Sustainability is often defined as meeting our present needs without making it impossible for future generations to meet their needs.  Have you ever had a conversation about what “present needs” means?  I have on many, many occasions.  And I can tell you it’s always filled with conundrums, and often emotionally charged.

The core issue is around defining need. This means different things to different people.

If you back up to a dictionary definition of sustainability, you’ll find that it means “the capacity to endure.”  Endure also seems to mean different things to different people.  It can mean a grin-and-bear-it ability to just survive or a long-lasting ability to thrive and be happy.  So much of life is perspective.  

So what do we need?  We often use this graphic as an icebreaker for conversations on the meaning of sustainability:

What seems like a “need” is definitely a perspective on what you have already (or perhaps more poignantly, what you lack).  A lot of people in the world live on a few dollars a day and just want to satisfy the basic needs listed above “The capacity to endure” line. Can you see how the conversation here in the U.S. might quickly gravitate to morality? 

In the business world people are rarely willing to have an open conversation about morality.  So the conversation most often tiptoes around an unspoken fear of being asked to sacrifice for the moral high ground of defining “need” more equitably around the planet.  It’s understandable that people don’t want to talk about sacrifice.  In fact, I think the conversation should be framed differently. Can we shift from a scarcity and sacrifice mentality to one of plenty and generosity?  Sustainability is a journey and a destination.  If the destination is plenty and generosity, where does that journey start?

We always talk about what can we do to have everything we already have, but do it more efficiently or with fewer resources and negative impacts. And that’s really worthwhile. I think you can make a good argument that it’s immoral to be wasteful.

Overconsumption is another form of waste.  Before my kids’ allowances burned holes in their pockets, I always told them to ask, “Do I really need that?” Just because you may have the power to consume whatever you want at the moment, doesn’t mean you should.  This is a particularly good question to ask ourselves when considering currently not-so-good-for-the-planet-or-people products or services.

Taking it a step further (and making a sustainability transition), spend time looking for products and services that are sustainable.  If they cost a bit more, can you “need” a little less to afford something better?  Lots of consumers are doing just that, as evidenced by examples of significant growth in the market for green products and services.

Framing the conversation in these ways leads to innovation and creativity.  Try it! In your business setting ask, “How can we keep profits where they are while being efficient, using fewer resources, and eliminating negative impacts?”  This is fantastic work that’s being done in sustainability programs by businesses all around the planet with great success.

At some point this leads to the question of whether it’s good to have certain products at all. Are there other ways of defining and fulfilling a need?  Energy is a good case in point. It will be a better world when we can figure out how to provide only clean, renewable energy to meet our global needs.

Most important, we need acknowledge that sustainability work is about transition.  It should not be so daunting (sacrificial) that we get defensive, dig in our heels, and do nothing. As sustainability guru Ioannis Ioannou says in an aptly named article Sustainability: From Surviving to Thriving, “Sustainability has to be discovered.” Virtually none among us has made the transition yet. 

Here are some things I do as part of my transition:

  • Think about ways in which you are part of the problem (negative impacts), and what you can do to stop that. Push that envelope; ask why not.
  • Think about what you need.  Try defining need in terms of what’s essential vs. nice-to-have, and what improves quality of life for you and for others.
  • Think about how much of each thing you need is enough so that you don’t waste or consume just because you can.
  • Think about how you might influence those who meet your needs to do so more sustainably.
  • Think about things you need that aren’t and never will be sustainable and start learning how to do without or find sustainable substitutes.
  • Think about your charitable donations budget and use it to support the transition. You might take some of the money you save on consuming just “enough” and use it here.

Most of all, remember it’s not about throwing the baby out with the bath water. It’s about finding practical ways to keep the baby, use just enough water to get clean, and then reuse the bath water for the lawn!  It’s about working every day to close the gap between our values and our actions so that we can transition to a more sustainable future.