Question
Asked 20th May, 2014

Should we stop using the term "sustainable" as it means so many different things to different people?

I was asked this question today in a policy discussion. The term (a bit like sustainable intensification) is used by so many different people in so many different ways that it, for some, it becomes misleading. A food company, talking about sustainable supply chains, a farmer talking about a sustainable enterprise, a development person talking about sustainable development, a politician talking about sustainable economic growth, a social scientist talking about a sustainable rural community or an ecologist talking about sustainable land use all use a different conceptualization of what "sustainable" means, but each often thinks their concept maps neatly across to others.
I often frame discussions about developing landscapes to provide the range of services society needs (water, carbon storage, biodiversity, food production, recreation etc) to avoid the confusion that comes from "sustainable agricultural landscapes" because the former is a clearer conceptualization of the latter (or is it?).
Feedback gratefully received!

Most recent answer

1st Jun, 2017
Lucio Muñoz
Independent QLC researcher
Dear Emil, I see you have not read those two papers, otherwise perhaps your comment would have been different.....
If sustainability  is the framework then balancing/inclusion is the key so no component can take advantage of other components; and to highlight how that can be framed in theory I proposed the theory of sustainability and the theory of sustainability markets and i took the time to provide a framework that can be used to show in simple terms that sustainable development is not sustainability..
I agree with you, sustainability has to be a global agenda and concern.
Have a nice day.

Popular Answers (1)

15th Apr, 2017
Miqdam Tariq Chaichan
University of Technology- Iraq
Dear prof. Tim
I think the world "sustainable" is used from several years and till today as you mentioned earlier itis meaning different things for variable people. However, I think instead of changing the world or stop using it, it is better to educate the society about its meaning and aims. It is very important increasing the society interest in sustainability.
Regards 
12 Recommendations

All Answers (36)

