What is sustainability/sustainable?   
February 2007

Sustainability is the new black... ok, fine... green is the new black. But what's the difference? What's the deal with "sustainable", "green", "natural", "energy efficient" and the other myriad terms that the media has been brandishing ever since An Inconvenient Truth became so convenient?

Where to start? There are no set definitions of the above terms and they are often employed interchangeably and are often co-opted by industries and companies that are not really sustainable nor green and definitely not natural (I'm looking at you cement industry... sustainable my ass). Natural refers to materials that are not processed in any way or form. Yes, cement is natural in that it is made of earth-based elements but it is not naturally occurring. So no, it is not natural. Just like how bioengineered food and food stuff are made of the same strains of primary elements and proteins, but we all know its not natural.

Natural building emphasizes the use of local and relatively unprocessed materials such as timber from the lot, clay excavated from the site and straw bales from a local farmer. Straw bale construction is perhaps the most visible form of natural building; however, the field also encompasses adobe, rammed earth, cob, timber framing, light straw-clay, earthen plasters, paints and plasters. Natural building is often low-tech, is labour intensive and has an artisanal quality to the work. Most projects are owner driven with the owner, her friends, family and community, helping with their labour.

Green is the most common used term to define 'environmental' products, services, businesses and buildings. When it comes to consumer products, green is a marketing schtick. Now there's an inconvenient truth. Greens are your everyday product made in a 'greener' way - whether that it uses recycled materials, renewable energy or is more energy efficient. It's a good start, albeit a consumerist start. Ideally, instead of just buying green, question your consumption in general. Do you REALLY need it?

Green building encompasses a more rounded approach to the design and construction of buildings. Organizations such as the Canadian Green Building Council (of which I am a member) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) have paved the way to making green buildings not only more acceptable, but more accountable and desirable. The LEED rating system for buildings gives credits in six main categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality and innovation and design process. The credits awarded, based on an independent review of the building, rewards the project with three possible levels of certification (silver, gold and platinum)

People are growing more aware of the stew of hazardous chemicals in building products, furnishings and consumer goods. A green home will avoid these toxins. As people reach retirement age, they will be limited to a fixed income to operate and maintain their homes. A green home can help them make operation and maintenance more affordable or even nonexistent. People are recognizing that their choices do make a difference and that they can take a stand for the environment and control their impact. Green building is essentially about buildings that are healthy, affordable and environmentally responsible.

Truly green/sustainable products would have a low-impact on the environment throughout its life-cycle (from cradle to cradle). Organizations such as GreenSpec independently rates products based on a wide set of requirements. For example, a green product should have a high recycled content or be salvaged or be a waste/by product from another industry (such as agriculture). The product should also be durable and will last a long time in extreme weather and conditions. Plastic decking is a good example of a recycled product that is both durable and more importantly, doesn't off gas VOCs (volatile organic compounds) nor leaches chemicals into the surrounding environment like pressure-treated wood does. Ideally, the product would also be recyclable after its use is over.

Green products should aim to reduce overall material use in construction. Concrete pier foundations are a good example because they reduce the overall amount of concrete used for a foundation (versus a conventional T-shaped pour or frost wall style). Wood that is used for construction should be certified by an independent body such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) which rewards and promotes responsible forest management by certifying wood that meets its management criteria. Other green products can be rapidly renewable resources such as bamboo and natural linoleum. Green products should naturally avoid toxic chemicals.

Finally, green products should save water (low flush toilets), save energy (tankless water heater, a new Energy-Star rated fridge) and should save heating (such as the use of structurally insulated panels [SIPs]).

So what is "sustainable"? In its broadest terms, sustainability refers to meeting our current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. It is hard to divorce sustainable building from sustainable development, sustainable communities, sustainable economics and sustainable politics, but I have to... for now... I don't want to ramble on and on and on...

Sustainable building is a whole systems approach to construction. It's probably just my own personal bias to call it sustainable vs. green building because really, my definition is really similar to what LEED aims to do and what many green buildings already feature. But what I would add to the mix of being sustainable is that it aims to use local products which to me is very important. It is vital to support local economies and it makes sense to use local materials that are acclimatized to the area and the weather. Although I do like bamboo, it just doesn't seem to be worth shipping it from China when I can get FSC certified white pine from a mill 50 km away. Furthermore, the actual construction of a building must be as low-impact as possible. This means being conscious of the use of the space, the waste produced and it's reusability/recyclability, the planning and scheduling of deliverables and trades.

I often give my definition of sustainability based on energy consumption as opposed to using ‘green’ or ‘natural’ products. I find that using energy consumption as a benchmark of sustainability to be more consistent and applicable than to say that some building is green simply because it uses ‘x’ product. To me, energy consumption takes into account the life-cycle of a building and its products, its ecological footprint and embodied energy (materials and products used, its raw materials and mode of manufacture, its place of manufacture-assembly, its cost in transportation, how much energy it consumes to install and operate, and how it is disposed of after its use).

This is why I feel straw bale and timber framing construction has a lot to offer in terms of sustainability. One is a readily available waste by-product of agriculture and the other has a long standing and hallowed tradition of resourcefulness and reusability.

Bottom of the Barrel
The real crux of sustainability is in consumption. The problem I have with commercial "green" products is that it does nothing to challenge accepted paradigms of consumption. Green products create a new demand for environmental products but does nothing to reduce material use. It creates a new need. It's possible to make a difference if we replaced all products with green products but we are not doing that. Green is just another alternative you can consume. We are being duped into believing that our shopping choices can make a significant difference in 'saving the world' when in fact, this weak panacea of green shopping is obscuring the root cause of our problem: our economy is based on infinite growth on a finite scale.

