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This question is important because all too often we understand what is sustainable only if we are told. This approach demands marketing of ideas, and it takes time for ideas to disperse.

I want to know how people discover new and unique sustainable practices (if they do at all) because I want to give them tools to do more. For example maybe you use life cycle analysis?

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    Welcome to the site, Tony! Sustainability itself is an idea, and my experience with this site is that an evidence-based approach works best for evaluating sustainability. You're absolutely correct that marketing is used, and I find it can often push ideas that aren't based on sound evidence. Discovering and evaluating (through criticism, questioning, discussion, and voting) sustainable practices is what I see the purpose of this site as being. I don't use any additional evaluation tools myself, but perhaps others do? – Highly Irregular Mar 18 '14 at 2:45
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    This is very broad and seems to be encouraging a discussion. If it was just "define sustainable" it would make a useful community wiki. – Móż Mar 19 '14 at 0:10
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    Defining sustainability without reverting to [] other people's ideas? seems a bit strange to me. Sustainability and definitions both are not one-person issues - they live in language, in discourse, and hence in our society. – Jan Doggen Jan 16 '17 at 9:04
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The issue with answering this question is that there are inherent assumptions in how one creates a boundary for answering. For example, Voreno's answer suggests comparing two similar products in terms of the eco-footprint of their lifecycle. This is sound, but assumes that use of any product is warranted, and that levels of use and maintenance are fixed. For example, I have recently gone from switching from standard shampoo to more eco-friendly shampoo products, to washing my hair less often, to not buying shampoo at all and only using baking soda with water. I might also cut my hair shorter so that I don't need so much cleanser for my hair. Or perhaps braid or dread my hair so that washing is less needed on a regular basis. Then I could start to question why we wash our hair at all and truly minimize the activity itself, along with all of the products that go with it. The cleanliness of the water is another point that impacts the need for shampoo. What if I went down to the nearby river or ocean to wash myself? This would reduce impact too. Or how about indirect impacts? Instead of spending my time mixing my own shampoo, I could shower with my family members, or I could petition my local government to allow the reuse of shower water or to outlaw harmful shampoo ingredients. This could multiply my potential impact.

My point is that the answer depends highly on one's assumed boundaries. In the hair-washing example, I could assume that I am only considering direct impacts on my personal footprint, am not interested in bathing activities anywhere other than my shower at home, and am unwilling to shower less frequently than weekly. So these assumptions will frame the limits of how I am comparing "sustainable" options.

To answer your question, therefore, something that has helped me in growing my confidence for assessing sustainability is by enlarging my framework and realizing where I am making assumptions. You can do this by having conversations with people from extremely different contexts to your own. This will help you identify and critique your own assumptions. Learning how indigenous cultures in your area survived in your ecosystem can be a nice source of information, as well as studying fields such as permaculture or social-ecological-systems theory. Getting into the meta-level can take you to a new place that helps make those leaps from comparing bottled water with soda, to finding out where your tapwater comes from and how much hydration your body really needs.

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I think this is a good question. From my experience, developing an understanding for sustainability is best done via "criticism, questioning, discussion, and voting" as Highly Irregular mentioned. The reason for this is that the definition of sustainability can vary greatly (depending on the scope with which you analyze something, or the domain you specialize in). For example, you can assess the environmental sustainability of a new 'eco-house' and that will give you different results whether you then decide to expand your analysis at a street or city level, by bringing in other metrics of analysis (social, economic, political).

Identifying the 'degree of sustainability of something' is best done by comparing with other similar things. That's what a life cycle assessment does. It is a tool that, given a particular process or product, it gives you its environmental and pollution impact from the source of the materials right till their disposal. The LCA returns a series of numbers, which, by themselves are generally quite meaningless since these numbers are calculated using Global averages (and as such, your product might have a different impact in your country compared to the global average). The value of an LCA comes when it is used to COMPARE similar products/processes and assess their relative benefits. So in response to your question, it is very difficult to identify what is sustainable without any comparison with other products/processes.

In terms of marketing ideas, Highly Irregular is right in saying that in many cases Marketing can be used to push the wrong ideas. The best example is the marketing of electric/hybrid vehicles. Often manufacturers claim that their cars are 0 CO2 emissions. Although this may be true on the car itself, these claims don't take into consideration where the electricity comes from in the first place. An electric vehicle is charged using the mains electricity. The mains electricity is generated using a mixture of power sources: coal, gas, renewables and nuclear (in countries with nuclear power). The CO2 emissions of your car strongly depend on when and where you charge your vehicle. If you charge it at peak demand hours, the likelihood is that a large portion of that electricity comes from coal, leading to tremendous CO2 impact of your electric vehicle. If you were to use such a vehicle in Australia for example, you would be releasing more CO2/km than using an internal combustion engine car. All of these issues are unknown to the general public, and marketers make sure to paint a nicer picture.

What has worked best for me in terms of discovering new and unique sustainable practices is to attend conferences, read papers and discuss ideas with many people who are either developing 'sustainable' products or carrying out research into the field. Often many interesting insights into sustainability can come about in this way. A curious fact: I met with a PhD who is researching methods to analyze the sustainability of homes. One of his 'assessment tools/evaluation tools' is a 'break things up' test. They suggest that when you design something, you'd want random people to try and break it in any way possible as those are the kind of unexpected things that happen during the lifetime of a product. His link with sustainability: "it isn't very sustainable for things to break unexpectedly, as that means that you'd have to replace them, thus increasing your environmental burden with your product".

I hope this answers your question in part!

  • Thanks very much for your considered response. It is true that a full LCA is difficult. That's why I would like to see other methods that can identify innovative opportunities. – Anthony Muscio Mar 28 '14 at 6:46
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One way I am investigating to answer my own question is to develop an open-ended systems methodology to apply to any selected system, ideally one in you or your team's sphere of influence. I can of course share many details and may do so later. Such a methodology is not intended to be prescriptive, but introduce holistic, conceptual and a systems theory approach to looking at any given system. I believe this would allow new and innovative opportunities for sustainable solutions to be identified, in addition to placing existing solutions in context.

Thank you to the previous contributors, it is clear your knowledge and experience could be applied expertly to identify new opportunities; but what about the non-experts who do not have the time to develop our skills and experience? Can more experienced people develop a guiding methodology to empower others? I hope so, because this is exactly what I aim to do.

I could ask you to contribute to identifying the critical concepts and relationships but first I must ask; is what I propose clear to you so far? Can this idea stand on its own and be communicated?

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    Welcome to sustainability.SE! Have you had a chance to check out the tour? While your commentary on the decision making process is valuable, perhaps you could take it a bit farther and provide some specific examples, or more detail on how exactly a systems-focused approach could answer the original question? – LShaver Jan 16 '17 at 3:24
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    My own question? It seems like you have two accounts. You can merge these – Jan Doggen Jan 16 '17 at 9:06

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