20th May, 2014
András Bozsik
University of Debrecen
Dear Tim,
I think the terminus technicus sustainability is all right. What problematic is, its usage. When something goes into the mainstream traffic, its original usage and with it its meaning will be deformed. I am afraid, when finding a new expression for sustainability, this new term would be corrupted soon.
3 Recommendations
20th May, 2014
Alejandro Gonzalez-Treviño
Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute
I think its a confusing word, because it have some meanings. In spanish we have two words (sustentable and sostenible), so its easier (but anyways the people still saying one to the others definition and so on) because when you want to say that some place is balanced (the ecosystem its working fine, you don't need to go and "help" the ecosystem to make it works) you say its "sustentable" (sustainable) but when you want to talk about just one resource, you say "sostenible", so if you have a bunch of resources "sostenibles" (sustentable) then you'll have a "sustentable" (sustainable) ecosystem/place/etc. I mean sustentable is for a whole place and "sostenible" its just for each resource.
So, when you refer to a sustainable economic growth for example, you're talking about that you don't need to add more things, that is just working like it is, right?
In english its harder because you've the same word for different meanings, and not just the word but the phrase, because its not the same saying that the marine ecosystem of some costal area its sustainable than the sustainable rural community of the costal area, we need to see about the connotation of the phrases to determinate what is the idea of the author.
20th May, 2014
Tim G Benton
Chatham House
Thanks both.
The "terminus technicus" is ok in concept (e.g. the Bruntland definition), but in agriculture "sustainability" can be taken by people in a narrow sense (e.g. impacting on a single metric like GHG or water or biodiversity) or broadly (in managing land to optimise ecosystem services) but the latter still begs the question of how do you navigate the trade-offs between services and how should a farmer do it?
We are finishing a metaanalysis of the area at the moment, and we have grouped variables into 20 different categories (e.g. water, soil, GHG, biodiv etc) and they trade-off or synergise and it is not clear how to operationalize what a farmer should do to optimise across all services (including agricultural outputs....). The term "sustainable agriculture" therefore wraps up a lot of difficult stuff. Ho hum.
1 Recommendation
21st May, 2014
Choen Krainara
Asian Institute of Technology (AIT)
Dear Tim, It looks like you are addressing much more on sustainable development in your own context of study or interest. Sustainable development encompasses various aspects but interrelated.Therefore we now always need to mainstream and join forces towards upholding sustainable development for the better future of our planet.
22nd May, 2014
Benjamin L. Turner
Texas A&M University - Kingsville
Great question: I would have to say no, we shouldn't stop using the word sustainable just because there does not appear to be a unified definition across academic or institutional boundaries. Most people paying attention the past couple of decades realizes that, at the global scale, we have accelerated resource extraction and use in the name of profit, community or national development, to meet the worlds needs, etc. The fear for some people is that one day we will reach our global limit (i.e. carrying capacity), and if appropriate resource and policy protections in place, might erode into a decline. How do we make sure this doesn't happen to our children and grandchildren? "Sustainability" has been that buzzword thrown around over the number of years, but because many people in developed countries are 3-5 generations removed from agriculture, they don't easily see the connection to the land, to ecosystem maintenance and resilience. People in developing countries are seeking to improve the quality of life for their country and people, I don't think anyone can blame them. But to reach that quality, some resources have to be consumed and/or distributed, so justice and accountability become real issues for a "sustainable" growing nation. This necessitates not only resource considerations but social ones too.
The best definition I have heard for "sustainability" came from a Dean at a prominent agriculture college in the U.S., who said: "sustainability means that we meet the needs of our generation without jeopardizing our grandchildren's ability to meet theirs." How do we get there? "There's more than one way to skin a cat" as the saying goes, so solutions will come from agriculture, business, policy and governance, social sectors, etc., so I am glad to that your work is being done. I like your approach of framing the discussion in terms of ecosystem goods and services that are necessary for society. Adding to that framework the social "goods and services" society needs might be a valuable way to connect the broad audience it sounds like you are reaching.
Hope this stimulates some thoughts.
22nd May, 2014
Sama S. Almaarofi
Lakehead University Orillia Campus
i agree with Ben, we should not stop using this term; however, this term originally is an ecological term (means: how biological systems remain diverse and productive). knowing the origin of terms is very important because it will avoid you to exaggerate using them. i think this is what makes you confuse. this term is rapidly developing. what usually happen is that scientists borrow existing terms (old expressions) to express new science or technology instead of creating their own terminology. this often become confusing, specially when you know the origin of the term. know the harder part is when you want to fit that term based on different use.
this is totally my point of view.
22nd May, 2014
Nidhi Nagabhatla
United Nations University (UNU)
Very stimulating question..
