What is Sustainability?

What is Sustainability?

According to the World Commission on the Environment and Development (WCED), sustainability is “a form of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” But, sustainable design goes far beyond simply creating products that benefit consumers in terms of better air environment, cost savings and durability. Rather, effective sustainable design must illustrate a thorough understanding of a full-systems approach of products in their environment and interaction with other products, as well as the effect on many other factors.

Sustainability should be viewed as a process and not just a goal. That allows a broader evaluation over time, of the environmental, economical and societal impacts of building products. Each single unit and its “in-place” environment may need specifically tailored remedies, according to their geographic location and the presence or lack of water.

Viewing sustainability as a process is essential for “green designers” as specifiers are challenged to evaluate the full life-cycle of products. This is becoming feasible with the introduction of programs such as BEES and a building rating system such as LEED.

A systems approach should be used to determine a product’s energy requirements—energy consumption at each state of a product’s life cycle, beginning at the point of raw materials extraction from the earth and proceeding through processing, manufacturing and fabrication, end-use and disposal. In some instances, end-use can account for as much as 90 percent of a product’s impact on the environment. Transportation of materials and products to each process step also must be included in the assessment.

According to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the following questions should be asked to determine if a product is sustainable:

  1. Does it have a long life?
  2. Does it save energy?
  3. Does it add durability?
  4. Does it contribute to the waste stream?
  5. Is it renewable and recyclable?

Specifiers are challenged to go beyond simple evaluation of manufactured products in terms of waste disposal; rather, they should consider a host of factors and influences on a product’s social, environmental and economic impact on society, while recognizing the product’s performance.