Sustainable: what does it really mean?

Sustainable: what does it really mean?

There are sustainable foods, sustainable building materials, sustainable policy, sustainable holiday travel, etc., etc., etc. The concept of sustainability is used excessively especially lately and is applied to almost every aspect of life. This blurs the semantic contents so that in many cases, hardly anyone knows what, exactly, is meant by it. So what does sustainable really mean? A tracking search shows that there is much more than meets the eye.


Sustainable has become a buzzword that seeps ever deeper into general vocabulary. Because many people today are guided by ecological and social aspects when making consumer decisions. It is no longer the case that quality and price alone are crucial in making a purchase decision – it also matters, for instance, whether the manufacturer upholds environmentally sound and sustainable production practices. Consumers are usually willing to spend another euro or two for it.


The hype surrounding the concept of sustainability also has quite a social cause, too. In an era of climate change, energy turnaround and globalisation, people are becoming increasingly aware that responsible, sustainable conduct is more important than ever. „Think about tomorrow today“ is the motto for everyone which is an ongoing exercise as opposed to a fad. Sustainable action is worthwhile.


But what does sustainable mean, exactly? A look at the genesis of the term offers clarity: For the first time, Hans Carl von Carlowitz formulated the principles of sustainability when he developed the basic idea to permanently have enough wood available for the construction of silver mines as the chief mining director in the 18th century. He stipulated that only as many trees should be taken as could grow back. This forestry principle eventually inspired the idea of „living off the interest and not the capital,“ the basis of the current understanding of sustainability. Der Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung (the Council for Sustainable Development) whose 15 members are convened by the federal government every three years defines the basic idea of sustainability as follows:


„Sustainable development means considering environmental issues on an equal footing with the social and economic issues. In that sense, sustainable husbandry means that we must leave an intact ecological, social and economic system for our children and grandchildren. One does not exist without the other.“


So sustainability has many facets: in addition to ecological and economic ramifications, social justice is an important part of sustainability. These functions which are also called the triangle of sustainability are closely intertwined and interdependent. That is, real sustainability can only arise when all three factors are considered. An example: a garment manufactured according to strict environmental criteria that was made by seamstresses under exploitative conditions is anything but sustainable.


When sustainability is mentioned, unfortunately only the two issues of ecology and economy are often envisaged while the social component is neglected. The reason: its implementation is usually not very apparent. As a consumer, one usually has little insight into the production circumstances especially when it comes to purchasing an everyday object. Simply choosing a sustainable product or specifically making a conscious decision to support a dedicated company does not cut it. It was with this in mind that der Rat für Nachhaltige Entwicklung developed the „sustainable shopping cart“ for consumers who are serious about sustainability and want to change their consumption patterns. Decision support is available as a brochure, on the Internet at or as an app for smartphones. After all, not everything that says „sustainable“ is actually true to its word. Look closely!


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