As a sustainability science professional .. one often come across this dilemma of underlining the pluralistic dimension of the term ‘sustainable’. It is indeed quite difficult to do away with the word as the world has embraced it in many forms, in many sectors and for many objectives. Here, I totally agree with the point raised by Sama, that as a global community we have adopted the ‘concept’ without understanding the context. The result is then an expected array of confusion; incertitude and uncertainty when one want to accomplish goals outlined under this concept. I too feel, like Ben that the semantics needs to clarify while arriving at some common undertanding.This would not necessarily mean outlining a blue-print, but some overarching guiding principles (that can also be sector specific). In my own capacity I have adopted a coupled approach ( deconstruction-reconstruction) that roughly means breaking down the concept with clear understanding of the background ( agriculture, forest etc..) then joining back the concept for addressing that specific (sectoral) objective.
23rd May, 2014
Manuel Gottschick
University of Hamburg
To this good discussion I only want to add that we also should stick on terms like "justice", "democracy" or "freedom". Even when (or because of) other people use them in a narrow or manipulative way. As scientists our job is clarify precisely what we mean with this term. As others in this discussion already pointed out.
25th May, 2014
Pëllumb Harizaj
Agricultural University of Tirana
Some interpretations of the concept “sustainable”
1. able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
example: sustainable energy resources, a sustainable water supply
2. involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
example: sustainable agriculture/farming/techniques
3. able to last or continue for a long time
example: sustainable development/growth
4. able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.
example: sustainable growth
5. able to be upheld or defended.
By carefully analyzing the logic behind the interpretations presented above (presented in different dictionaries), we may deduce that consciously or unconsciously people use the word “sustainable” to add the TIME DIMENSION to a discussion:
Something is SUSTAINABLE when it works well for a very long time.
This is a very good concept if it is used in the right context.
1 Recommendation
25th May, 2014
Jorge Morales Pedraza
Morales Project Consulting
We hear the words 'sustainable' and 'sustainability' almost every day. But what does it mean exactly? Is it about people and culture, our environment or jobs and money? Is it about cities or the country? Is it about you and me or is it something for other people to worry about? Sustainability is about all of these things and more.
Sustainability could be defined as an ability or capacity of something to be maintained or to sustain itself. It’s about taking what we need to live now, without jeopardizing the potential for people in the future to meet their needs. If an activity is said to be sustainable, it should be able to continue forever.
Some people say it is easy to recognize activities that are unsustainable because we know it when we see it. Think of extinction of some species of animals, often due to the activities of humans. Or salinity (salt) in our rivers due to changed land management practices. And at home, the amount of packaging you put in the bin that has to go into landfill.
Living sustainably is about living within the means of our natural systems (environment) and ensuring that our lifestyle doesn’t harm other people (society and culture). It’s a big idea to get your head around, for all of us. It’s really about thinking about where your food, clothes, energy and other products come from and deciding whether you should buy and consume these things. For example, you can buy timber imported from other countries to use in your home, but do you know enough about the rules in place in those countries to prevent animals from being harmed during the timber harvesting process, or if the local indigenous people support the harvesting, or how much they get paid?
Increasingly our lifestyle is placing more and more pressure on natural systems. Scientists continue to investigate how human interactions with natural systems can be improved and sustained.
2 Recommendations
27th May, 2014
Wassie Haile
Hawassa University
Dear Benton,
Why are you envy of people using the term sustainable for their own purpose. For me sustainable mean something continue to be used or give service without losing its base. As you said different people use the term stainable for different purpose. For instance the country Singapore has no agricultural land and thus sustainable land management concept has no meaning there. But air pollution is a problem in Singapore and sustainability refers to getting fresh air through and every time etc.
With Kind Regards
Wassie Haile
27th May, 2014
Tim G Benton
Chatham House
Hi Wassie; the issue is not about that people value different things but if people from different communities get together and talk about "sustainability" and each means different things, it then becomes a problem as no one knows what ideas are really being communicated. This devalues the term as people then tend to filter out the concept as meaningless if it means something different to every speaker! If everyone was really clear about what they meant by "sustainable" it would be different...
1 Recommendation
27th May, 2014
Wassie Haile
Hawassa University
Dear Benton,
Thank you very much for clarification. I now agree with you and common understanding and a kind of convention among people should be there regarding the use of the term " sustainability".
27th May, 2014
Godo Stoyke
Carbon Busters Inc.
I still like the initial Brundtland Report definition: "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Unfortunately, by this definition, not much that we do is sustainable (yet)!! :-)
1 Recommendation
Godo I agree.
