“With the exception of some high-flying migrant species, nature doesn't commute to work.” - Janine Benyus, Biomimicry

Aquinas College

What is Sustainability?


Photo courtesy of Bigfoto

Sustainability means different things to different people. The word “sustainable,” according to the Encarta World English Dictionary, means “able to be maintained”. This definition can be applied to various subject matters, including society as a whole, industry, agriculture, or family values. The concept of sustainability can be over-whelming because of the comprehensive nature of the word, but the root meaning is actually a simple concept that is nearly intuitive to most people.

What does an ant colony need to sustain itself? It needs access to fresh water, clean air to breathe, healthy food, and a suitable location for the colony. The natural world has supplied these necessities to the ants and the only waste produced is a fertilizer for the soil. Therefore, the ant colony is an example of a sustainable society. Rather intuitive, right? The way we live our lives today, the way our products are manufactured, transported, and disposed of, the energy systems we employ, and even the way our food is grown is threatening our future. However, there is some good news!! Principles of sustainability can be used to restore and nourish these environments, while maintaining or improving our current standard of living.
Some key concepts within sustainability come directly from the natural world. Nature uses sunlight as an energy source for all species. All waste is food for other species. Ant waste provides food for the microorganisms that enhance soil productivity. Natural systems also respect diversity. If a natural disaster eliminates a particular food source, the ants simply shift to another food source. Nature does not put “all her eggs in one basket” so why should we? The natural world already has 3.8 billion years of design experience, so why not look to nature when designing products, businesses, or communities? That is the premise behind a new movement started by Janine Benyus called "Biomimicry".

Not only can sustainability be applied to ant colonies, but it can also be applied to human societies. A sustainable society will be able to continue indefinitely into the future. The mayor of Grand Rapids, Michigan vowed in 2004 to make Grand Rapids a sustainable city. While these efforts signal good intentions and regional improvements to the quality of life and natural environment, a sustainable city requires a sustainable nation, and a sustainable nation requires a sustainable world. We must begin to approach problems from a whole systems perspective.

"Sustainable Business" is a non-traditional strategy that strives to maximize effectiveness. Sustainable business practices restore environmental quality and build social equity, while increasing long-term profitability. Throughout history, industry has intensified its degradation of the environment through the exploitation of natural resources and the release of hazardous pollution. At the same time, business has spent billions of dollars complying with governmental regulations aimed at decreasing the amount of toxic substances entering the landfills, air, and water. An adversarial relationship has developed between business people and environmentalists with each seeing the other as the main source of the world’s problems.

Starting less than 2 decades ago, a movement began inside business to change the way companies operate. Some changes include the elimination of hazardous chemicals as well as the entire concept of waste, and treating employees and the community favorably. The same business practices that increase social and environmental capital also improve the long-term profitability of companies. These win-win situations for the natural world, the community, and business have given traction to the next industrial revolution.

Today, there are no truly sustainable companies. Thankfully, however, many companies are on the path to sustainability. This web site offers an assortment of resources that we hope will aid in the transformation to a sustainable world.


Funded by the Steelcase Foundation of Grand Rapids, Michigan
Header photo by Carol Y. Swinehart, courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant Extension
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