Eight Terms on Sustainability

Written by: Jessica Yates

When speaking about environmental sustainability, a lot of terms get thrown around, and it’s not always entirely clear what those terms mean. Here are eight terms you might have come across and a little explanation to bring them into focus.

It’s almost always best to start at the beginning, so first, what is sustainability? (Excellent question! Cue the history lesson!) Early forms of the environmental movement accompanied the industrialization of Europe and can be seen in the work of Romantic artists like William Wordsworth as well as many Enlightenment philosophers. The strength and spread of this movement grew over time, but truly gained prominence in the late twentieth century. It was during this time period (1983, precisely) that the United Nations formed a committee called the World Commission on Environment and Development (or WCED). In 1987, the WCED provided a now widely accepted definition for sustainability: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This comes in three facets: economic, social, and environmental. Economic sustainability refers to the efficient and responsible use of resources to maintain the desired level of economic production. Social sustainability refers to a social organization’s (i.e. a country) ability to maintain social well-being. So what about environmental sustainability?

One of the first things to consider is environmental impact. This is a reflection of “any change to the environment, good or bad, that wholly or partially results from industrial/manufacturing activities, products or services” (Dupont). Similar to impact is footprint, which measures the absorption of raw materials or industrial by-products into the environment. The goal is to have as little a footprint as possible. (I’d hate to be Sasquatch in this day and age).

Another important consideration for sustainability is seen when we talk about food. How is it grown? Where does it come from? Where are the brussel sprouts? (That last question doesn’t really have much to do with sustainability… I just like brussel sprouts).

A prominent topic right now in the food industry is the merit of organic foods. By the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards, organic certification guarantees no pesticides, no synthetic growth hormones, no petroleum-based fertilizers, and no cloning in both growth and processing of the food. Food producers that are certified organic must first be audited, accredited by a USDA-approved certifying agent, and reaccredited every five years (USDA source). This is required for any level of organic production and labelling. There are three ways you might have seen the organic label:

“100% Organic,” which means the product is (you guessed it) made with 100 percent organic ingredients,

“Organic,” which means the product is made with at least 95 percent organic ingredients

or “Made with Organic,” which means the product is at least 70 percent organic ingredients.

Companies can also list individual ingredients as organic.

A notable benefit of organic agriculture is the absence of pesticides. This prevents water pollution, which affects the entirety of an ecosystem. The use of natural in place of synthetic fertilizers in addition to other soil-building practices promotes better soil nutrition and biodiversity.

Organic certification is markedly different from the natural label, which is not regulated by the USDA. “Natural” only suggests the aforementioned organic guidelines, and there is no guarantee those guidelines have been met.

Organic certification also indicates the complete absence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The name is essentially self-explanatory. GMOs are organisms in which the DNA sequence has been modified through non-natural methods. This is done to promote desirable qualities in the organism, such as faster growth or reproduction and resistance to insects or herbicide. The genetic resistance to insects actually reduces the use of pesticide on GMOs, which helps lessen the amount of pesticide that remains in the land and natural water sources. At the same time, resistance to herbicides may increase the amount of herbicide that is used, since the GMO is no longer under as much threat from that usage. The debate over GMOs goes much further, but long-term effects are unknown at the current time (Woah, this is heavy).

Another popular term related to food concerns where the food is grown. Locally grown means that the food is (surprise!) grown in a local area. However, there isn’t a definite numeric range for what distances constitute “local.” The interpretation varies. The point, however, is that the food you buy and eat is not coming from the global industrial food system, which has a negative environmental impact. Some of this impact comes from air and water pollution (from transportation as well as agricultural methods), more packaging, and overconsumption of fossil fuels.

Finally, we have a term I came across when making some hot tea recently. If you pick up a Lipton (decaffeinated) tea bag, you might notice the following line on the individual package: “This product is packed in a zero-landfill facility.” Of course, the idea isn’t that complex, but I was curious. Does this really mean zero? Maybe it’s more like 90 percent?

Western Michigan University defines zero waste-to-landfill as “the ability to avoid diverting any excess material resources in a landfill or other non-reclamation waste center.” It’s a somewhat wordy definition, but after further research, it was determined that zero actually means zero, albeit only in concern to the waste actually sent to landfills. Such facilities have a generous emphasis on recycling as well as composting. Remaining “waste” materials are sometimes incinerated, but reuse is also highly encouraged.

There are many different ways sustainability can be addressed and here are only a few of them. Every individual can find their own way to celebrate awareness of our environment. You don’t have to decide to only buy organic foods or only support zero-landfill facilities – it can be as simple as turning off the lights.

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