Sustainability: What’s it about?

Sustainability and its variants certainly cause some confusion and I would also suggest regular misuse across much of the business community and turfgrass industry. Considering the confusion which surrounds the variations and meanings of the term ‘sustainability’, there’s little wonder this happens.

The aim of this article, and subsequent ones, is to explore the issue of sustainability, providing answers to many questions, but also to encourage further debate and reflection on the concept of sustainability.

One of the most well known references which deals with sustainable development is that of the 1987 ‘Brundtland Report’, which is to ensure it ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. This definition does not provide any guidance on how to implement sustainable development, although the guiding principles can be followed as a potential pathway to sustainability. (Source ‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future’)

Before we go any further let’s try and set the scene and reflect on some brief but likely interpretations of these variants to sustainability:

Sustainable development is a process which is undertaken to ideally achieve a desirable outcome, that of sustainability.

Sustainable development is the concept used for providing or promoting an activity that is sustainable (i.e. that which can be sustained (maintained or kept going)) to achieve the desired outcome (a target, or end point) of sustainability (that which is capable of being sustained without damage or harm to the environment, society, or the economy).

Timescales are especially pertinent and problematic to this concept, as how long is an activity to be maintained before it can be said to achieve an accepted sustainability outcome?  Brundtland does give some indication of this in stating that it is inter-generational, so we could infer 25+ years as a minimum guideline. If we think about some of the ways in which ‘sustainability’ is currently used – essentially focusing on short term outcomes then it’s clear there are some distinct challenges that need to be made to realign the use of this term to better reflect a generational timescale.

The concept of sustainability is a contested concept (Sneddon et al, 2006; Blewitt, 2008), yet it provides an opportunity for society to focus on its place in the world; both present and the future. A consequence of this is that it allows society to make an informed choice of how to adapt to and mitigate the negative impacts of its actions at both a local and global level; this may be through means of individual, organisational, community, national and international efforts, although the measurement of the sustainability concept can be problematical (Bell & Morse, 2008).

Full sources:

  • Bell, S. and Morse, S. (2008) ‘Sustainability Indicators. Measuring the Immeasurable?’, Second Edition, Earthscan
  • Blewitt, J. (2008) ‘Understanding Sustainable Development’, Earthscan, pp53-54
  • Sneddon, C., Howarth, R.B. and Norgaard, R.B. (2006) ‘Sustainable development in a post-Brundtland world’, Ecological Economics 57 (2006) 253-268

Unintended consequences

Sustainability, whilst commonly understood as being a vehicle for good, does have the potential to produce consequences that are diametrically opposed and contradictory to what is universally envisaged for the concept.

This apparent oxymoron manifests itself in three ways – perversity, futility and jeopardy – which provide a salutary message to us all.

Perversity: Everything has the potential to backfire. The ideal of widespread stakeholder engagement could turn into allowing vocal stakeholders to project a “ “tyranny of a few” who look after their own interests at the expense of the wider community”. The rise of gated communities and NIMBYism can be a consequence of vocal minority stakeholders.

Futility: This is where the encouragement of greater stakeholder participation does not impact on the decisions made because “the underlying power and decision-making structures” remain unchanged. If there is no perceived benefit to stakeholders in becoming involved, what purpose does active engagement serve, except as a futile exercise in self-promotion?

Jeopardy: By taking a holistic approach to sustainability, damage may actually occur to smaller elements that can contribute a greater value to the whole than is realised at the time; this may be hidden until it is too late to prevent unacceptable damage occurring.

(Source: Holden, M. (2010) ‘The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy?, Sustainability 2010, 2(2), 645 – 659,

The moral of this is to be aware of probable unintended consequences and to be open to constructive discourse as a way to continually challenge established positions and ‘wisdom’ when applied to the concept of sustainability.

Sustainable development is not a “fixed state of harmony”. Rather, it is an ongoing process of evolution in which people take actions leading to development that meets there current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Conversely, actions that reduce the ability of future generations to meet their own needs should be avoided”.  (Source: Hardi, P. & Zdan, T. (1997), ‘Assessing Sustainable Development: Principles in Practice’, International Institute for Sustainable Development, p.9,

The conventional three-dimensional (economic, environmental, social) approach to sustainability is challenged with proposals to view social and economic aspects as a single dimension called well-being, which focuses on the needs of the current generation, and another dimension called sustainability which represents the environmental / ecological dimension and how society bequeaths resources to future generations. “Measuring well-being and sustainability separately will enhance the transparency of the policy formulation process, by bringing out in the open the two issues and clarifying rather than obscuring the choices that have to be made”. (Source: Kuhlman, T. & Farrington, J. (2010) ‘What is sustainability?’, Sustainability 2010, 2, 3436 – 3448;

This is a persuasive argument, which could provide an alternative way of balancing the needs of the present with the needs of the future.

