Sustainability – the buzz word of the decade. In the current era, everyone appears to value sustainability. But what does it mean to be sustainable? It varies from person to person, and company to company, as I found out last year at a career fair. When I asked my stock question: “How does your company address the issues of sustainability?” I received many confused looks. One woman pursed her lips, cocked her head to the side to think, than finally said “Well, our company has been around for a long time, and will probably be around for a long time to come.” Hmmm, not what I was looking for.
Another company had the word sustainable and its derivatives all over its marketing material. I was so excited! According to my friend who worked there, however, the idea of sustainability for them was building a freeway that will last a long time. To me, sustainability doesn’t mean building a durable freeway, it means building a better public transportation system to encourage people to stop driving. Because if ‘sustainable’ simply means long-lasting, then a garbage heap is sustainable, because the plastics and metals we bury there won’t decompose for thousands of years.
A better definition would be the one offered by the Brundtland Commission which defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In that sense, sustainability has more to do with social and environmental justice, than with durability.
Like most issues affecting the world today, sustainability is complicated. For example, while traveling across the country I went to Ford’s “sustainable” plant. While there, I was wowed by their ‘Fumes-to-Fuel’ technology that uses excess paint fumes to create electricity, and their massive green roof. Nowhere was it mentioned that the Ford fleet has the lowest gas mileage of any car company in the United States.
So even though the 2008 Ford Escape has “guilt-free luxury interior features” including recyled seating surfaces made from 100 percent post-industrial materials and reassembled oak instrument panels that don’t require new trees; and even though these measures will save the equivalent of 2 million pounds of CO2 emissions annually; the amount of green house gas emissions released from their fleet far outways any positive environmental effects of their “green” plant.
It’s true that Ford’s Dearborn Factory is a model of sustainable manufacturing and that the innovations introduced there by Bill McDonough will pave a permeable path for others to follow. But is manufacturing Mustangs with average mpg’s in the low teens a sustainable practice?
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if Ford used current technology to clean up its internal combustion engine, its cars could get an average of 40 miles per gallon, and if Ford used the most efficient hybrid-electric technology in its vehicles, they could average 55 mpg, a big improvement over Ford’s current average of 19.1 mpg.
So shouldn’t Ford be more concerned about making sustainable engines for their cars, than sustainable seats and dashboards?
People love the idea of sustainability, and every step in the right direction is a good one. But sustainability is a complex issue, so whenever you hear people or companies pushing their sustainable agenda, I would recommend thinking about what true sustainability means. And does it mean the same thing to others as it does to you?
Photo courtesy of Green Roofs blog.