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Defining Sustainability: Looking Back, Looking Forward

By Jack Rosebro

Nissan advertisement, 2002

It’s fun to read about the gee-whiz technology of tomorrow, to buy and drive the latest set of wheels while rationalizing the purchase in terms of sustainability.

It’s a lot less exciting, of course, to forgo the new hybrid, and the natural resources consumed in its production, in favor of a commitment to drive less, to walk more, to take the bus once in a while—in other words, to change one’s own behavior.

Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed down unimpaired.

—Canadian Commission on Conservation, 1915

Paying $5 per head of lettuce is not something I’m willing to endure quietly.

—Anonymous online comment about the potential effects of climate change on food supply, 2005

Walking the talk is no less difficult for automakers. Over the past two months, Green Car Congress has taken a weekly look at the increasing popularity of the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” in automakers’ environmental reports, as well as the integration of sustainable development into the core values of many of those companies.

We’ve seen an enormous change in direction afoot, as evidenced by some of the initiatives and discussions covered in this series.

  • In Germany, BMW uses huge heat wheels to recapture and redirect waste energy back into one of its factories.

  • In Louisiana, General Motors diverts gases created by rotting garbage to help power an assembly plant.

  • Volvo builds and operates carbon-neutral factories in Sweden (carbon-neutral, that is, as long as you don’t take into consideration the vehicles produced by those factories).

  • Hyundai recaptures and reuses the energy produced during its fuel cell tests.

  • In Japan, Honda re-engineers the country’s most popular strain of rice to be more efficient, and ponders how to remain a company “that people want to exist.”

But are the automakers truly able to quantify the sum total of their actions, and thus their progress?

The current trend—in the automotive business as well as the corporate world at large—is to re-package environmental reports as “sustainability reports.” Readers of past installments of our series are, however, by now intimately familiar with the marked absence in many of those reports of any science-based definition of how real progress toward sustainability can be measured.

The challenge is a tough one, yet no less necessary for that difficulty. Some have estimated that the worldwide vehicle fleet is set to double in the next 25 years—a prospect that doesn’t look sustainable by any measure.

Is it possible to reconcile a corporation’s growth with an overall (as opposed to per-unit) reduction of the rate at which that corporation consumes natural resources and production of toxins or greenhouse gases? And if it is not possible to do so, are we willing to rethink our economic model?

Today, the word “sustainable” is as often as not linked with “development.” The definition of sustainable development, as put forth by the UN’s Brundtland Commission in 1989, is most commonly used by governments, environmentalists, and NGOs:

Development that satisfies the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

Development, however, implies growth. Writing in the book Ecological Economics, Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley ask:

Given...that “sustainable economic growth” is an oxymoron, how do we explain the unwavering devotion to continuous economic growth by economists, policy makers, and the general public in the face of ecological and natural resource limits?

Most global corporations—particularly those headquartered in the United States—do not use the Brundtland definition, but instead favor the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental, and social stewardship, which is sometimes referred to as “corporate citizenship.”

Coined by John Elkington in the 1980s, the triple bottom line is alternatively referred to as “people, planet, and profit.”

Writing in his 1989 book Cannibals with Forks, Elkington explained:

The triple bottom line focuses corporations not just on the economic value they add, but also on the environmental and social value they add—and destroy. At its narrowest, the term “triple bottom line” is used as a framework for measuring and reporting corporate performance against economic, social and environmental parameters.

Elkington’s definition points out the shortsightedness of measuring an economic system by GNP alone—a point that Robert F. Kennedy famously made almost forty years ago. Kennedy said, in part:

Our gross national product—if we should judge America by that—counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile...

It can be argued, however, that the triple bottom line is more of an ideal than a specific framework, and therefore one which is open to interpretation. Witness Ford Motor Company’s definition of the social leg of the triple bottom line:

Social capital refers to the capacity of people in our communities to participate fully in both the production and consumption of our products and services...

