Comment: So what exactly is sustainability?

The meaning of sustainability is often personal to each one of us, says recruitment consultant Anna Powles as she explores the term and its impact on society and the workplace.

Often our view of what should be considered sustainable may be dependant upon the context in which we become aware of it, or the environments in which we live or work.

This affects how we engage with this concept.

As individuals, that thrive in complex environments we all hold differing worldviews.

Thus the emphasis that each of us places on the different aspects of sustainability is dependant upon whether we consider social, economic or environmental factors of higher importance than others.

Additionally, values, customs and norms vary greatly in-between cultures, as well as between academic disciplines (e.g., between economists and ecologists).

Thus one that believes in adopting a deep ecological approach to sustainability may not be able to reconcile themselves with an economic perspective.

In relation to this the recent introduction of social values to sustainability goals implies a much more complex and contentious debate, as many focused on ecological, environmental or economic impacts may tend to strongly resist adopting a social perspective.

Though, comparatively others envision that at the heart of the concept of sustainability is a fundamental, immutable value set that the parallel care and respect for the ecosystems and for the people whom live within these systems is of great importance.

From this perspective emerges the goal of sustainability: to achieve human and ecosystem longevity and well-being together. Seen in this way, the concept of sustainability is much more than environmental protection.

It is a positive concept that has as much to do with achieving well-being for people and ecosystems as it has to do with reducing ecological or environmental impacts.

With these varying perspectives in mind, we should consider that often as individuals that operate within the complex work environment we may find that we have to adjust our worldviews to understand the perspectives of others.

Often, this may lead to conflicting approaches being adopted in varying sectors due to the mindset that can be associated with the working environment.

Thus the meaning of sustainability may be seen as being embedded within a social context, which is closely related to the environment in which we live.

This compounds the complexity of concepts surrounding sustainability as often our behaviour may be governed our environment.

Often this is also affected by the actions of others or by a variety of constraints such as, lack of time, money or other restrictions that lead us to act quickly without reflecting upon the consequences.

For example, we may often choose to use plastic carrier bags at the supermarket because we have neglected to remember the reusable bags at home or decide to design a building using less sustainable materials, as it is quicker and cheaper.

Each of these actions has a consequence, which may not directly affect us, but the survival of our environment or the health of others.

Thus, reflecting upon the consequences of our actions and thinking through their implications is important. The concept of longevity which is often associated with sustainability echoes this.

However, this may be seen as important within social, economic and environmental considerations. However, without each of us reflecting upon what this means to us as individuals that operate within complex social environments that affect our behaviour little will changed.

Sustainability is not just a term, but a concept that each of us can adopt and mould in line with our worldviews. Thus, it is flexible enough for each of us to play our part in changing existing behaviours but whether we choose to accept this challenge or not is a different matter.

The increasing pressure to take up the challenge has been echoed within the changing practices of larger businesses such as, banks or energy suppliers who now offer to plant a tree each time we switch to non-paper statements or green energy with no CO2 emissions.

Each of these products to a greater or lesser extent is designed to support the need to change existing behavioural patterns to support sustainability. Thus, in the longer term it may be easier for us to adopt these practices whether this at home or work.

Anna Powles works at Earth Recruitment and can be contacted on 0870 803 3134

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie