The proper use of the term “sustainable”

For my first blog entry, I will start with something quite fundamental. The word “sustainability” and its adjective “sustainable” have been used more and more in the past decade. While this might seem like a desirable development at first, the use of these words is not always appropriate.

In St. Gallen, Switzerland, there is taxi company which runs its cars on a mix of 80% natural and 20% bio gas instead of petroleum. To differentiate from their competition, “Taxi Frosch” advertises their services with the slogan “Driving sustainably without additional cost!”. Granted, natural gas emits ca. 25% less CO2 than petrol, the biogas mix performs even better.¬†But while biogas is renewable and close to being CO2 neutral (the CO2 emitted was previously absorbed during the growth of the plants), the natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Its use therefore depletes finite resources and emits CO2 (which was also absorbed before, but millions of years ago and that doesn’t count). Taxi Frosch is therefore not a “sustainable” company as they claim. But aren’t they more sustainable than their competition? Sure! And the difference lies in the word “more”. So what can we learn from this?

As mentioned in the first lecture of our course, sustainability is a “moving target”. It might be sufficient in 2010¬†for a taxi company to use gas-fuelled cars to call oneself “sustainable” in the common use of the word. But in 2015, customers would only believe this claim if the company were to use 100% biogas and smaller taxis to reduce fuel use. Nowadays, most pioneers in the field of sustainability are still a far cry from actually being sustainable enterprises, i.e. not producing a net negative impact on their environment or even being net contributors to the replenishment of natural or social resources. This has some important consequences for marketing. For instance: for Taxi Frosch’s slogan to be fully credible it should say “Drive MORE sustainably” until they achieve a way to be 100% sustainable.

With this view I disagree with some people who say that sustainability is a permanently moving target, that 100% sustainability can never be achieved. If real sustainability can never be achieved, isn’t it futile to even try? Don’t we just delay the inevitable? I firmly believe that at some point in the distant future we will be able to live in a fully sustainable society, not only because it is possible, but because it is necessary.

By the way, when I have to take a taxi in St. Gallen after a tough night out and with a long way to walk home, I still call Taxi Frosch. Not only because they drive more sustainably, but also because they treat their drivers better than the competition. So when I pay for my ride,  contributing to the third dimension, I rest assured that all three dimensions of sustainability have been addressed.