Let's NOT be 'more sustainable'

30th November 2023

Michael Hardisty explains why avoiding ambiguous language is key to making real environmental progress

I think Charles Dickens put it very well when Mr Micawber gave the following advice to David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.” This quote beautifully encapsulates the concept of financial sustainability.

But what about environmental sustainability? Perhaps Mr Micawber might have said: “Annual freshwater replenishment twenty million litres, annual freshwater withdrawals 19.95 million litres, result happiness [or sustainable water use].” Or maybe “Annual fish stock recovery twenty million fish per year, annual fish stock depletion twenty and a half million fish per year, result misery [or unsustainable fishing].” We could add similar examples based on rates of reforestation and deforestation or greenhouse gas absorption and emission.

Financial and environmental sustainability are both binary concepts: either we’re spending/consuming/emitting more than we should (to be sustainable) or we’re not. Of course, we may be spending/consuming/emitting a lot more than we should or just a little more. There’s a breakeven point where we’re just on the cusp between acting sustainably and unsustainably (annual expenditure of £20 for Mr Micawber). It might look something like the diagram pictured below:

Mark W McElroy et al (2007)1 developed the “binary orientation” model of sustainability (which they illustrated using a similar diagram to the one here) and applied it to both ecological and societal sustainability. The concept of planetary boundaries (first developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre2 in 2009) also supports the binary view; it defines a “safe operating space” for levels of ozone depletion, freshwater use etc within which we can continue to live happily and beyond which we’re in trouble.

What, then, should we make of the claim “…it’s more sustainable”? I often hear this phrase used to describe a situation that is in the unsustainable zone but which has moved slightly closer to the breakeven point (which is no bad thing). You can imagine someone describing the use of 5% biofuel in aviation fuel as making flying “more sustainable”. Or we might hear that using gas instead of coal is a “more sustainable” way of generating electricity. An uninformed listener might conclude that if gas is “more sustainable” then it must be in the sustainable zone. In reality, both coal and gas sit firmly in the unsustainable zone; gas is just a less environmentally damaging option than coal – it’s less unsustainable rather than more sustainable.

Why should we care? Because using the term “more sustainable” in this way gives a level of reassurance that things are OK, that they’re already on the sustainable side of the breakeven point, when they’re not. It’s misleading – it’s greenwashing.

If we want to see the changes that are so urgently needed to transform our way of life to a sustainable one, then we need to be honest about those current practices that are unsustainable. Clear language is vitally important in doing that.

So let’s try to be clearer in our language so that we don’t mislead: in many cases “less damaging to the environment” might be a more appropriate description than “more sustainable”.


1 Sustainability Quotients and the Social Footprint, accessible at: www.bit.ly/3LF085L

2 www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html

Michael Hardisty CEnv MIEMA is a sustainability leader with more than 20 years’ experience working with blue-chip companies. He now delivers the environmental sustainability strategy for EngineeringUK


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