When it comes down to it, I fear that for many people “sustainable” has become synonymous with “less bad.” That’s not enough, friends.

I’ll admit to having a slightly unhealthy relationship with sports. When I choose to care about a team, I invest an excessive amount of time into following them, both in-season and out. Right now, I’d say I have a significant emotional investment in the University of Virginia men’s basketball team and Atlanta United F.C. in Major League Soccer. If you follow either of these clubs and you see me around, we should definitely chat.

Having watched sports since I was a little kid, I’ve seen literally thousands of interviews with athletes. I even conducted some of those interviews when I worked with UVA’s Athletics Media Relations office as an undergraduate student. So, when you read my next sentence, you can rest assured that I have a reasonable degree of credibility when opining on this subject.
I would say that 99 times out of 100, what an athlete says during an interview is completely meaningless.
Honestly, how many times have you heard some variation of this answer when a player is asked about a victory after the game?
“I really just have to credit my teammates and coaches. We had a great game plan, and we went out and executed. I just wanted to play within myself, and I knew that if I did that, we would have a great chance to get a win.”
It doesn’t even matter the sport. Nearly every interview contains the phrase “execute the game plan” or “play hard for [insert appropriate amount of time here].” It’s a rare athlete who actually offers some insight when answering a question. Most simply drop a few buzzwords that mean whatever they want them to mean.
Candidly, environmentalists have the same problem, at least when it comes to the buzzwords “sustainable” and “sustainability.” When we use them, we rarely bother to define them, and over the years they’ve lost most of their meaning. Sustainability is now very much in the eye of the beholder.
What exactly is a sustainable product or company? How about a sustainable lifestyle? What environmental, social and economic factors are included in making the determination? As with many things, the answer depends on whom you ask.
To that end, let me give you the definition that Ray Anderson settled on when he envisioned leading Interface to the peak of Mount Sustainability. It’s what the company calls Mission Zero™, and it involves ascending seven different faces of this mountain that is higher than Everest.
To be a sustainable enterprise, Interface must have zero waste, power its operations entirely from renewable energy, have completely benign emissions, close the loop on its manufacturing processes, utilize resource efficient transportation of people and product, sensitize stakeholders from suppliers to customers, and redesign methods of commerce to support environmental and social wellbeing.
In short, this definition means to do no harm. That is a high bar, and I commend the company for continuing their climb. I hope that others will continue to follow their example and be ambitious in pursuit of better environmental practices.
When it comes down to it, I fear that for many people “sustainable” has become synonymous with “less bad.” That’s not enough, friends. It should have a greater meaning than that. Let’s hold businesses, and ourselves, to a higher standard.