Focus on the year's undisputed overused buzzword: "Sustainable"
by Brian Dunning
November 1, 2006
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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 decade's winner of the award for "buzzword overused to the point of meaninglessness" has to be the word sustainable.
To label your product or process as sustainable is to imply that competing products and processes 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 word was first coined to describe products or methods that are generally better for the environment. Soon the marketing gurus got ahold of the word, and now everything from toothpaste to music to real estate is being sold as sustainable. Search Amazon for the word sustainable and prepare to be amazed by the diversity of products whose marketers have jumped onto this particular buzzword bandwagon.
It's so effective, and thus popular, because it's become really just 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" when used by those selling organic crops — perhaps the word's single most common manifestation. 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 farming practices will somehow destroy or deplete the environment, and are thus "unsustainable". Ironically, the reverse is closer to the truth. Modern biotech crops require less fertilizer and less pesticide, many are drought tolerate and can get by with less water, and per-acre yields have skyrocketed. Organic — the so-called "sustainable" method — loses on all counts of resources consumed.
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. It's another great example of the same basic lesson: When you hear any product defined only by a vague buzzword, especially one that's grossly overused, be skeptical.
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? Certainly a cogent argument could be formed saying that it's best to shield the undeveloped areas from the impact of tourism.
Sustainable economics are particularly bizarre. Google the term, and you'll find that it's used largely to refer to wealth redistribution. In the history of world economies, has communism really proven to be more sustainable than capitalism? There may be fine arguments to make in favor of wealth redistribution, but that such a system should be expected to survive longer is certainly not the case.
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? Eventually all our cars will run on fuel that truly is sourced in an infinitely sustainable way; but until we get there, it's disingenuous to say some current cars are sustainable and others aren't.
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? These may all be fine subjects, but they should be recognized on their merits, not for their association with a buzzword.
I found a website offering sustainable real estate. Two of the houses were built of corn cobs and hay bales. 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 two minutes. When you hear it, be skeptical. Figure out what they're really trying to say, and what their motivation is. And please don't buy any bone-powder toothpaste just because it says sustainable on the package.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Sustainable Sustainability." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
1 Nov 2006. Web.
22 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4005>
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>
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