The meaning and use of the word ‘Sustainable’

The word ‘Sustainable‘ used in an aspirational way describes the means by which human habitation on the planet can be made permanent, safe, self-supporting and benign where the planets ecosystems are concerned. The opposite of what human habitation currently is, i.e. unsustainable.

In its less aspirational meaning the word ‘sustainable‘ is used to mean something that can be enabled or made to continue, for example the delivery of low quality housing for poor people to live in, or a banking business that exists to finance arms sales to oil rich countries so that they can terrorise their inhabitants.

What do the references say?

Wikipedia defines sustainability as ‘the capacity to endure’ defines Sustainable thus




  1. capable of being supported or upheld, as by having its weight borne from below.
  2. pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative to overfishing.
  3. able to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process: a sustainable negotiation between the two countries.
  4. able to be confirmed or upheld: a sustainable decision.
  5. able to be supported as with the basic necessities or sufficient funds: a sustainable life.

Clearly, item number 2 on this list is what we commonly mean when we talk about sustainability, by ‘we’ I mean the subset of people involved in discussing the topic of how to enable sustainable human existence on the only known habitable planet. It worries me that for many other people, item 3 could be used without irony to refer to something that they care deeply about, such as running a chemical processing plant that employs hundreds of people but is very polluting. So it is perfectly possible to discuss sustaining(item 3) a business or process that is inherently unsustainable(item 2). From a philosophical standpoint and from a linguistic standpoint this seems wrong to me.

When economists discuss a ‘sustainable‘ banking industry, they could mean two very different things, one which is capable of maintaining itself without heeding the cost to anyone or anything else (the current situation for most banks) or a banking sector that takes it role in developing a sustainable economy seriously and has changed its business practices accordingly (Triodos or the Co-Operative Bank). Both uses of the word are correct, but their meaning is entirely different. This issue has come to the fore in recent years because of the credit crunch and the following recessions, many businesses that thought that they were very sustainable(item 3) have turned out not to be so, and in the face of limited credit many projects aimed at improving the sustainability of society have also found themselves shelved, canned or put aside for a future time when we have more money to spare. The use of the word ‘sustainable‘ has often come to mean ‘self-supporting’ and is applied carelessly to any industry from banking to oil and arms maufacturing. If you think this is unlikely how about this quote from 2008.
Bob Ainsworth, Minister for the Armed Forces, said: “This partnering agreement secures the long-term supply of ammunitions to our Armed Forces.
“The 15-year programme will ensure that the UK has a modernised, sustainable munitions industry which will support British jobs and protect our capacity to produce ammunition.
The Sustainable Fossil Fuels Forum is a working group of the Berlin Forum on Fossil Fuels. The European Commission define it as a part of the its structured dialogue on the outlook for fossil fuels. This working group brings together corporations, industry associations, Member State administrations and representatives of European civil society.
I think that we need to make our minds up to use the word ‘sustainable‘ in one context, and not the other. When the future of our society depends on us developing a sustainable model, it is risky when our use of the word can be interpreted in two very different ways.
Sustainable: pertaining to a system that maintains its own viability by using techniques that allow for continual reuse: sustainable agriculture. Aquaculture is a sustainable alternative to overfishing.
For other uses where we currently use the word ‘sustainable‘ lets find another. offers the following alternatives, many of which will do very well to describe a banking industry model, or any other usage other than those where ‘sustainable‘ is the only word that will do.
adequate, all right, allowable, average, bearable, better than nothing, common, decent, endurable, fair, fair to middling, fairly good, goodish, indifferent, liveable, mediocre, middling, not bad, okay, ordinary, passable, presentable, respectable, run-of-the-mill, satisfactory, so-so, sufferable, sufficient, supportable, tidy, unexceptionable, unexceptional, unimpeachable

2 thoughts on “The meaning and use of the word ‘Sustainable’

  1. The term “sustainability” is probably the most abused word that I hear every day. You have summed up the prevalent misuse of the word brilliantly.

  2. time to reclaim ‘sustainability’ for future generations ?…’whilst enhancing the prospects for future generations and co-evolution’ e.g. sustainablity-as-flourishing
    Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever. Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.

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