Focus on the year's undisputed overused buzzword: "Sustainable"
by Brian Dunning
November 1, 2006
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By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 05, November 01, 2006
I bet you didn't know that Skeptoid is a sustainable podcast, delivered over a sustainable Internet, using sustainable networks, and received through your sustainable ears. Now you know. But really you should have known that already, because this year's winner of the meaningless, overused buzzword award has to be the word "sustainable".
To label your product as "sustainable" is to imply that competing products are not sustainable. What this is intended to mean is often pretty vague. Presumably it means that competing products are manufactured from materials that we'll run out of, should current methods and usage continue.
The environmentalists, usually portrayed in the media as the good guys, first coined the phrase to describe products or methods that are generally better for the environment than the competition. Soon the marketing gurus got ahold of the word, and now everything from toothpaste to music to real estate is being sold as "sustainable".
It's so effective, and thus popular, because it's an alarmist term. Calling your product sustainable is not really saying anything about your product; it's clanging the warning bell about the alternative being unsustainable: Can't be sustained! The world is ending! It's like calling your product "hate free" or "cruelty free". In no way is it descriptive of your product, it's simply an underhanded way to insult your competition. As any marketing expert will tell you, people respond much better to a negative than to a positive.
One gross overusage of the term is "sustainable agriculture", used almost exclusively by those selling organic crops. Organic agriculture is certainly sustainable, so long as a third of the world's population is willing to die off so the rest of us can eat. As with many people who use the word sustainable, proponents of organic foods aren't really saying anything particular about their product, they're trying to frighten you into thinking that modern advanced farming methods will somehow destroy or deplete the environment, and are thus "unsustainable". Ironically, the reverse is closer to the truth. Among other benefits, modern hybridized crops are designed for specific soil types, and to leave those soils less depleted so that they can be replanted for more seasons before being rotated. So-called sustainable agriculture is, in fact, far less sustainable than the planting of crops that have been optimized to thrive in the available conditions.
The word "organic" is itself the same kind of deceptive marketing: intended to trick you into thinking the alternative is somehow not organic. Strictly speaking, all plants and animals are organic, according to the word's true definition. When you hear any product defined only by a vague buzzword, be skeptical.
You also hear a lot about sustainable fuels for cars. This usually refers to biodiesel and ethanol, since they come from renewable resources instead of a limited resource, natural petroleum. In this sense, the production of biodiesel and ethanol is certainly more sustainable than gasoline, since we'll always be able to grow them. However, they have a show-stopping drawback. Burning biodiesel or ethanol in our cars exhausts the most significant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, into the air — just like gasoline does. So even if we switched all of our cars over to biodiesel and ethanol tomorrow, down the road we'll be no better off. The production of biodiesel and ethanol might be sustainable, but their usage is absolutely not. This is a great example of why you need to bring a skeptical attitude when you hear the word "sustainable". Are the environmentalists promoting biodiesel really looking out for what's healthiest for the earth, or do they have some other motivation, possibly political, possibly economic, possibly philosophic?
The word sustainable has become so pervasive that its usage is often just plain silly. Colgate recently purchased a company that makes sustainable toothpaste. It contains bone powder. Does an intelligent person really think that it's unsustainable to make toothpaste any other way?
Sustainable tourism is being marketed everywhere. It usually describes destinations where the attractions are generally undeveloped, like the Amazon. It is really unsustainable to vacation in developed destinations like Paris or Tokyo?
Sustainable economics are particularly bizarre. Google the term, and you'll find that it's used largely to refer to wealth redistribution. Has communism really proven to be more sustainable than capitalism?
A prominent automotive magazine recently tested four "sustainable sport sedans". Are four cars that get marginally better gas mileage than other similar cars — none of which are particularly great — honestly the only type of vehicles whose production can be sustained?
Sustainable music is also all over the Internet. In one case, it means the guy makes his own instruments. Is "sustainable" really the word that best describes that? Playing an instrument someone else made is not sustainable? In other cases, it refers to songs about anticorporatism. Is it truly impossible to sustain the playing of music about other themes?
I found a web site offering sustainable real estate. Two of the houses were built of corn cobs and hay bales (I wish I was making this up). I'll ask the Big Bad Wolf how sustainable that type of engineering is.
There's no doubt that doing things in a truly sustainable way is good. Accomplishing a worthy goal in a way that's infinitely repeatable is best, and that's what sustainable really means. True sustainability might violate the laws of thermodynamics, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. It's still a good goal, and as such, sustainability deserves not to be diluted into a meaningless buzzword. Thus, true environmentalists should be the first ones to object to the misleading pop-culture usages of the word that we see every 2 minutes. When you hear it, be skeptical. Figure out what they're really trying to say, and what their motivation is. And for God's sake, don't buy any bone-powder toothpaste just because it says "sustainable" on the package.
© 2006 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
References & Further Reading
Edwards, A., Orr, D. The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2005.
Gerard, Jasper. "Sustainable? Over-use of the word will run out." UK Telegraph. 2 May 2008, Editorial.
Hawken, Paul. The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.
Lafleche, Daniel. "Sustainable Development - What Does it Mean and Who Wants To Tell You?" Ezine Articles. EzineArticles.com, 7 Feb. 2008. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. <http://ezinearticles.com/973172>
Morris, J. Sustainable development: Promoting progress or perpetuating poverty. Coventry: Profile, 2002.
Wilson, S. "Energy Guy: What is Sustainability?" Iowa Newspapers. 30 Oct. 2010, Volume 1.
Woodward, D., McClure, J. "The Sustainability Problem." Develop for the Long Term. McClure Consulting, LLC, 11 Aug. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2010. <http://www.developforthelongterm.com/the-sustainability-problem.html>
Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Sustainable Sustainability." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 1 Nov 2006. Web. 21 Dec 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4005>