So Wal-Mart is going to buy and install renewable energy and it has set targets to reduce waste. Sounds great doesn't it? You can continue shopping at Wal-Mart without feeling bad about it. You can drive there in your car and buy that toaster made in Bangladesh. Does something sound a-miss here? But Wal-Mart is green and is one of the largest consumers of organic products in the USA! But don't talk about their continued labour problems (at home and abroad) and how the demand for organic products aren't making it so organic anymore due to market dictates of cost cutting measures to keep the bottom line low.

OK, fine... its better than nothing. The fact that Wal-Mart is doing something 'green' says a lot about environmental awareness entering the mainstream consciousness. But keep in mind, it's really a fiscal move on Wal-Mart's part. They are building on their goodwill and most importantly, green measures in energy and transport efficiency and waste diversion saves them money (up to $300 million a year by some estimates). Greening Wal-Mart does nothing in terms of changing their business practices in their commitment to cheap goods and cheap wages which are the two key components in our society's viscous cycle of undervalued dependency (low wages encourages cheap resource creating low wages).

The pessimist in me wants to tell you "it's not that simple". Just like how you can't buy your way to heaven (but how we try!), you can't buy yourself green (but how we try!). If you really wanted to make an impact on our consumption patterns and 'stop' global warming, our lifestyles will most definitely have to change. First, stop flying. Your offsets only appease your guilt. Stop eating sushi, mangoes and just about most of the nominally exotic foods we are used to. Start coming up with 50 recipes for beets.

Does it have to be this bleak? No. Beets are quite good. Its all in your perspective and if you are up for a challenge. And in anycase, why not a lifestyle change? If your lifestyle is toxic and essentially cancerous to all other forms of life, why the hell not change? I'll get into that in the Evolution of Everyday Life.

Similarly, I have reservations with energy efficiency and carbon offsets/credits. They're the 3 inch bandage for a 6 inch gash. It keeps some of the blood back but what you really need is stitches. What ever happened to the second "R": REDUCE? I fear that green products, energy efficiency and carbon offsets/credits will only appease shopper's guilt and just prolong the race to the bottom... of the garbage heap.

Do not confuse sustainability with energy efficiency. Something that is efficient is not necessarily sustainable and vice versa. Energy efficient products tend to make us complacent to technological innovations that we wish would be the next pill to save us from our woes. I think it is time to declare that technology will not save us. It never has and it never will. Because of our habitual and unquestioned thirst for consuming all things new, we may just be making ourselves more efficient in consuming natural resources.

Carbon Offsets
There are two types of offsets so far in the world. The first is official offsets sanctioned under the Kyoto protocol which allows governments and corporations to earn and buy carbon credits that can be traded on markets such as the Chicago Climate Exchange. The protocol has a rigid set of rules, guidelines and bureaucracy to control the system of exchange and provide accountability.

The unsanctioned version is a new market of burgeoning businesses, non-profits and charitable organizations that are aiming to help individuals to offset his/her guilt, i mean carbon. The problem with this sector is that it is unregulated, there is a lack of standards and a lack of accountability (and transparency).

Most offset companies have their own carbon calculator to figure out how much carbon their customer is using for 'x' activity. These calculators range widely depending on what variables are included and these variables are not a science unto themselves either. For example, calculating airplane emissions is not as black and white as one might think. It is not as easy as burning one tonne of of fuel equals 3.15 tonnes of CO2. The variables of the other components in the burning of the fuel (water vapour, nitrogen oxides), the altitude, the temperature, the time of day, etc. also affect the calculation. Then there is the issue of how much of this is the customer's share as a passenger on the plane - what if its not a full plane? What if there is more cargo?

Then there is the price. Some are bargins at $10/tonne while others are upwards of $80/tonne. Why the difference? No idea.

The most popular way to offset carbon is to plant trees. This is highly problematic. Trees take years to mature. You are consuming carbon NOW. You will need to make sure these trees will survive. Who is watering them and how? Trees are also poor carbon sinks. The ones that survive to maturity also release CO2. The deep green foliage of the canopy absorbs more heat than CO2 that the trees absorb thus exacerbating the situation. Not to mention the damage to fragile tropical soils and methane that is released into the atmosphere during planting. In all likelihood, the trees that you have bought will be planted in third world countries where people will be displaced and the natural jungle will be slashed and fauna killed to plant your trees which will be a monocrop of non-indigenous trees (probably a cash crop tree) that is both invasive and sucks the water table dry... like eucalyptus.

Another option is to invest in alternative energy developments in the developing world or in microcredit systems. Of course, these ideas have their own detractors as well. Issues of additionality (proving that your offset is doing something more than what is being done) and CO2lonialsim (gotta love that!) whereby developing countries are worried about letting rich nations carrying out offsets in their countries which has the potential to embed these developing nations in a cycle of environmental debt because they didn't or couldn't invest in offsets sooner. In other words, the rich nations may have beaten them to the environmental draw - the affordable environmental offsets have already been used-up by western nations and companies.

So what does that mean for me and you? Simple: keep it local. Buy offsets that come from companies that invest locally. Check if they let you follow the progress of your offsets. They should be able to tell you how long it will take for their project to offset your emissions.