Archive for the ‘Quantifying Sustainability’ Category

For the Fall 2010 academic quarter, we will be looking at sustainability in the Portland area (broadly defined) through the lens of equity.

I’ve facilitated these courses since the Winter 2009 quarter, and I’ve consistently found that the majority of students don’t immediately think of equity issues when considering sustainability; most of them readily think of economic and ecological topics, but not necessarily equity, social justice, etc. That students tend to come to class with this perspective suggests an opportunity to bring this dynamic to the forefront for educational purposes. This quarter, then, I sought to address this issue directly and engage my students more explicitly with one of the Brundtland Commission’s three co-equal pillars: equity.


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Along the lines of the recent post Quantifying “sustainability” using certification systems, the Oregonian today featured an article originally from the New York Times News Service about the Federal Trade Commission’s revised “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims,” or “Green Guides“[1]:

    Manufacturers of products that claim to be environmentally friendly will face tighter rules on how they are advertised to consumers under changes proposed Wednesday by the Federal Trade Commission.

    The commission’s revised “Green Guides,” last updated in 1998, warn marketers against using labels that make broad claims that cannot be substantiated, like “eco-friendly.” Marketers must qualify their claims on the product packaging and limit them to a specific benefit, such as how much of the product is recycled.

For more about the Green Guides, see “Reporter Resources: The FTC’s Green Guides .”
[1] Oregonian article: Tanzina Vega, “Environmental Claims on Products Will Have To Be Cleaner,” Oct. 7, 2010, pp. B1, B4. Original NYT article: Tanzina Vega, “Agency Seeks to Tighten Rules for ‘Green’ Labeling,” Oct. 6, 2010.

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A program on National Public Radio’s (NPR) Talk of the Nation program the other day has provided me a useful opportunity to compose a brief post about various certification systems that attempt to (or purport to) quantify “sustainability.” This particular program asked “Does The ‘Energy Star’ Label Need An Update?“:

    A review in Consumer Reports says it’s good news so many products have become energy efficient but calls for strengthening Energy Star standards to guide consumers to truly efficient products.

(This article is summarized here and recommends five important measures to improve the program.)

The NPR program got me thinking about a recurrent set of questions in the Sustainability History Project courses: How is sustainability quantified, tracked, and evaluated? Who sets the standards? How are standards applied and modified? What is the difference between measurable attempts to become sustainable and “greenwashing?”

There are many for-profit, non-profit, and governmental organizations attempting to establish quantitative credentialing and certification programs for various aspects of environmental, economic, and equity-based sustainability. I recently created a new link category in the side bar titled “Quantifying Sustainability” in which I’ve begun to list these efforts. I also link to a few programs and discussions below, and welcome any other links and references in the comments section of this post so that I can add them to this website.


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In response to the post “Critiquing Sustainability,” Samuel Mann (Assoc. Prof., Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, NZ) wrote this thought-provoking post of his own. Mann provides an historical and philosophical overview of some aspects of sustainability, finding that this idea “is deeper than a Sustainability = Brundtland conception . . . with precursors stretching back decades and centuries.”

I, in turn, responded with the following:

    I appreciate your help in providing context for our current understanding of “sustainability.” In my class, I lecture on the historical development of the concept and provide a very abridged version of what you discuss above. In my interpretation, the deep roots of sustainability that you discuss focus most heavily on valued environmental resources (i.e., trees worthy of harvest) for the economic benefit of relatively few (i.e., the political and military elite), and, whereas there is an inter-generational element to this kind of sustainability, it remains narrowly focused within these limits. Where these early antecedents differ significantly is that the Brundtland Commission was very explicit in correlating the “three pillars” as co-equal elements of sustainability, and the equity/society pillar includes explicit mention of democracy and open-access (in addition to future generations). It seems to me that tracts of forest resources managed by political, military, and scientific elites specifically for the propagation of a limited set of natural resources does not qualify as “sustainability” as the Brundtland Commission would have it. Important precursors, yes, but falling short of contemporary approaches in critical ways.

I’d like to expand and clarify a bit what I wrote in this comment . . .


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