Does sustainability not begin and end with the soil?
Are natural processes such as leaching and erosion not depleting an environment without human intervention?
Do you make anything of value without some form of sacrifice?
The term sustainability sets a grand goal and for that it's great.
But the practical or pragmatists who only live for one generation will aim to work at the best practice, best science front, where education allows....and endeavor to optimize provisioning, regulating and social services for the resources available.
29th May, 2014
Renard Siew
UNSW Sydney
I disagree that the term sustainable should be removed. In fact, the sustainability concept has actually allowed a lot of cross-disciplinary studies/debate to take place. In some ways, research has become more challenging yet exciting at the same time. What needs to take place now is a streamlining of this terminology -A body of knowledge which explains with clarity the broad concept of sustainability and how they are defined in various disciplines.
1 Recommendation
4th Jun, 2014
Keith L. Edmisten
North Carolina State University
I think sustainability has been co-opted and narrowly defined by different groups, particularly the organic group to the point it has little scientific meaning and is only a tendentious buzzword.
4th Jun, 2014
Keith L. Edmisten
North Carolina State University
I do agree that Graham and others above that sustainability begins and ends with the soils. The practice that has had the greatest benefit on sustaining soils in my career has been genetically engineered crops that are tolerant to glyphosate. Unfortunatley, many people's narrow minded few of sustainability does not accept genetic engineering.
1 Recommendation
4th Jun, 2014
Wassie Haile
Hawassa University
Dear Keith,
Genetic engineering may or my not benefit on soil sustainability. For example of a specific crop variety is engineered with resistance genes against some pathogenic microorganism and the mechanism of resistance by this plant is through release of toxic compound indiscriminately killing all all microbes in the soil, it means that genetic engineering is adversely affecting the sustainability of the soil. On the contrary as you said if crops are engineered to be tolerant to glyphosate, genetic engineering is benefiting soil sustainability. Thus, we cannot say that genetic engineering necessarily has benefit on soil sustainability.
4th Jun, 2014
Keith L. Edmisten
North Carolina State University
Dear Wassie, please provide references for your claims that that this has actually happened. I have seen no credible evidence of any GMO product indiscriminately killing all microbes in the soil.
But you answer does confirm what I am trying to relate. Many people define all GMOs as not a sustainable practice across the board. They do not discriminate and evaluate each technology on it's own merits.
2 Recommendations
4th Jun, 2014
Wassie Haile
Hawassa University
Dear Keinth,
Actually I have no evidence for my earlier example about potential adverse effect genetic engineering might have on sol sustainability. Just it was my own assumption.
But I can give you concrete evidence or example how genetic engineering could negative impact sustainable crop production. one of such example is that scientist have already engineered maize with terminator gene. If this variety is released and inter in to production system, there is a possibility that the terminator gene will be transferred to conventional varieties. This will ultimately leads to loss of seed for next season planting by farmers or any other firm. By then the only seed source for maize will be the company which owns the technology for producing maize seeds engineered with terminator gene. In this specific case, genetic engineering is unsustainable. But if we engineer genetically some crops to be resistant to disease such as rust on wheat, late blight of potato etc.. which of the most challenging crop disease, it means that genetic engineering is for sustainability.
Thus, I agree with you that cannot say that genetic engineering against sustainability all in all.
1 Recommendation
9th Jul, 2014
Patrick M. Carr
Montana State University
Dr. Benton:
I believe that at least here in the states and the production agriculture arena, the use of the term "sustainable" is no longer informative (i.e., useful) for the simple (and obvious) reason that no one I have met has ever claimed to be working on or developing an agricultural system that is unsustainable. 
1 Recommendation
10th Sep, 2014
Zydi Teqja
Agricultural University of Tirana
I think that what happened with sustainability during 1980s and 1990s is that the society embraced the concept with shallow understanding of underlying issues. This situation  illustrates the fact that if something is used too much  and with shallow understanding then the concept itself could be damaged.
From the other side  I think that the sustainability concept is focused mainly in the way we use resources while we should consider recycling or regeneration of resources also.
2 Recommendations
16th Sep, 2014
Ulrich Schmutz
Coventry University
Science like art or politics follows "fashion" or trends. As with contemporary art it's often difficult to assess if a today top rated (as in highest prices for the work) artist will not be nearly completely forgotten in 100 years, or vice versa. In other works its a bit too early to abandon the term "sustainable" and the three pillars of economic, environmental and social/ethical sustainability. New concepts like resilience and food sovereignty are put forward to help sharpening the "sustainable" term and prevent it from being watered down too much. If politics, business and the public use a term a lot its not a bad sign, even if it comes at the price of loosing the term's sharp academic definition, I would think.
The proof is still out regarding people using the term a lot and actually creating real change.
2 Recommendations
21st Sep, 2014
Ion Ionita
Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies
