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What Is Sustainable, Exactly?


There are certain translatable words in the healthy living dictionary. Words that are easy to understand or roll off the tongue with ease. 'Sustainable' is not one of those words.

Talking to a friend the other day (someone who lives in one of the environmentally-friendly capitals, Los Angeles, no less) she whispered on the phone, "I'm an idiot, but I don't know what sustainable means." She confessed that she had an idea about what it meant, but not entirely. I understood her confusion. Just last year, I also had to delve into a few Google searches to get how 'sustainable'applied to my food, my home and my furniture. I had worked at a couple of health food stores in my day, had been a vegetarian since I was ten and fed my kids organic foods. But there I was, staring at a label with wording I couldn’t decipher.

Essentially, sustainability is conservation on steroids. The Environmental Protection Agency states on their website: “The traditional definition of sustainability calls for policies and strategies that meet society’s present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In layman’s terms, sustainability goes a step beyond conservation. It’s not just about cutting back. It’s about making maintaining an industry–like wood water, or farming—so that it can be long-lasting and have little impact on the environment. Although experts say there are no truly sustainable companies—there are sustainable practices.

Let’s break it down and see what it means to be sustainable on a more specific level.


According to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the wild Alaskan salmon is the only sustainable choice. Why? Wouldn’t farmed have less of an impact on the environment because it eliminates overfishing? Not so. The Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fund was created to “protect, restore and conserve Pacific salmon and steelhead populations and their habitats.” This means that the Alaskan salmon is carefully regulated to allow the natural lifespan of the salmon to continue—while being fished.

The farmed salmon has a greater impact on the environment because of energy inputs, greenhouse gas emissions, and high levels of toxins.

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For anyone who has witnessed clear cutting in the Pacific Northwest, you know what it looks like to see half a forest cut down. According to the Forest Stewardship Council, “logging still contributes to habitat destruction, water pollution, displacement of indigenous peoples and violence against people who work in the forest and the wildlife that dwells there.” If wood is 'sustainable' then it typically means the wood has been part of a forest that was run under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) guidelines.

But in the past ten years, the market for sustainable wood has taken off in home rebuilding and decorating. For instance, when I renovated my house a few years ago, we bought salvaged ash to replace the old and damaged wood on our first floor. We worked with CitiLogs, a New Jersey-based company that uses “trees that have fallen down, are being removed as part of a construction project or are saved from a demolition project and we turn them into finished wood products such as furniture, flooring and architectural millwork.” No wood got hurt in the process!


At this point, we know how to conserve water. Green practices include rain gardens, porous pavements, green roofs, infiltration planters, trees and tree boxes and rainwater harvesting. And while these are crucial elements, they don’t answer the bigger picture of sustainability which is not just about the now, but about the future.

When we talk about water sustainability as a broader picture, we need to look at water infrastructure. “Sustainably managing our water infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing the water sector and is essential to protecting human health and the environment and realizing the goals of clean and safe water,” the EPA stated just last week in the launch of their Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Sustainability Policy.

But water sustainability also has to be implemented by large corporations to make a difference. For instance, the Coca-Cola Company’s water stewardship strategy, which began in 2007, heralded a three-part strategy that seems simple enough: Reduce, Recycle, Replenish.

The brutal reality is this: Unless sustainable water resource management practices are implemented, more than half of the world’s population will be exposed to severe water scarcity by 2050. According to a study published last March (via Smart Planet) by a water waste-specialty firm and the International Food Policy Research Institute, water shortage is a financial issue—and an environmental issue.

Still confused about sustainability? Make water sustainability your next Google search.

image: Mike138

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