Most People Think Sustainability Is About The Environment, But It's Not.

The word sustainability is everywhere.

From fast fashion brands launching sustainable collections, food businesses switching out their plastic straws to paper, and shampoo plastic bottles that are now conveniently recyclable.

All in the name of sustainability.

It's almost like the word has been used to make consumers think 'hmm, yeah that sounds ethical and good for the planet, I'm now going to buy this.'

Believe it or not, the understanding of sustainable development has been around since the 18th century, however, it's only since everyone became aware of climate change, that everyone has been made aware of the importance of sustainability.

Que the irresponsible corporate greedy CEO's to take on sustainability as their new marketing strategy. But how about we call it something else? Ooo, I think we will call it Greenwashing.

"Greenwashing. The practice of making brands appear more sustainable than they are. It may involve cynical marketing ploys, misguided PR stunts, or simply changing the packaging of an existing product while continuing to use unsustainable ingredients or practices" (1)

Sustainability has been used to manipulate and force-feed lies to consumers for too long now. By adding 30% recycled material content to a piece of clothing, suddenly this makes it sustainable? Or making their shampoo bottles recyclable like it's making the world a better place.

Here's the news flash. These are not sustainable solutions.

The reality is that sustainability has been overused to the point where most people just want to shrug it off as a buzzword now. It may not seem like it but there are people out there who are doing the right thing and creating sustainable products/businesses, but they are just harder to find amongst the buzzwords.

Sustainability is complicated. And with an ever-developing world, it gets more difficult by the second. But I'm going to break it down as best I can so you'll understand what you should be looking out for.

"Sustainability: Development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (2)

The simplest and most commonly known matrix for sustainability is the three core pillars, environment, economic and social. Over time development of the matrix and understanding of sustainability, evolved to include humans as another core pillar.

A Sustainability matrix, economic labelled environment, social, human, all equal sustainability

Let's dig deeper into understanding what each pillar represents and examples of how you'd see them in sustainable businesses/developments.


This is the pillar that most people are misled into thinking what sustainability is all about, but it is just as important as all the other pillars.

Definition of Environmental Sustainability:

Where an ecological balance aims to be maintained. All natural resources we use, replace, and leave the earth in the same state we find it. It also calls for no harm in the short or long term, which could change or affect those natural resources.

Example One of Environmental Sustainability: 

Trees are a natural resource, but when too many are cut down and not replenished at the rate of consumption, it makes for an unsustainable resource. That is why organisations like FSC are important as they maintain sustainable forestry management and ensure that we are maintaining ecological balance.

Why is it important? Because if we used all the trees without replacing them, it doesn't just take resources away from future generations, it affects the ecological balance in nature. We all know how trees work, they absorb C02 and release oxygen. Without the trees, C02 isn't absorbed and replaced with oxygen which means more C02 in our atmosphere. Resulting in climate change - now don't get me wrong this is a natural process that would happen over hundreds of thousand years, but we've accelerated this in just 100 years, which is destructive and unsustainable.

Example Two of Environmental Sustainability 

Using toxic synthetic chemicals in the fabric dying process, instead of natural bio-degradable dyes. These toxic dyes end up in our water systems, due to fashion companies disposing of their toxic waste without any regulations or policies that prevent them from doing so. This unsustainable manufacturing doesn't only use tonnes of water in the process but the chemicals cause harm to humans and animals.

This is why close looped systems and natural eco-friendly dyes alternatives are essential for sustainable manufacturing. Sadly, a lot of industrial fashion businesses do not use these systems due to the cost that it would take from their profits.

Practices and Processes to Look Out For on Sustainable Environmental Development in Businesses

These are just a few environmental practices and processes to look out for in businesses that are making sustainable choices or development.

  • Closed Looped Manufacturing?
  • Eco-friendly Delivery & Materials Used (i.e. Packaging is natural materials)
  • Does the Business offset its Co2 emissions?
  • Are there any investments/support for clean energy (i.e., is their warehouse ran by renewable energy?)
  • Do their products reflect sustainable choices/alternatives?