The most common definition of sustainable development is certainly the time of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in its report "Our Common Future", also known as the Brundtland Report [1]: "Sustainable development is development which aims to meet the needs present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs ".
A sustainable society is a society that shape their economic and social system so that global natural resources and life support systems are maintained
Sustainable development aims and try to find a stable theoretical framework for decision making in any situation in which man finds a report type - medium, be it the environment, the economic and social environment.
An issue that should be clarified is - the ratio of durable and sustainable
2 Recommendations
23rd Sep, 2014
Messaoud DJEDDOU
Université Larbi Ben Mhidi
The "sustainable" concept has become a brand, a fashion label and to attract people's attention.
This notion is changing and almost became like a chameleon. Large companies especially in the oil industry, which pollutes the most resilient found the label to hide behind and to evoke people forget their practices.
How can we talk about sustainability, as millions of people do it to me no clean water to drink, or assistance in cases of emergency or drought.
In countries less developped the concept is an advertisement, such as large companies shows the ISO 14001 label Just advertise that it respects the environment, but does it respect the working conditions? you can always hide it derière "sustainable" label.
1 Recommendation
19th Jan, 2016
Alfredo J. Escribano
Orffa
Dear Tim,
I think that sustainable is a concept that has a clear meaning. It must understood as a synonym of global sustainability: maintained in time, etc.
However, it is integrated by dimensions (and context) within which the desired output is different. For example: 0.5 total stocking rates in sensitive agro-ecosystems is too high, while European Regulation on Organic production allows 2 Livestock Units/ha. However, both production systems are sustainable under their contexts.
As a consequence, the point we must keep in mind is extrapolation of conclusions. Nothing is sustainable for all places and/or momments in time.
Putting these in numbers means that agricultural management practices that are environmentally sustainable can be negatively contributing to farm's profitability, then being indirectly socially and economically negative for these two dimensions of sustainability. This is why selection on sustainability indicators, their integration within attributes/concepts, and their weighing is subject of subjectivity and then also source of many bias.
Regards,
Alfredo J. Escribano.
3 Recommendations
15th Apr, 2017
Miqdam Tariq Chaichan
University of Technology- Iraq
Dear prof. Tim
I think the world "sustainable" is used from several years and till today as you mentioned earlier itis meaning different things for variable people. However, I think instead of changing the world or stop using it, it is better to educate the society about its meaning and aims. It is very important increasing the society interest in sustainability.
Regards 
12 Recommendations
26th Apr, 2017
Menakhem Ben-Yami
Freelance Consultant, Tel Aviv, Israel
Sustainability is the ability of a process or a situation to exist/function, etc., under the relevant environmental conditions.
Nothing can be called sustainable, if not proved as such. That's that we have a process or a situation existing/working for at least a satisfactory period of time in the past. To propose/define  something as "sustainable", without historical evidence is a well-wishing at best or a straightforward fallacy. The satisfactory period depends of course on the subject; agriculture or urban development need quite a long period to prove sustainable.
 One can propose sustainability as a hypothesis, but should define it as such.
1 Recommendation
23rd May, 2017
Lucio Muñoz
Independent QLC researcher
Dear Tim, I made that call the basis for sharing the ideas in these two articles below, I think you may find them rich in food for thoughts.
You can look at them when you have time;
Beyond traditional sustainable development: Stating specific and general sustainability theory and sustainability indices using ideal present-absent qualitative comparative conditions
Introducing a Simple Qualitative Comparative Dichotomy Approach to State and Clarify Sustainable Development and Sustainability Related Concepts and Issues
Respectfully yours;
23rd May, 2017
Mariano Ruiz Espejo
Universidad Católica San Antonio de Murcia
The genuinous sustainable development will be present in all correct growth. See, for example, the encyclical Laudato si' by Pope Francis (2015).
1 Recommendation
23rd May, 2017
Lucio Muñoz
Independent QLC researcher
Good day Mariano
What is Genuinous sustainable development to you Mariano? Socially and environmentaly friendly capitalism?
Have a nice day
1 Recommendation
31st May, 2017
Emil Juvan
University of Primorska
Dear Lucio,
I think this is indeed something that global society must reflect on and set standards for the use and implementation of the word.
My personal experience with the use and implementation is that even sustainable development in various contexts always comes at the cost of at least on of the three most common concepts of sustainability. For example, when making something for economical development, the social or environmental sustsinability will suffer. What I belive is that in many cases we forget to thing of the real longterm impacts. That is, sustainable development must be benefitial today and tomorrow. The challenge here is that we do not know enough about what the future will be and what future generatjoms will need most. Unfortunatelly the latter is probably the cause for all the current confusion and missue of the word and its implementation.
Thanks for being able to share my thoughts.
Best wishes.
Emil

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