Sustainability: Deeper than "Green"


A few weeks ago, I found myself in an interesting conversation with a guy that I met at a local outdoor basketball court here in Atlanta. In between pickup games, we realized that we both graduated from North Carolina State University, leading us into a discussion around what we do and where we work. He shared that he worked for a tech firm as an IT Specialist. And, of course, I told him that I work for Interface Americas as a Manager of Sustainability.

His response – “What in the world is sustainability?”

This isn’t the first time that I’ve been in this situation. When I receive that question, my heart normally drops a little. I’m partially frustrated because, sustainability, the focus of my collegiate education and my area of career specialty, is probably one of the only organizational departments that can be completely misunderstood or as in this case, unknown. It’s hard to find anyone who is clueless on the general functions and value added by departments such as sales, marketing, human resources operations, public relations, information technology, and so on.

But, once I quickly put my grievances aside, I’m faced with an even deeper challenge, answering the question at hand before things get awkward. How do I casually, concisely, and confidently articulate the world-changing aspirations of the everyday sustainability professional? I know that I need to keep my explanation under 30 seconds and avoid getting too deep in the technical, scientific weeds.

Unfortunately, I failed.

I found myself headed for a conversational dead end as I explained renewable energy sources, greenhouse gas emissions reduction and closed-loop recycling systems. He was a little glazed over and responded, “Oh, so just all of the green stuff? I got it!”

That's the last way I wanted him to interpret the word sustainability.

Here’s the thing – sustainability is much, much deeper than green! Sustainability is all about ensuring that all colors and shades of skin on the planet have access to the vital, life-giving natural resources that the Earth provides (i.e. clean air, fresh drinking water, nutritious food, etc.) over the span of generations.  Sustainability exists so that our children and grandchildren will have equal or better opportunities to experience the ecological richness, human diversity, and economic health that allow mankind to thrive.

Because the Earth’s vitality has been compromised by waste, pollution, harmful emissions, deforestation, species extinction, and other challenges, the role of the sustainability professional exists. We work to generate solutions to these problems and implement them in a variety of arenas including government, business, academia, non-profit etc. I’m going to stop there. I’m getting the urge to deep-dive.

Hopefully, this elevator pitch is helpful for sustainability professionals who have experienced similar situations and those who also might not have understood what sustainability is all about. Whether or not you work in sustainability, you have the opportunity to adopt small habits that collectively contribute to creating a more sustainable world.