Saturday, 01 November 2014
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Sustainability is more than just a buzzword

Our features editor Stuart Nathan recently unearthed  a graph (from the humour website xkcd) indicating that use of the word ‘sustainability’  was itself unsustainable: that at some point in the not-too-distant future — 2109 to be precise — constant use of  the word will render it meaningless.

‘Sustainability’ is fast becoming one of industry’s most overused buzzwords. It’s the new ‘green’: deployed willy-nilly and without discretion to lend a veneer of worthiness to the most dubious projects and initiatives.

This is a shame because, used appropriately, it’s actually quite a good word and a useful way of describing how more efficient use of resources can help preserve the conditions for long-term economic growth.  

So, in this special sustainability-themed issue, we’ve tried to do our bit to reclaim the word from the marketeers, charlatans and masters of greenwash. We’ve looked at what sustainability really means to UK engineering businesses, examined how the concept figures in industry’s plans for the future,  and — from the world’s biggest offshore wind farm to a new system for measuring industry’s carbon footprint — looked at some impressive sustainable projects.

Such words can be used to lend a veneer of worthiness to the most dubious initiatves

In our current issue’s interview, Chris Sherwin, head of sustainability at the Seymourpowell design consultancy, identifies a recent change in the way the concept is perceived by industry. He claims that while in the past sustainability commitments were frequently the first casualties of a straitened economy, industry now takes a longer-term view. Energy efficiency, recyclability and waste reduction are, Sherwin claims, no longer viewed as a necessary evil but increasingly as a sensible route to longevity and prosperity.

Nevertheless, some areas of industry are more resistant to change than others, including the automotive sector (‘Lightening the load’). Despite notable exceptions, the sector’s huge capital investment in pressed-steel plant makes the volume deployment of lighter-weight materials unattractive to manufacturers — a reminder that the route to sustainability isn’t always clear cut.

I could go on, but with a glance back over this column revealing a worrying number of occurrences of the word in question, it’s probably time to stop. I wouldn’t want to be guilty of hastening its obsolescence.

Jon Excell Editor
jon.excell@centaur.co.uk


Readers' comments (7)

  • Sustainability - don't think you have to wait till 2109 for it to become meaningless!

    Perhaps words ought to be given a protected rights status, similar to 'Cornish pasties' or 'champagne' and can only be used if they really are!

    Guess that would give the marketing suits a problem :)

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  • Sustainability, ignoring all of the greenwash etc, is an important subject and must be viewed critically, especially by engineers and manufactures. Without the luxury of a full article I can only scratch the surface. Despite what adherents to sustainability may attempt to dismiss as non adherents ‘not getting it’, philosophically sustainability is ultimately conservative and restraining –it is itself ‘prog-wash’ (progressive –wash). This is difficult to criticise, because anyone doing so, rapidly ends up becoming called a denier’ and having reams of IPPC reports or even worse the Stern Report thrown at them, even those recognizing that something like Climate change is most likely to be a fact, but who may differ with how it can be addressed. Additionally in a time of low economic growth then a ‘new’ market such as clean/green tech supported by sustainable principles can appear attractive and any criticism seen as an attack on something positive. It would be better to have a more civilized discussion on the subject.

    Energy efficiency and waste reduction are sensible aims in the right context and any engineer or product, especially those working at the detailed level will take pride in designing to balance of these as trade-offs with costs, profits etc. However, I would disagree that they are the only ‘sensible routes to longevity and prosperity’. Long term incremental improvements – including the reduction of waste, are important, but surely ‘the market’, something no one openly is seriously opposed to nowadays, is a pressure that helps deliver that. I’m sure many design tools and processes help speed up the delivery of waste reduction in those areas where it is applicable, but is it really that much different from ‘Lean’? Sometimes I do wonder if sustainability does, for some people, act as a substitute for the direct criticism of large corporations and the inefficiencies of the market. This is then reflected in that fact that many corporations bend over backwards to not only appear but try to become sustainable, backed up by sustainability evangelists at, or just below, board level.

    Additionally – in a period of austerity obviously sustainability will suddenly look more attractive to business and government, partly because it has the appearance of ‘doing something’ whilst doing in fact relatively little. To obtain long term growth what is actually needed is enormous investment in R&D to replenish the stream of truly new ideas and techniques that we seem to be lacking in today, compared to the society wide changes such as the introduction of steam power, electricity and concrete which both expanded the economy and solved many of the problems of the past such as in sanitation. New business models such as crowd-sourcing etc. are no substitute for serious R&D.

