We talk a lot about the importance of sustainability and making sure the products we purchase are sustainable. But what is it, exactly, that makes a product sustainable?
As you might suspect, “sustainable” can mean different things to different companies and individuals. If you want to be an informed consumer, you may find it helpful to consider the different aspects of sustainability.
What “Sustainability” Means
A simple definition of sustainability is the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. For a product to be sustainable, it must be possible to produce and/or consume it in a way that doesn’t result in harm or destruction. If the production of a product requires nonrenewable resources, damages the environment, or results in harm to individuals or society, it is unlikely to be considered sustainable.
A product is usually considered sustainable if it:
- Doesn’t deplete natural, nonrenewable resources: A sustainable product is made from renewable resources; in other words, resources that can’t be fully depleted.
- Doesn’t directly harm the environment: The production, distribution, and/or consumption of the product uses as little energy as possible, and minimizes and responsibly disposes of waste. Almost no action is completely free from environmental impact, so most environmentally conscious companies strive to minimize negative impact.
A more complex aspect of sustainability is economic sustainability, which can refer to how a business operates. Economically sustainable businesses allow other businesses to compete and flourish. Broader economic sustainability allows a country’s growth to remain consistent for many years, rather than accelerating and declining in volatile or destructive patterns.
Sustainability Through Processes vs. Actions
Some companies optimize their processes and resources for sustainability, while others improve sustainability through actions; some companies strive for both.
Through process and resource optimization, some companies choose vendors, materials, production methods, hiring options, and make other business decisions specifically because they lend themselves to sustainability. This often requires extensive due diligence and may result in higher initial production costs.
Companies may also strive to improve their sustainability through actions that are separate from the manufacture of their product or the delivery of their service. For example, Water Watch Company provides clean water to an individual in need for a lifetime with each purchase; to date, they’ve donated more than 120 million gallons of clean water.
Other industries take action to offset an otherwise unsustainable model. For example, some airlines participate in carbon offset programs that plant trees or take other actions to help compensate for the negative environmental impact of travel.
Is This Product Sustainable?
First, check the label. Often, labels on a product will convey how the product is made and what it’s environmental impact might be. For example, you can look for labels that indicate that the product:
- Was made from recycled materials;
- Was made using renewable resources;
- Is 100% biodegradable, or;
- Was manufactured using ethically sourced labor.
You may also see marks of approval from formal standards and organizations, like the EPA or the World Fair Trade Organization. Several organizations around the world identify, analyze, and label the relative sustainability of different products. For example,
- The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) provides standard reporting guidelines that organizations can voluntarily follow. The guidelines outline economic, environmental, and social impact for individual products and the organization overall.
- The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) provides international standards for environmental impact.
- Many countries have national standards for sustainability that local companies may be legally required to follow.
- You can also check CSRHub.com, a private database that ranks corporate sustainability and social goals.
Other factors that help determine a product’s sustainability are more difficult to measure. For example, is this product potentially contributing to the development of a pseudo-monopoly? Was this product developed by the hands of a mistreated workforce?
You’ll need to research the company to know for sure since you won’t find that information on a label. So, it’s a good time to check the GRI, UNEP, or CSRHub sites.
Is This Business Sustainable?
You can think of sustainability in terms of individual products and overall organizations. For example, a company may produce a single product that is not sustainable due to its environmental impact, but the organization’s broader efforts improve the company’s sustainability. Conversely, a single product may be environmentally friendly, but the organization’s hiring practices, economic activities, or overall environmental impact may be destructive.
It’s important to acknowledge both product and organizational sustainability in your research. One way to determine organizational sustainability is to review the company’s most recent sustainability report, which you may be able to find on their website. Among U.S. publicly traded companies, 96% of S&P 500 and 81% of Russell 1000 are now publishing sustainability reports. In these sustainability reports, you’ll learn about the company’s environmental impact, hiring practices, and steps they’re taking to improve their sustainability as an organization.
As consumers increasingly demand sustainable products and services, more companies will focus on their business’ sustainability. With a better perspective on the definition of sustainability, you can make better choices as a consumer.
This article was originally published on July 7, 2020. We updated some links in February 8, 2023.