Sustainability is a term that, these days, gets thrown around like a Frisbee on a college campus. It is both an adjective and noun. But what does it actually mean?
In 1987, the UN Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” By definition, sustainability refers to something that is capable of being supported and continued. More specifically, sustainability can pertain to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse.
This word, as vague as it seems, is about specific principles that guide a cyclical growth pattern. Some examples would be no waste, integration of systems, and valuing diversity. Many of these principles are verbal descriptions that characterize patterns existing naturally in our environment, which is the original model for sustainability.
Sustainable business refers to a business that incorporates principles of sustainability, supplies environmentally friendly products or services, is “greener” than traditional competition, and has made a commitment to environmental principles in its business operations. Sustainable businesses strive to participate in environmentally friendly practices to ensure that all processes, products, and manufacturing adequately address current environmental concerns while maintaining a profit.
Sustainable design is the philosophy of designing physical objects, the built environment and services to comply with principles of sustainability. This concept of design to is to create projects that use renewable resources, impact the environment minimally, and connect people to the environment. These design principles cover everything from the micro to the macro- from a pencil to a city.
Sustainable materials are any material is derived from a renewable resource that can be produced and harvested at high volumes without affecting the environment. These materials when put into a product should: conserve energy, improve productivity, and reduce maintenance/replacement costs.
Sustainable resources are natural resources that can be used up at the same rate they are renewed. Some resources like wind and sun are automatically sustainable, as they will not run out (at least not for another 5 billion years!) Other resources like wood or bamboo are sustainable as long as they are being harvested at the same rate it takes new trees or bamboo to mature. Some resources, such as oil and minerals are not considered sustainable, as the rate to regenerate them is in on a geological timescale.
Sustainable agriculture or Permaculture refers to high efficiency farming by maximizing yield with minimum effort. By using natural factors (sunlight, gravity, natural water systems) this agriculture style strives to use the most of its situation in order to grow the most it can, without destroying the biosphere around it.
Regardless of how you slice the term, sustainability comes down to one very simple concept: self-support, the ability to succeed without relying heavily on other things.