What is sustainable and unsustainable?

Sustainability focuses on meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The concept of sustainability is composed of the three P’s:

  1. Profits (economic)
  2. Planet (environmental)
  3. People (social)

To help clarify the concept of sustainability, here is an example of a company practicing sustainability.

A large department store, let’s call it FloorMart, commits to sustainable practices within their company. 

This means that they will source their food, clothes, electronics, and other items from ethical sources. Not from cheap labor in China or Bangladesh where employees are forced to work for little wages and poor working conditions.

FloorMart must also make sure that environmental practices are in compliance with regulations. For example, there is no illegal dumping of chemicals into a nearby lake to save money on disposal.

If unsustainable practices are found down the supply chain, they must make a plan to phase out the problem products and find a new, sustainable source.

FloorMart also has a duty to their stakeholders and investors to be totally transparent with what suppliers they are using and where their money is going to ensure they are held accountable and are actually trying to be more sustainable.

It is important to note that change takes time, and even when a large company like FloorMart announces they are making changes toward a more sustainable company, it will still take years and years for them to make progress and be totally sustainable.

What is not sustainable?

Unsustainable refers to anything that cannot continue at its current rate. This term applies to the three P’s mentioned above:

  1. Profits (economic)
  2. Planet (environmental)
  3. People (social)

An example of unsustainability would be if FloorMart continued its practice of sourcing from countries that exercised cheap labor, poor working conditions, and disregard for the environment. 

The only element out of the three P’s that would not be negatively affected right away would profit for FloorMart. However, over time when consumers and advocates realize what is going on and that FloorMart’s suppliers are harming the planet by dumping their waste in waterways and treating their employees horribly by paying them very little and making them work in unsafe buildings with unsafe equipment, consumers will wisen up and stop buying things from FloorMart until they rectify the situation.

Then FloorMart’s bottom line will be affected and they will be forced to come up with more sustainable practices and be transparent to stakeholders and investors to ensure they are making the changes they claim they are. They will have to earn back trust from consumers.

What are unsustainable resources?

Unsustainable resources are resources that will eventually run out.

Examples of unsustainable resources are:

  • Fossil Fuels: they come from the earth, are not reusable, and will someday be depleted
  • Agricultural Practices:
    • land conversion and habitat loss(rainforest deforestation)
    • Pollution and contamination of our land, air, and water
    • Soil degradation and erosion
    • Wasteful water consumption 
  • Debt: when you can’t pay back a loan and you need to default
    • This applies to individuals, companies, and government

Sustainable and unsustainable materials

Sustainable materials are made from resources that can be renewed or replenished quickly to keep up with supply and demand.

Examples of sustainable materials are:

  1. Bamboo: a perennial grass that grows rapidly and doesn’t require harmful pesticides or fertilizers to grow.
  2. Cork: cork trees must be at least 25 years old to be harvested and can only be harvested every 9 years. 
    1. It can be grown without pesticides
    2. There are enough trees to keep up with demand
    3. Cork is biodegradable, easily recyclable and reusable
  3. Repurposed Wood and Steel: the practice of recycling wood and steel is sustainable, even if the original harvesting of them is not.
    1. Resuing these materials keeps them out of landfills and is much better for the environment than using brand new material.

Unsustainable materials are made from resources that are cannot be replenished.

Examples of unsustainable materials are:

  1. Plastics: made from fossil fuels
    1. Many single-use items end up in landfills or polluting our waterways and soil (think plastic straws)
  2. Styrofoam: made from fossil fuels
    1. Unrecyclable in most municipalities
    2. Lead to litter and pollution
  3. Anything made from fossil fuels because they are not a renewable resource.

sustainable energy source windmills

Sustainable and unsustainable energy sources

Sustainable energy sources are derived from resources that can be replenished or are renewable.

Examples of sustainable energy sources are:

  1. Wind: used to generate electricity
    1. It is not a finite resource, we do not use it all up to generate electricity
  2. Sun: solar power is used to generate electricity
    1. It is an infinite resource, it does not get depleted to create energy
  3. Water: although there are droughts, water is a sustainable energy source when used appropriately
  4. Wood: FSC certified forests are sustainable resources for wood

Unsustainable energy sources are derived from resources that will eventually get depleted.

The main example of unsustainable energy sources are:

  1. Fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas
    1. Once reserves for these fossil fuels run out, we won’t be able to replace them with more fossil fuels. They will just be gone.

Hopefully, this article helped to clarify the differences between sustainable and unsustainable practices when it comes to materials, energy sources, resources, and business practices.

Check out my article here on sustainable transportation if you can’t get enough sustainability talk.

If you have any questions about sustainability, let me know in the comments below.

Cheers, and have an awesome day!

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