Referring to products as sustainable shows we don’t understand what sustainable means.
We think of sustainable products as products that are produced, distributed, used and disposed of in a way that is environmentally-friendly, healthy, equitable and socially responsible.
While such product attributes are very much needed and welcome, they don’t guarantee sustainability.
The main point is that sustainability is about the entire system, not its individual parts. It’s either everything or nothing.
Let me explain…
Sustainability is defined as our ability to meet all needs of everybody, now and in the future. Not some needs, of some people, at some time.
What this means is that there cannot be some products that are sustainable and other products that aren’t sustainable. We can either have sustainability and then all products are sustainable, or we don’t have sustainability and then no products are sustainable.
Therefore, referring to products as sustainable is essentially meaningless.
Imagine a furniture company that prides itself in offering a beautiful line of “sustainable furniture.” They approach every step of the production process with utmost care. They even grow their own timber and harvest only as much as will regrow each season.
That surely must be sustainable, right? Not necessarily.
For example, using all that land for timber production means it cannot be used for growing food. Can the need for food be met otherwise? Obviously, this is not of a concern to the furniture company, but it does show how one part of the system influences other parts.
But, even if the furniture company bought a previously unfarmable land and spent a great deal to re-cultivate it in order to grow a forest on, we still couldn’t call their product sustainable.
Not until we can meet all of the needs of all the people around the world and leave the same or better for future generations.