    Definition of Economic Sustainability:

    Whether it be for a business or individual, economic sustainability is important to allow every human the financial means to meet their needs and feel secure.

    Example One of Economic Sustainability: 

    Sustainable Living Pay. If an individual's working income does not cover their living costs and provides an ethical disposable income for their basic social and living needs, this is economically unsustainable. After all, basic necessities are a human right, not a luxury. Providing a real living wage isn't just for the employees benefit either, it makes economic sense for the business. You'll see more staff retention, higher morale and employees that feel proud to work for a company that cares about the community around them.

    This is why organisations like the Real Living Wage Foundation are important to recognise employers who put their employees before profit.

    Example Two of Economic Sustainability:

    The economic success and development of a business reflect much on the region it sits in and the people that it employs. Ensuring practices are in place to ensure business growth, keeps job security, grow and develop job roles that in the long term benefit the community.

    Practices and Processes to Look Out For on Sustainable Economic Development in Businesses

    These are just a few economic practices and processes to look out for in businesses that are making sustainable choices or development.

    • Does the business pay its employees a real living wage?
    • Does the business talk about any investments in cleaner sustainable practices that will benefit the business and community?
    • Are there any job development roles that will benefit the community with future employment (i.e. living wage paying apprenticeships)?


      Definition of Social Sustainability:

      Social sustainability comes down to human rights, basic necessities, and for them to be available to all. Resources should be easily provided and identifiable to provide inclusion, diversity, and equality. 

      Example One of Social Sustainability:

      For any workers, whether that be in your business or the supply chain, you'd see fair labour practices, living wages, and higher standards of health and safety. This is to just name a few, but you'd expect nothing less than high social standards within a sustainable supply chain.

      This is why laws and policies are important to set standards to hold companies responsible, it is simply not enough to leave it up to the companies.

      Example Two of Social Sustainability:

      Providing a safe working environment that provides inclusion, diversity, and equality. Working policies within a workplace and procedures that are supported through recruitment, company training, and company values will better provide a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment for all people within and outside the organisation.

      Practices and Processes to Look Out For on Sustainable Social Development in Businesses

      These are just a few social practices and processes to look out for in businesses that are making sustainable choices or development.

      • Is the business transparent on its supply chain and the standards they keep to provide sustainable manufacturing?
      • Does the company openly discuss its principles on inclusion, diversity, and equality?
      • Does the business support/donate or fund any charities or organisations that work on fighting unsustainable practices, and systematic discrimination, or work on providing opportunities to people who don't have access to sustainable living?


        Definition of Human Sustainability:

        Human sustainability is about maintaining and improving human life. For a sustainable investment into health care, education, nutrition, and access to services and resources for all. 

        Example One of Human Sustainability:

        Nutrition is a big part of human sustainability, providing everyone with a sustainable amount of food, together with nutritional value, improves on healthy living. In a workplace, healthier employees mean more dedication to development through motivation and a happier moral environment.

        Example Two of Human Sustainability:

        Improving and providing a well-rounded/exceptional education for all will provide happier, motivated, and skilled workers within the community. With access to education and growth for all, it will be motivated and drive employees to look further into their careers and their place within a company..

        Practices and Processes to Look Out For on Sustainable Human Development in Businesses

        These are just a few human practices and processes to look out for in businesses that are making sustainable choices or development.

        • Does the business support further development/training for their employees so they are better skilled?
        • Does the business work on building a healthier and more sustainable community through donations and/or initiatives?
        • Are there any resources that the business provides free to all, that could better sustainable living?

          It's all about Sustainability for all.

          Didn't I say it was complicated? You'll be able to see now, that sustainability is much more than the environment and saving the planet. Sustainability is about how we live as humans and the world we develop around us.

          With so many pillars blending, you can't expect everyone to be perfect. However, I hope this helps you understand and visualise the reality of how businesses do business, and what to look out for if you are looking to support more sustainable businesses. Sustainable businesses that are working tirelessly to build a kinder world for us and future generations.



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