Everything is sustainable nowadays! And if it is not sustainable, then it is at least green, bio-degradable, natural, regenerative, organic... Or so they say. Greenwashing masks efforts and products that are truly sustainable. So, how can we find out if something really is sustainable? Let us start at the beginning.
One can distinguish between two concepts in the sustainability discourse: preservation denotes the non-consumptive use of a resource, whereas conservation promotes its wise use. In other words: leave nature alone vs make sustainable use of it. While our fundamental aim should of course be to not harm nature at all (that is, pursue a preserving mode of living), it is difficult to imagine a world where we live independently of natural resources. We certainly can and must reduce our environmental pressures, yet our socio-economic metabolism craves for throughput, and we will thus, at best, only be able to live conserving lifestyles. Lifestyles where we live sustainably. Where we use only so much of something so that we can rely on it in the long run. Where our consumption rate of something is slower than its renewal rate. That’s it! That’s what sustainability in its original sense means. And with that we see that its meaning is quite different to how the term is sometimes used. Nothing of that bloated nonsense of sustainable cars, sustainable coal, or sustainable cities etc.
Very often, however, the sustainability of something is paraphrased by its environmental burden, that is: something is commonly called sustainable if the environmental impacts (greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, ecotoxicity etc.) of this something are low (enough). Yet, even under this assumption, the question remains: how do we know if something really is sustainable?
First of all, we need to understand that it is not enough to simply look at the current state of a product or service. Goods have lifecycles, and our current perception of them is only one stage of their lifecycle. Lifecycles typically start with the extraction of raw materials, continue with refining and manufacturing stages, then the use phase comes in, after which the good in question reaches its end-of-life. Throughout all these stages, there are exchanges with the technosphere and biosphere, i.e. inputs and outputs of material and energy (which certainly also includes emissions). Take a seemingly very simple product as an example, say a pencil: first, you need to fell a tree in the forest, transport it to the sawmill where the log gets processed and cut into lumber called pencil stock; this piece of wood is then dried and shipped to the slate factory where the pencil stock gets first cut into pencil blocks and then into pencil slates; these slates are then treated and grooves are cut in where the writing core comes in; this writing core is made from a mixture of graphite and clay and put into the slate where a second grooved slate is glued onto the first; once the glue has dried, these sandwiches are trimmed, and individual pencils are cut from it; each pencil gets painted and sharpened before being shipped to the shop where you might buy it. Now consider: the machines for sawing, cutting, and processing the wood/ lumber had to be produced, too, just like the truck with which the logs were transported; then there’s also the graphite that was mined and refined before it was mixed together with clay which in turn had to be extracted and shipped as well. Further consider that to move all the machinery electricity was required that might have come from the burning of fossil fuels which in turn had to be mined/ extracted. Materials were mined and processed into components for the machinery that was required for producing the equipment for other material extraction…
You quickly see that even the production of one simple product like a pencil is not as simple as you might have thought. Interacting processes with products and services at differing lifecycle stages lay bare the highly complex network that our economy relies on. When we want to assess the environmental impacts (aka the sustainability) of one product, we sort of need to assess the whole system that the product is embedded in.