Just as when you repeat a word again and again and it loses all meaning, sustainability has come to the same fate. The word is everywhere, in a myriad of contexts. A quick Google search reveals: ‘Kuala Lumpur: a city in traffic gridlock, striving for sustainability’, ‘A manifesto for sustainable capitalism’ and ‘Why sustainability is now the key driver of innovation’. To put some meaning back into the word, let’s take a trip through recent history, from the original definition of the term to how it has been interpreted and used since then. Spoiler alert: sustainability is a lie that has been promoted for profit.

The original definition of sustainable development coined in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission states that it is: development that meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Let’s put aside for now the problematic concept of needs and focus on the far-reaching implications this term has had. The main assumption of sustainability is that we have limited natural resources on this Earth. This is true. From this it is widely agreed that we should be conscious of how we use these resources. This is also true. The mainstream solution is therefore ‘sustainability’. That is, trying to conserve the Earth’s resources by merely using them up more slowly. Do you see the inherent paradox? This system may work to preserve resources for a few generations to come, but the accepted definition of sustainability does not limit the number of generations that should be able to meet their needs. If future generations for an indefinite period of time are to meet their needs, then we cannot simply slow down the use of resources, but must stop or reverse the trend. In no uncertain terms, sustainability is a lie.

The lie of sustainability is all-pervasive. Sustainability can be found in the spiel of nearly any big business. Coca-Cola’s annual sustainability report for 2012-2013 outlines initiatives such as greener packaging. Nike are aiming to ‘create finished products with zero waste’. Apple are trying to create facilities that run on 100 per cent renewable energy. Big businesses have jumped on the bandwagon of sustainability because, now here’s the kicker, it helps them sell more. That’s right, big businesses love sustainability as it allows them to sell more because us consumers believe we can spend without the associated guilt of ruining the planet. Even more than that, since the drive for sustainability apparently promotes innovation and new solutions to climate change and other imminent environmental catastrophes, by supporting businesses we are actively helping to save the planet. Take Richard Branson’s pledge to invest $3bn to develop biofuels and suddenly one can fly Virgin and feel good about helping to achieve this pledge. A win-win situation.

Or not. It’s really a win-lose situation, and on the losing side are us and the planet. As well as using sustainability as a marketing technique, the same companies are also practicing planned obsolescence. Gone are the days when your electronic gadgets lasted decades (remember the TV in your house as a child that your parents would proudly declare was older than you?), now, you are lucky if you get more than 10 years of use out of a product. This seems counterintuitive since there has been so much technological advancement, but part of the development has included creations that limit the life of a product so you buy more. Planned obsolescence is everywhere. Printer cartridges have a counter to allow you to only print a certain number of pages before having to refill. Washing machines have the same thing, and some vital components are made to fail after the guarantee time is over. iPod batteries are planned to last about 18 months, and the cost of replacement is just shy of the cost of the latest model. Apple has even invented their own special screws to prevent users from replacing their product’s batteries themselves. Perhaps the most sinister move was the software ‘upgrade’ for the iPhone 4 that actually slowed it down. This upgrade just so happened to coincide with the release of the iPhone 5.

What is the alternative? Assuming that we are not going to start washing our clothes by hand or give up our laptops and smart phones, there are still practical ways we can resist businesses taking advantage of the sustainability story for profit, and resist the concept itself. You can follow the ‘repair revolution’ and learn how to fix and mend your own products to beat planned obsolescence. Companies such as iFixit have reverse engineered a screwdriver for Apple’s unique screws. Refuse to be sucked in by new versions of products. Do your research, what exactly are the new features and do you really need them? Do you need a slightly bigger, more rounded iPhone? More importantly, instead of just prolonging the life of your goods, the only way to really conserve resources is to reduce what you use.

The next time you are out shopping, whether it be for clothes, electronics, or household items take note of the language of sustainability that is used to encourage you to buy more. Question Ikea’s motivations when they want to help you to ‘discover products that help you live more sustainably’, or why Topshop promotes their Reclaim to Wear line so enthusiastically. Sustainability is a lie, and we deserve the truth.

 

Sources:

http://www.coca-colacompany.com/sustainability/

http://nikeinc.com/pages/our-impacts

http://www.apple.com/uk/environment/climate-change/

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/13/greenwashing-sticky-business-naomi-klein

http://www.ikea.com/ms/en_GB/about_ikea/people_and_planet/