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On the Distinction Between Sustainable Systems and Green Tips

March 24th, 2009 by Max Gladwell · 16 Comments

The terms “green” and “sustainability” are often used as if they’re synonymous or interchangeable. This misconception confuses the issues and often leaves us arguing about minutiae when we should be discussing meaningful solutions.

If there is one key takeaway from our SXSW panel on accelerating sustainability through social media, it’s that there is a fundamental misunderstanding between what it means to be sustainable and what it means to be green. Though these two concepts may be compatible and even complementary, they are far from synonymous. In the following we hope to clear up the confusion we’ve observed between green living tips and sustainable systems.

The panel started out with short introductions and presentations from each of the panelists. It turned out that these were none too short and tended toward the redundant. Ours addressed the first question most people have (Who is Max Gladwell?) with a few slides that illustrate what the brand stands for i.e. the nexus of social media and green living.

In the interest of time, we chose not to hit on the final two slides, which would have offered some real world context. Instead, we left off with the following comment (taken from our notes):

Sustainability is about new systems. New energy systems. New agricultural systems. New transportation systems and new information systems. That’s where social media plays a big role. Sustainability is also about decentralization. We need to decentralize energy and food production. Each of us can become energy producers through solar, wind, and efficiency technologies…in the same way we’ve become information producers through blogs, wikis, and online video.

Our presentation was the second of four, and by this time the audience was already getting restless. We were using the Twitter hashtag #SMFS, so we were getting real-time feedback. One Tweet referenced social media’s use of electricity as a paradox for sustainability, as if to say, “How can social media accelerate sustainability when it uses energy?” Another hit on the transportation issue of flying to conferences to talk about sustainability, as if those emissions couldn’t possibly be justified by the solutions we might discover through this collaboration, and another made an unsubstantiated claim that servers and computers will one day consume more energy than air travel, though that is conceivable. All of which is unfortunate because while the topic of the panel was sustainability, the bulk of the conversation centered on being green. Are the they same thing? Far from it.

Sustainability vs. Green

Sustainability is a macro concept. It’s a big concept that applies more broadly to entire systems and infrastructures such as the global economy. The true gravity of the term is somewhat elusive, in part because it is absolute. Either something is sustainable or it’s not. There’s no middle ground. To refer to something as “more sustainable” is to essentially say that something is more infinite. It’s also like saying that something is very unique. We make this mistake pretty often, but what this essentially says is that something is very one of a kind. Either it is or it isn’t.

Green, on the other hand, is a micro concept. We deal with green in our everyday lives with things like clothing, food, lighting, cars, and a long list of best practices. Green is a pretty easy concept to understand in part because it’s relative. It is measured on a scale from dirty to clean or toxic to non-toxic. We often think in terms of the different shades of green. One person’s green can be another person’s, well, not green. That’s also why we have so much trouble with the green label and why we always will. It’s why people from all sides of the political spectrum can point to supposed hypocrisies from those who embrace and support green living. Since the concept is relative, there’s always a way to be greener. As we like to say, the poor are pretty green but they’re positively wasteful compared to those living in extreme poverty. Sure, it’s absurd, but where do you draw the line in a world where everything is relative?

Despite our tagline (Social Media and Green Living), Max Gladwell is much more about sustainability than green. Admittedly, the choice to position ourselves as “the nexus of social media and green living” was driven by the expediency of the term. We’re guilty of using “green” as a lay term for sustainability simply because it sounds and works better. It’s vitally important, though, to acknowledge and understand the difference.

Going Green and Greenwashing

There is no shortage of green tips, products, or solutions. Again, that’s the result of being a relative concept. Anything can be green. Replacing your incandescent light bulb with a CFL is green, but so is replacing your whale-oil lamp with an incandescent light bulb. Riding the bus and driving a hybrid car are green choices…relative to driving a Hummer. But none of these green options are sustainable. If everyone replaced their light bulbs with CFLs or drove Priuses, it would only delay the inevitable (and assuage our guilt). We’d still be using non-renewable (unsustainable) forms of energy. We’d be using them more efficiently, but that’s still not sustainable. It’s just green…relatively speaking.

Before we delve into sustainability, though, we’d like to address the notion of greenwashing, as it was addressed during our panel.

