Revisiting Definitions: What is Sustainability?

Revisiting Definitions: What is Sustainability?

Multimedia from this Release

The Three "P's" of Sustainability

Dr. Stuart Hart of Cornell University

Karl-Henrik Robèrt of The Natural Step

Friday, June 28, 2013 - 2:30pm

CAMPAIGN: Sustainability Awareness


"Since you and I have been communicating regularly again, all of sudden ASPA has been publishing a lot on this subject and soliciting for articles on it too."  Nancy Foye-Cox, Member, National Council, American Society for Public Administration (ASPA)

Nancy and I go way back to the mid-seventies when we served together on the ASPA Committee on Women in Public Administration. Over the last few months, and since I moved but an hour away from her,  we have been emailing more frequently.  And, yes, ASPA like other professional associations are increasingly turning their attention to sustainability resulting in more opportunities to increase awareness and answer one of the first questions often asked, What is Sustainability?  Over 60,000 searchers a month ask a variation of this question on Google and even more on the term, sustainable as in sustainable business. This out of the 1.2M overall searches per month on sustainability, thirty-seven percent from the United States.

Complicating matters is the issue of there being the opportunity to customize an answer based on individual interests and world views. Stuart Hart the Samuel C. Johnson Chair in Sustainable Global Enterprise at Cornell University's Johnson School, observes "Sustainability is tribal to some degree. There are many different factions. People come from different directions that all use the same term."  In other words, there is no one strict definition (video 1:37).  This is particularly nettlesome as some folks use this lack of precision "as an easy way to set sustainability  aside." It is for this reason that I am revisiting some definitions and also citing a recently posted video from the folks at Eastman Chemical Company.  You may find these quotes by sustainability leaders  helpful to reference in conversations. Link to the their videos in email and in your blog posts.  Most importantly, craft your own definition of sustainability and be passionate about it.

"Defining sustainability also means you have to admit what you are not yet doing that you ought to be doing.  And so that gap between aspirations and reality is what you want to cross."  Christoph Lueneburger of Egon Zehnder International (video 3:02)

The first of four operational principles for sustainability is "in a sustainable society mined materials such as carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and heavy elements are no longer systematically increased in concentration in natural systems." Karl-Henrik Robèrt, M.D., Ph.D. and founder of The Natural Step. (video 8:29) "

My vision for sustainability at Eastman is that it is embedded in everything we do, it is part of our DNA, part of our daily is an attitude, a state of mind, its not something you choose to do one day and not the other." Godefroy Motte, SVP, Regional and Sustainability Officer, Eastman Chemical and

"What sustainability comes down to is balance. It's about having to make hard choices every single day. To do things that are right for business, right for the planet, and ultimately right for you." Matt Acarino, Chef ( (video 2:49)

"Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground -- the unborn of the future Nation." The Constitution of the Iroquois Nations: The Great Binding Law, Gayanashagowa.

There are many more of our leaders addressing sustainability and several animated videos in our special collection, What is Sustainability on, voices of sustainability to help with the conversations around sustainability at home, in the office, and in our communities.

Ruth Ann Barrett, Sustainability Advocate, Cleveland, Ohio, June 28, 2013