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Definition of sustainability

What is the definition of sustainability? And then there's circularity; what about that? Joost tells you all about it.

What is the definition of sustainability? Is sustainability "absolute"? Or does sustainability arise in comparison to non-sustainable options? And then there's circularity; what about that? Joost Walterbos, Max Wastiaux & Clara Kuindersma discussed this in the podcast “De Klimaat Veranderaars”. Here are the key outcomes.

Prefer to listen? The episode Sustainability; Definitions & Deeds is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. The podcast is in Dutch, apologies to all international sustainability heroes!

Visual communicating the podcast episode

The two characteristics of sustainability

Joost: “Definitions of sustainability, or circularity, are quite complex issues. As a sustainability expert, I see at least these two characteristics of sustainability; sustainability transcends national borders and is intergenerational.

Environmental problems do not adhere to national borders. A joke on this: why do you think all factories have a long chimney stack? Of course, you don't want your emissions to settle on your own property! And with such a chimney stack, it ends up a bit further away, at your neighbours.

This principle also applies in real life; for example, a river does not stop at a border. So, if there is a chemical factory in Switzerland dumping waste into the Rhine, it eventually ends up here in the Netherlands. Countries are not isolated islands, and because of this cross-border aspect, all countries bear at least equal responsibility for the climate crisis.

The other aspect I see is that sustainability is intergenerational. What we do now, impacts the generations that come after us. As world citizens of the moment, we thus bear the responsibility for our behavior and the effect of our behavior on people living 100 years from now. That's how I truly see it, sustainability is our responsibility.”

The climate crisis doesn't just stop

“The climate crisis doesn't just stop, when current generations have passed away. The emissions we emit will have effects far into the future. There's a significant delay in this. Just as we are now experiencing the consequences of emissions that were released decades ago.

So even if we stop greenhouse gas emissions right now, the climate problem isn't instantly solved. We still have a huge excess of CO2 in the atmosphere. And currently, we do not have the capacity to remove this CO2. But we will certainly have to give nature a helping hand in this.”

Does sustainability still make sense?

“You always hear people say; what’s the point of sustainability? The world is going to fall apart anyway. Well, I can tell you one thing; the world will definitely continue to exist. Because it's a piece of rock. But it’s us, humanity, who will no longer have a habitable world. We are destroying our own living environment. That’s a completely different definition of the problem. That piece of rock, that will remain.

And that’s why I think we should ensure that the effect of humanity on our direct living environment is at least not negative. Our influence must come into net balance. And then we should also give back a bit extra, for the scars we have already left over the past roughly 150 years.”

And is sustainability something “absolute”?

Is something absolutely, and objectively, sustainable? Or does sustainability actually always arise in comparison with a less sustainable option? Joost: "Good question. You have a status quo, where people act in a certain way. And that’s what we want to make sustainable, change so that less impact occurs. A change is always relative, its effect is in comparison to a previous state.”

But we also want to move towards objective sustainability; the situation in which humanity’s net impact on the world is zero.

And what is circularity?

Then there's also circularity and the circular economy. How can we place circularity and sustainability next to each other? Is something that is circular always sustainable? And is something sustainable always circular?

Joost: “Sustainability is the holistic, or overarching concept. The umbrella term, where it's about behaving in a way that the world remains a livable place for others. And then it’s about others in different countries, and in different generations. That's the concept of sustainability.

And the circular economy is one of the solutions, or one of the possible routes, that contribute to a more sustainable existence. The circular economy is a path towards sustainability. So, if you do something circular, it leads to more sustainability.

Because in the circular economy, we use our resources efficiently. Ideally, you would, for example, pick cotton, make a T-shirt, and as a consumer, you have the responsibility to ensure that this T-shirt can enter a new life cycle at the end of its lifespan. And that can be as a new T-shirt. Or in the form that you disassemble the yarn, to make a new T-shirt out of it."

Recycling is not the same as circularity

Joost; “But the moment I take that T-shirt apart, and I make a dishcloth out of it that ends up in the trash and gets burned at the end of its lifespan; that’s not circular. That’s just recycling once into a lower-quality product.

The essence of the circular economy is that you always keep those materials, or at least as long as possible, at a high quality. The term circular economy is often misused for something that is just recycling.

Listen to the entire conversation on your favorite podcast platform; go to podcast.

Spoiler: Max and Clara also share their definitions of sustainability. And they talk about their good climate deeds and sins of the recent past.

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