A woman stepped to the microphone and tried to make the case that greenwashing was good because it drove awareness for green. In other words, despite the false claims being made by companies such as Clorox and BP, the awareness this type of advertising generates produces a net positive. In basic logic terms, this is known as the ends justifying the means, and we know that no matter how wonderful the outcome, it can never justify the immoral path that was taken to get there. If that were the case, we could justify slavery, genocide, and other atrocities provided we can demonstrate that the result was somehow positive. Regardless of the details of these types of arguments, they can be readily dismissed due to faulty logic. ‘Nough said.

A Sustainable Mail System

When it comes to the notion of sustainability, it is, by definition, absolute and generally refers to entire systems. Just as the Cradle to Cradle philosophy describes sustainable systems for designing and producing things, Jared Diamond’s Collapse details how unsustainable systems have lead to the demise and collapse of entire societies throughout human history. Cradle to Cradle opened our eyes to the notion of upcycling by design as opposed to downcycling by necessity. Recycling is green, but upcycling is sustainable. Upcycling is based on a new system, whereas recycling attempts to green an existing system.

The last slide in our presentation speaks to this dichotomy. It shows the homepage for Zumbox, which bills itself as the first “all-digital postal mail system.” We’ve written about the company several times and (full disclosure) currently provide web strategy services. The problem Zumbox addresses is the unsustainable nature of our current postal mail system i.e paper mail. We’re consuming 150 million trees per year via the USPS, not to mention the emissions and waste this generates, and nearly all of this mail starts digital. But because mail is stuck in the 19th century, those files are printed and trucked across the country as if they were precious parcels that just had to be physically delivered. It seems obvious that transporting digital files in this way is unsustainable on an environmental level. And if the financial losses are any indication, it doesn’t appear to be economically viable, either.

Zumbox isn’t the first to address this problem, but all other attempts have amounted to green solutions. You can use recycled paper. You can recycle the paper you receive. You can reduce the volume of paper you receive by hiring third parties stop junk mail, or you can selectively choose various types of online billing. You can also have your paper mail scanned and displayed online so you can choose which pieces of paper you wish to receive. Each of these seeks to compensate for the existing system by offering incremental improvements. These are the green approaches–the Priuses of paper mail, if you will. They’re commendable for sure, but they do nothing to address the systemic issue of printing and shipping digital files.

Zumbox rethinks the system itself. By leveraging a technology and communications infrastructure that’s been built up over the past 10 years (or more), Zumbox enables mail to be sent and delivered online with zero paper. This new system maintains some of the familiar methods of the old one, such as using street addresses to send mail, but it does so in a sustainable manner. Zumbox isn’t a green solution. It is a sustainable alternative.

The counterpoint to this might be that Zumbox is left with an energy problem that undermines its claim of sustainability, and that’s partly true. However, the actual system that Zumbox addresses is not energy but rather paper mail. Energy is a tremendous aspect of both systems (paper and paperless), and it needs to be addressed on its own. Energy is a nearly universal problem that affects all other systems. This conundrum is similar to that of transportation.

Electric vehicles are sustainable and internal combustion engines are not. Electric vehicles represent a new transportation system that can run on renewable solar and wind power today. Most don’t have access to those sources of energy, so they have to utilize the unsustainable energy system of coal and natural gas. This is done at higher rates of efficiency than internal combustion with zero tailpipe emissions, which makes the energy source green (relatively speaking, of course). But the electric vehicle transportation system itself is sustainable. It’s not an incremental improvement over internal combustion. It is a complete rethinking. Like Zumbox, though, it depends on an unsustainable energy system, but that doesn’t mean that the system itself is unsustainable.

A Sustainable Information System

Which brings us to the final point on social media. This phenomenon did not happen overnight. It was an evolution that required tremendous investment and technological innovation to achieve. We tend to take it for granted that social media and Web 2.0 just happened, while ignoring the trillions of dollars invested over several decades to get to this point. If we’d made that same level of investment in clean energy technology, we might have an energy system that functions as efficiently as our information system. The money we’ve personally spent on computers alone could fund a solar array for an entire city block.

What we’ve achieved through online technology is a sustainable, decentralized system of information with limitless inputs and outputs. It is sustainable in a way that the old system is not because it doesn’t rely on a handful of large companies to keep it going, and it spreads the knowledge base and mind share over millions of people as opposed to thousands. It is powered by the collective will and knowledge of all people (potentially). And we’re confident that by harnessing that power in so many different ways, we’ll enable the development and deployment of many other sustainable systems from energy and education to agriculture and transportation. Because sustainability begets more sustainability.

And that is how social media will accelerate sustainability.

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Tags: Social Media · Sustainability