Cookie Cutter Sustainability

They say it’s better for the planet, but how sustainable is it? And is it right for you?

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For the girl next store or the company down the street, sustainability can be a real head scratcher, especially when you factor in busy schedules, limited cash flow, and confusing choices. Further tensions arise when individuals and companies give in to overly formulaic or prescriptive sustainability strategies. What’s right for the single guy in Kentucky with a small plot of land isn’t right for the big-city girl in Chicago with a house plant and a public transit card. And what works for the big coffee shop chain isn’t necessarily a good fit for the neighborhood café.

To limber up on our sustainability choices, it is important to:


  • Resist the quick fix: They say it’s local, organic, or more energy efficient, but is it the best solution for your home or company? Much of today’s society is enamored by standardized guidebooks and regulations manuals, three-minute microwaveable meals, diet pills, and one-and-done checklists.  But if the goal is true sustainability, then you have to do what is right for your lifestyle. The same applies to an office or a company.

    This photograph was taken by Dan McKay on December 7, 2006, using a Nikon E5900 and was obtained via a Creative Commons License through Flickr. The photographer does not necessarily endorse the views expressed in this article

  • Know your options: Just like any major decision we make, there’s usually a little (or a lot of) research that takes place before arriving at the final choice, whether you’re buying a new home, investing money, or purchasing a new TV or refrigerator. Let’s take the issue of water use. Whether it’s your company or your teenagers who are using too much water, you have made the decision to reduce water consumption. Do you simply cut down or recycle as much as possible? Or is there a particularly wasteful process at home or at work where you can rethink water use altogether? Remember, what’s right for your sister in Texas or the company in Florida isn’t necessarily right for you.
  • Take a systems approach: We’ve all been reminded, now and again, to look at the bigger picture. When it comes to making an entire lifestyle, process, household, or manufacturing facility more sustainable, this advice couldn’t be more important. When we limit ourselves to looking at one isolated task or process, we miss the big picture. Before you invest in new equipment or change a procedure, take a look at the system as a whole to find ways to increase overall efficiency.
  • Start small before you make big changes: So, you say you want to be sustainable? Before you take the green leap, make sure your family or team at work is excited and has the proper resources to start making changes. Then, go big! Bold, stretch goals are all the rage these days. The best way to demonstrate to yourself, family members, coworkers and stakeholders that you’re serious about sustainability is to set goals and keep them.

We hear so much about “local,” “organic,” “energy efficient” and “green” products and services that it’s easy to get fooled into adopting quick fixes. What’s your take on how to avoid falling into formulaic sustainability traps?

Sarah Whitmore is an analyst at Do Well Do Good, LLC.