Sustainable Sustainability

Focus on the year's undisputed overused buzzword: "Sustainable"

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Environment, Fads

Skeptoid #05
November 1, 2006
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Also available in Japanese

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?

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

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.

Brian Dunning

© 2006 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

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., 7 Feb. 2008. Web. 14 Jan. 2010. <>

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. <>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Sustainable Sustainability." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 1 Nov 2006. Web. 9 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 45 comments

To hammer the "dangers" of coal home, we should note that there was the omminous "killer fog" of '52 in which the fog from battersea power station (beautiful building, you can still see it from trains heading from Victoria to dover or margate. Ask Tom, he can probably talk about for hours if you ask him nicely)killed 12,000 people in a few days.

12,000 people. Killed by smoke. The Cybermen didnt manage to kill that many people there in Doctor Who.

Sustainability is or is not a buzz word depending on usage. Sustainable energy? Correct usage. Sustainable webpages? Or advertising? Buzz words.

The illuminatism, reptoid mountain
March 20, 2011 7:42am

That was before carbon capture technology was produced, so we have to ask if the same dangers need result from the danger.

And if we are going down the dr who road, how about geothermal power? The experimental shaft in Manchester science Centre will, through heat pumps/exchange will produce a truly sustainable source of energy. Heat from the earths inner crusts.

If we produced the technology on a vast scale? Entire cities relying not on nuclear power, but a simple bore hole to produce super heated steam to turn turbines. That would last as long as the earth turns. That need only be capped in an emergency. Awsome.

Tom H, Kent, UK
April 15, 2011 10:33am

The biggest overall problem is that we can't wait. We need vastly more power now. Worldwide energy production is lagging way behind need. Even advanced countries like Italy already have not enough and too expensive power.

When you come to third world countries the need is even more desperate. Only a state with abundant power can become a prosperous state. There is a desperate need for more advanced countries to assist backward and poorer ones get over the first step into becoming high tech societies. It will take far greater generosity than "loans"

To date we have nothing like developed technology that is generally acceptable to solve the problems. Nuclear power might, but only in a climate of present unpopularity - and techniques such as geothermal are simply too far into the future one fears

Perhaps it is time for a high powered international forum on energy production. Internationally we really need to know where we are going. Here in Australia many of us worry that in exporting energy producing materials to power the world - vast amounts of coal, gas, uranium - our Governments are allowing our children's heritage to be stolen. It is not for one nation to be another nations quarry - or coal mine

phi, Sydney
April 20, 2011 1:30am

You made a reference to biodiesel and the carbon dioxide it generates, being just as bad as the carbon dioxide from petro diesel. That in itself is true, what makes biodiesel more sustainable (and I hate that word) is that we re-capture that carbon dioxide in the next growing season when we grow more soybeans to make more biodiesel. It's a much more closed loop.
(I'm a chemist at a biodiesel plant in Ontario)

David Archibald, Toronto ON
July 15, 2011 7:18am

David is essentially correct in that biofuels are recycled CO2.

I would encourage Phi to expand his nuclear fuels and their recycling in his argument.

I am sick of trying to explain it to the masses.

Suffice to say, if modular technology is going to race away (as the Russians would love), we are all going to start hearing about waste burning technologies soon enough.

As if I am the worst party pooper as it is, bringing up nuclear and having my background, makes me look as if I have salted icecreams at every faux green (read Australians trying to look green) gathering.

30 years of that makes me say quite happily; "Phi, lose the slight alternative views you express from time to time and run off with this nuclear bone".

I can supply organic salt for icecream parties.

Henk v, Sydney Australia
July 29, 2011 9:14pm

Referenced at .

Cam, London
January 24, 2012 2:22am

Nature has all the capabilities and capacities to control but for man and this makes whole world really unsustainable.

Mohan Chnadra Pargaien, India, Hyderabad
February 20, 2012 7:46am

XKCD has a great comic about this issue:

Just thought I'd put that out there. There are other comics in that series that have to do with some of the subjects in the various podcasts.

Martin, Pleasanton, CA, USA
July 26, 2012 10:40am

The bio-fuels and CO2 argument seems to forget that we don't just throw plants into our engines, we need to reap, transport and process the material and each stage has energy and CO2 costs!!!

Plus you are using a crop for one purpose, whereas with fossil oil processing we get much more than just fuel for cars;, plastics and chemicals - like detergents - for example.

Until we have cars that we can just feed oats or beans to bio-fuels will still have a carbon price beyond that of just the crops. Even then the efficiencies of plants as fuel is not great, anyone realize how much fodder a horse needs for a long journey in lands where we can't just let it graze for hours on a friendly farmer's land? lol

Then of course we have a rapidly growing human population and limited land to grow crops on, who decides who doesn't get to eat in preference for rich countries energy needs?

Organic food still makes me laugh, you'd think all the growers were benevolent charitable types, spreading the good word and giving away their crops - instead of the big businessmen that many indeed are.

Add up all the current Kumbaya camp-fire-singing-feel-good idealism of the whole sustainable movement and it's goodbye to the modern technological world - and someone somewhere has to decide which people are not going to eat.

True, something needs to be done but, as big a polluter as the 'developed' world is, it is a global problem and many less developed countries are not interested.

David "sheeple" Healey, Maidenhead, UK
October 8, 2012 9:56am

re bio fuels, on site reclamation or sewage recycling..Sewage, produce methane conversion + lipids extraction with GM/E and plant nutrients to fertilizer solvrs plant (and an animal breeding/storing/ raising facility is a plant (sorry to the bleeding hearts there) and phosphate recycling to NPK.

Growing corn, beans or grass to make biofuels may work but its a hell of a lean conversion. Mind you, with corn/barley/wheat mashes being used as pollution, on sire or to sewer on conversion makes for increased efficiencies.

The nuclear waste recycling is even easier.

as to the rest David, you are about 40 years out of date. Then cornahol and sword grass conversion as a front line is a bit (or even a never) "eager"

Who turned on the humidity?

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
January 28, 2013 9:13pm

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