    To me another if not the primary route to longevity and in particular prosperity is through technological step changes, surely something engineers and manufacturers should support. They involve both financial and perhaps (although over perceived) risks at a society level. Technological step changes can both substitute existing resources (oil for coal and wood burning)– making incremental improvements in those areas where used redundant-and create new ones, nuclear power and fusion being the two obvious but not only examples that already demonstrate this. Of course to achieve these step changes there are preconditions; vastly more R&D domestically and internationally- requiring investment, a societal acceptance of risk – that requires political and business leadership and finally a culture that demonstrates a positiveness and non fatalistic view of the future, whereby problems can be faced and overcome with the help of technology and ‘products’, including any new ones thrown up in the process.

    Sustainability and even ‘Lean’ do little to encourage and sometimes actively discourage grand visions – such as solving the problems of climate change at the macro level as well as or instead of the micro, as well as expanding the world’s economy to increase the whole world’s material well being, rather than eeking out relatively small extra amounts from less. I’d prefer a world that contains more than just lighter, smaller, more efficient and at best reconfigured versions of the artifacts we see around us now. Surely engineers would value the challenge?

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  • To sustain, is to keep something operating. When applied in the longer term, it requires us to think not in terms of fiscal cycles, but in timespans that look ahead for more than a century.

    But all that read here, including myself, were born into a time where an entirely illusory construct was already in place. From this our realities have been crafted into what can only be described as a religious belief system that has proven itself to be one of the most destructive and callous instruments of control.

    Those of you (like the previous writer) that believe that these times, stricken as they are with a range of multi faceted crisis, neglect to ask the question that seeks to learn from where all these problems came.

    The business world follows one medium like none other. It is the single most dominant element that drives all through fear into competing with one another and destroying the natural laws of this place.

    What it calls laws are nothing when compared to the natural law, but adherence to its rules (claimed to be laws) scribbled down by its temple dwelling priests embody all manner of vile impositions and defile our children's futures.

    Ask yourself why engineering design today has become so focused on false profits and short term thinking. Why are we not engaged in designing solutions that will withstand the test of time. Why the machines we build show little or no respect to the natural world upon which our future generations will depend.

    Why the money controllers that profit so richly from conflict and poverty, still remain within the edifices that stand behind security systems and military might.

    Consume, consume, consume was the dominant message whilst quietly, from behind the scenes, deeper levels of dependence and slavery and abject poverty seek to keep people in captivity.

    Engineers whose intellectual capacities are drawn into the design and manufacture of harmful technologies, will become cursed by their own children as the truth of the existing agenda becomes revealed, as it is bound to be.

    Climate change has absolutely nothing to do with the activity of hominid sapiens (thats you and I) and everything to do with the movement of our solar system through space.

    Water, considered by all faiths since ancient times to be sacred, is now falling from the heavens in quantities unprecedented since the Halocene.

    Why do we not give it the respect we should?

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  • If you look at history, sustainability has being achieved largely by advances in technology. Civilisations have been sustainable for as long as technology kept up with demand. The current “sustainability" drive seems to completely ignore the possibility that conventional technologies will advance at all and having incredible expectations that technologies such as wind and solar power that are unsustainable without any subsidies, will suddenly solve the problem.

    In spite of the abundant evidence to the contrary, they assume that we are running out of fossil fuels, that nuclear power has not advanced in the last 40 years that shale gas is evil and, worst of all, that man-made carbon dioxide causes dangerous global warming. None of these beliefs are in line with the evidence.

    Sustainability as it is currently framed is used by those who believe, quite wrongly, that economic growth is incompatible with the environment to stop economic growth. If they succeed, it is the poor people of the world who will suffer most.

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  • Bryan, well said in far fewer words than me! I may quibble over how much of a factor AGW plays- or rather that we need to keep track of the evidence as it firms up (or not), but on the advances in technology spot on.

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  • Absolutely right. I hope the subject will be raised again. Sustainability isn't a nice word for marketing people. It is sound enginering practice and it is very important.

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  • IPCC has concluded, based on the work of hundreds of scientists worldwide, that “There is very high confidence that the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming, with a radiative forcing of +1.6 [+0.6 to +2.4] W/m2 “


    Any debate on these demonstrated facts, not beliefs, is a futile and false one. The only valid debate is on solutions, and here is where our work, as engineers, is essential. As is the understanding on what sustainability is, what are its objectives (I suggest risk mitigation for the anthropogenic GHG emissions is one), how can we make it effective, fast, very fast, in the next 20 years maximum.

    On oil, if BP states that the reserves are limited, than they are. That’s their business and it continues to be, since they decided to drop the better one: Beyond Petroleum into solar and clean energy. Irrespective of the reserve quantity and its depletion rate (currently supply is at 54 years, according to BP), oil is a fuel of the past, its use is a major generator of GHG emissions and we should move on from it. Nuclear is not evil, it’s just impossible to manage its end-of-life stage, not to mention the very rare-very devastating failures.

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