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What is sustainability?

Marijn Mennes

As I mentioned, up to this moment, I'm not very well versed in sustainability as a subject. What does it mean in daily life or for business? And how should I explain it to a five-year-old?

Being trained as a psychologist, whenever I try to make sense of a topic, I try to find the most relevant scientific articles through That's because scientific research is written up in articles in a strict format before they're published in journals. Each journal covers a specific area of research. There literally are research journals for any topic; dogs, parts of the brain, macro-economics, you name it. And Google Scholar is basically one huge library so that you can search through all of these publications at once.  

The idea behind publishing your research is that other researchers can verify and build upon your work. So, if you happen to find out how to make oil into gasoline with this new methodology and write up how that works, Olivia might want to research if other refinery-methods work as well. Suzy and Joe might want to perform an analysis on which method works best over time. And so on. 

Next to practical research fields such as chemistry and biology, this publishing-thing also applies to more theoretical sciences such as economics and psychology. Thus, I assume that people probably should have written something about sustainability?

The search for sustainability 

I perform two basic searches for my keyword "sustainability." First, I check the most referenced articles ever. Then, I read the most referenced articles published in the last 3 years. This is because scientists reference articles from others if they think that research is valuable. Thus, research that has tons of references is indexed as "higher value," and it will show up on the first page(s) in the search results.

When I browse the most referenced research, I find two articles with over 700 references from 1995 and 2001. They have a clear-cut definition of sustainability: "a sustainable system is one which survives or persists." But as I read further into recent literature, it seems that sustainability has a lot of dependencies and questions that should be answered. It is rather complicated!

Or, as Tony Clayton puts it: "The question of sustainability affects most areas of human activity. ... Understanding sustainability and ways of achieving it have to involve an understanding of complex adaptive systems and general systems theory".

In an attempt to make sense of what that means, I research further and find a speech by Robert Solow, a professor of economics and Nobel Laureate. In his opening words, he mentions that the less you know about sustainability, the better it sounds. According to him, that's true with lots of ideas. He continues with a masterful quote: 

"A deep feeling combined with complexity breeds buzzwords." 

And then I realize that he called sustainability a buzzword as early as 1992! Wow. Only to continue with his economist's perspective on sustainability. In his essay, I encounter the first example that gives me a better understanding of what sustainability actually means.

"Don't forget that sustainability is a vague concept. It is intrinsically inexact. It is not something that can be measured out in coffee spoons. It is not something that you could be numerically accurate about. It is, at best, a general guide to policies that have to do with investment, conservation, and resource use. And we shouldn't pretend that it is anything other than that."

To define what it can be, Robert continues: "Sustainability is an obligation to preserve the capacity to be as well off as we are today. That means, it's about distributional equity. It's about who gets what. It's about the sharing of well-being between present people and future people". 

Right, that makes sense. Sustainability itself is a vague concept. And I learned that it can be a goal or a set of shared values that we can agree upon. But, there is no scale that aids as a measuring stick, as with the temperature in Celcius or Fahrenheit. And I know that there's a lot of things that sustainability is not. So, how would we approach this topic to be able to explain that to a five-year-old?

An overarching definition of sustainability for a five-year-old

I now know that defining sustainability is complex. And although we've got some ideas about what sustainability might be, or might not be, let's turn to recent literature to see if it will offer us a solution how we can simplify the concept to explain it to a young child.

Fortunately, a man named Martin Geisendorfer formed a team to do a literature review for us in 2017. That means that they read and compared the most important scientific articles that are written about sustainability up to that date. Then they made one definition of sustainability based on all that work. 

It seems effortless when you read the article, but it must have cost them many headaches and months of research. Their definition goes like this: 

"Sustainability is the balanced integration of economic performance, social inclusiveness, and environmental resilience, to the benefit of current and future generations."

Now, that's somewhat simpler than before, right?

It's about finding a balance in the integration of three things for ourselves and future generations. So I imagine myself having to juggle three knives while thinking about myself and my audience. Something like this. I know how to juggle, so it can't be that hard to consider myself and the audience simultaneously.

The three pillars of sustainability

Let's look at the three knives I'm juggling. The first is Economic Performance. In other words: How well is something doing based on financial indicators? You can, for example, measure the performance of a company, society, country, ecosystem, or the planet as a whole.

The second knife we're juggling is Social Inclusiveness. This is an interesting criterion since it means that ideally, you want a level-playing-field for everyone. In other words, equal rights and chances at employment, health care, housing, education, and so on.

Our last and third knife is Environmental resilience. Literally, it translates to "the capacity to recover from difficulties" or "the ability to come back to its original state." It relates strongly to the toughness and elasticity of the environment. 

When you master the skill of juggling, you know that there's quite some room for error before you can't catch a knife anymore. If you've thrown too wide, you can adjust the position of your arms. Or even step towards or away from the falling blade. If it spins undesirably, it's the same story. Adjustments can be made. But remember, our arms cannot stretch out infinitely, so our range of motion is limited. 

The true juggle-skill is to perform only one correction for that one miss-throw. But, only a master juggler can immediately recover that one miss, so it's probably going to affect the next few catches and throws as well. That's OK. That's the whole point of juggling. Constant adjustment. 

So, when you mess up (the metaphorical throw of the knife) of Environmental Resilience, you're going to see an effect in Economic performance and Social Inclusiveness because you have to focus more on catching the misthrow and adjusting your position.

It's OK to make a mistake now and then. But if you keep making mistakes, you won't be able to catch the knives anymore. And if you drop one of the knives, you're not sustainable anymore. 

Yes, I'm glad that my metaphor holds. 

So to be sustainable, there should be a perfect balance between profit, people, and planet. We shouldn't use more than our world can recover from, should be inclusive to all people today and in the future, while making enough money for ourselves in the process. 

And that's how we can explain it to a five-year-old: sustainability is like juggling. Daddy has to keep three balls in the air, and at the same time, think of your future.

But, I still don't know how to make something more sustainable than it is today. So, the next step is to figure that out. Fortunately, as with everything you can learn, there are teachers. And with Impact Nation, we've got a team of experts that will help us with those first steps of learning how to become a more sustainable business. Let's visit the first workshop to find out how that works.

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