A somewhat more compassionate consideration of the triple bottom line comes from HRH Prince Laurent of Belgium, as described in a publication describing the Renewable Energy House in Brussels, a historic building that has been converted into a showcase of energy-efficient technology at his suggestion:

Economic activity implies managing an ecosystem; ecology involves observance of this ecosystem; social equity represents the harmony of well-being within this ecosystem...All too often, the balance between the “three Es” is affected by an over-emphasis on the economy.

Respecting the environment involves ensuring balanced management of the three aspects. If a balance can be achieved between the three Es, this is a step towards a more sustainable society.

Such a view provides sharp contrast to, for example, the decidedly economics-based definition of the triple bottom line as employed by Dow Jones to market its Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) on Wall Street:

Corporate sustainability is a business approach to create long-term shareholder value.

There are signs, however, that the business world is starting to shed its business-as-usual skin when it comes to the issue of sustainability.

In Japan, one of the country’s largest insurance companies—Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance—has commissioned a report, entitled Science on Sustainability 2006 (SOS 2006), on the state of sustainability today, as well as methods for achieving sustainability.

In an interview, the principal creators of the report, Takashi “Tachi” Kiuchi and Peter Pedersen, explained that Tokio Marine & Nichido underwrote the report with no strings attached because “insurance companies are interested in knowing what things they have to anticipate and expect.

Kiuchi and Pedersen further predicted, based on the finding of scientists interviewed for the SOS 2006 report, “that when the year 2055 comes, actual insurance payments [needed at current policy coverage levels] will be larger than all the 200 nations in the world can afford to pay.

Rather than employ a simplified definition of sustainability such as the Brundtland definition (see above) as an end unto itself, the report uses that definition as a jumping-off point, a beginning, a catalyst.

SOS 2006 then defines the steps necessary to achieve that idea in terms of the four system conditions of The Natural Step ( The system conditions are as follows:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  • concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
  • concentrations of substances produced by society; and
  • degradation by physical means.

and, in that society...

  • people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

This last system condition, as defined by The Natural Step, is not one to be taken lightly: SOS 2006 notes the International Monetary Fund’s calculation that in just two decades—between 1980 and 2000—average per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of the world’s twenty richest countries grew by 2.6 times. At the same time, the average per capita GDP of the twenty most impoverished nations was cut by almost half.

Without at least a nod to steady-state economics, that gap is almost certain to grow.

If the major players in the automotive industry are to progress toward sustainability rather than move away from it, they will at some point be forced to re-examine their desire for global growth in light of the total effect that such expansion will have on the planet. Admirable though it may be to reduce a vehicle’s emissions by a given amount, such gains will be reversed if worldwide production increases enough.

The desire to maintain seemingly limitless economic growth in a closed-loop, limited world is not an easy thirst to quench.

Automakers will have to rethink their economic models if they are to achieve sustainability in even half a century. They will have to make the methods of their data collection even more transparent than it is today. They will have to lay out their total worldwide production of toxins and greenhouse gases each year, for all of us to see, as well as the methodology used to calculate that production. Most importantly, they will have to choose clear and verifiable science-based frameworks to guide their efforts.

It’s time to get to work.



An Engineer

Nice report on the environmental efforts by the various automakers.

Seems like the trouble starts when one tries to define "sustainability" and it gets worse from there. How can you compare the different automakers with an undefined yardstick?

In the bigger picture, I think automakers are just a part of the whole. Energy (read: Oil) companies have a larger effect on travel "sustainability" than the automakers, in my view.

In the ideal world, I think we would be working towards replacing petroleum oil with renewable oil (produced by gasification/Fischer-Tropsch or thermal depolymerization of biomass). Making a renewable fuel that is chemically identical to the existing fuel allows us to continue using the existing infrastructure and to blend in renewable fuels at any convenient rate.

As for the automakers, I would keep it simple. Compare them based on fleet average mpg...

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