellently elaborated by a brilliant young mind. Deeply rooted all realities of today.
    Hats off to you my brilliant niece.

  2. Such an amazing article Deepa. I used to boast about going paperless but I realized that going paperless is not sustainable either! Thank you so much.

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