Sustainability: The flip side of ethical consumption

The jargoniest jargon of 2010 was voted to be 'sustainability' by Advertising Age. They say that their decision is based on the fact that sustainability is "a good concept gone bad by mis- and overuse. It’s come to be a squishy, feel-good catchall for doing the right thing. Used properly, it describes practices through which the global economy can grow without creating a fatal drain on resources.”

It is pretty relevant that when Ad Age says that sustainability is one of the most overused words. Advertising and marketing campaigns take full advantage of the word to push products that may or may not be sustainable. The cache for anything green, eco-friendly etc has boosted the use of the word, more often than not in the wrong sense. This means that consumers are often led astray by ad campaigns making it even harder for those who actually want to buy ethical products.

The official definition of sustainability is the one used in the Brundtland Commission Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It seems straight-forward enough but the definition of sustainability itself has large black-holes that need explanation. As a relatively new business model, it challenges the traditional notions of growth. Whilst a growing economy simply expands, a developing economy improves.

Within the frame of the definition of sustainability there is no indication of how we can support current rates of growth "without compromising on the ability of future generations to support themselves". There is no basis on which to perform a projection analysis to figure out what resource use the future generation requires because we barely know what is acceptable today. However since there is a deceptive simplicity around the concept of sustainability, it is applied to every new business model.

What is applied to a business model is applied to advertising products. The idea of sustainable development is based on two assumptions. The first is that we are running out of resources and the second is that economic growth is the cause of this depletion. However, with increase in technology life expectancy, housing, nutrition and education levels are improving world over. The prosperity we enjoy today is leaving future generations better off. The reason why we are in such bad shape is that there are simply too many of us!

The definition of sustainability should incorporate the idea of right to development. The right to development and by proxy the right to environment can only be guaranteed when the tragedy of the commons is abolished. Since growth and increasing wealth leads to improved environmental quality by raising demands for it, economic growth may not be the antithesis of sustainable development but the essence of it.

Now perhaps we just need to redefine the word 'growth'.