The sustainability aspect of this two-dimension approach can then be addressed by ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ sustainability views, with natural and cultural resources being categorised into either renewable or non-renewable. (We’ll look at ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ sustainability in a subsequent article).

An interesting variance of the three-dimension approach is described by Maathai as an analogy with an “African stool that has three legs and a basin to sit on”. The three legs represent “three critical pillars of just and stable societies”: democratic space, sustainable and equitable management of resources and cultures of peace, all supporting society and its prospects for development (the basin). Instability arises if any pillar is missing, with society being in conflict where all pillars have failed. (Source: Maathai, W. (2006) [2008 edition] ‘Unbowed: One Woman’s Story’, Arrow books, p294)

A definition that is aligned more to business organisations is: ‘A successful approach to managing sustainable development also helps ensure that an organisation makes high quality decisions that promote continuing and lasting success. The long-term success of any organisation will increasingly depend on the integration of economic, environmental and social performance into all aspects of operation.” (Source: BSI (2006) ‘BS8900:2006 Guidance for managing sustainable development’, British Standards Institution – now superseded by BS8900-1:2013)

A strong critique of the term “sustainable development” has been made by Grant who asserts that the term is an oxymoron and “…is a great cover for ambivalence. …. [and] is in danger of being coopted by people who want to give the appearance of environmental commitment while avoiding the harsher decisions that a true commitment would require. Beware of those who profess an enthusiasm for sustainable development if by “development” they mean “growth”.

The implication is that some organisations may use this term as a cover for ‘business as usual’, essentially a ‘green wash’ to put a user-friendly face on their unsustainable practices. The term “sustainability”, by contrast, is seen in a different light and ‘has a lot going for it’, although specific – but not too rigid – rather than generalised definitions are required for it to be successfully implemented. (Source: Grant, L. (1997) ‘Sustainability Part 1: On the Edge of an Oxymoron’, Negative Population Growth Inc. ,

Growth, in the form of consumption of energy and resources, cannot be perpetually sustained (this would also contradict some laws of nature) because there are only finite resources on a finite planet; some resources will last longer than others, but our present society must not consume to such a level that we leave a legacy of a degraded environment with social misery for future generations. Many people accept that we have an ethical responsibility to do what is right; we have the knowledge and technology to follow a sustainable pathway, the big question is ‘Do we have the will power?’

Qualitative growth, such as in the form of information, expanding the mind or friendliness, can be argued as being the type of development that should be perceived within the term ‘sustainable development’, not sustainable growth, which Hardin argues is absurd, who shows even small consistent increases which are projected into the future are unsustainable. (Source: Hardin, G. (1993) (1995 edition) ‘Living within limits. Ecology, economics and population taboos’, OUP, pp194)

If qualitative growth is the aim of developing sustainably then Hardin postulates that maybe this can grow perpetually; this is a different perspective from traditional economic and material growth; yet qualitatively can offer comparable rewards. Interpreting and then applying this approach to the management of turfgrass surfaces will certainly be challenging, but well worth the time investment.

“The crux of the sustainability debate involves the nature of the relationship between qualitatively different types of systems operating in different domains. We do not have an agreed way, as yet, to capture the behaviour of this world of interacting complex systems, such as ecological and economic systems, that are generally different and adapt in different ways.” (Source: Clayton, A.M.H. & Radcliffe, N.J. (1996) ‘Sustainability. A systems approach’, Earthscan Publications Ltd, pp.231)

From a turf management perspective we can start to provide some early thoughts on defining what is meant by sustainability in this context:

Sustainability can be defined ‘the result of a process which delivers an enduring, balanced and responsible approach to turf management that promotes the efficient and effective use of all resources in the prevention of environmental degradation and unacceptable social consequences’. (Adapted from BS8900:2006)

This approach should be seen to encompass the initial provision and construction through to the subsequent continued maintenance of turf surfaces.

The concept of sustainability and its many interpretations can also be seen as an extension of good management practices and for successful sustainable visions and decisions this needs to be firmly embedded within decision-making.

A difficulty with this tentative definition, as it stands, is that it doesn’t address what is meant by ‘enduring’, nor does it provide explicit consideration of economics (although this is implied within efficient and effective), nor how the three dimensions of sustainability – environment, economy, and society – are interconnected. The wider context of how activities outside the boundaries of a turf facility are integrated into the concept need to be explored, for example how is the transport of resources to the site to be incorporated into any evaluation? How are local stakeholders (residents, businesses, wildlife, local authorities …) to be factored into the concept of sustainability, as interconnectedness is an important part of sustainability? How might sustainability be measured, assessed and evaluated?

Certainly a lot to consider, but a useful starting place though from which to explore, amend and expand in later posts.

Chris Gray, 21 January 2017

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