Apr 212014

The below essay is written by former Worldwatch research fellow John Mulrow for GreenBiz.com, describing how the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center “is launching a fight against sustainababble” (a term Robert Engelman coined in chapter 1 of State of the World 2013). Attack!


As more people use the term “sustainability” without a precise understanding of its underlying meaning, the significance of the word may, if unchecked, be diluted until it means nothing.

Recently, the webcomic XKCD depicted a graph of the use of the word “sustainable” between 1980 and the present, then projected its use through 2109 — at which point “all sentences are just the word ‘sustainable’ repeated over and over.” The caption reads, “The word ‘sustainable’ is unsustainable.”

This message has been especially important for the team at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, which organizes the state’s annual Governor’s Sustainability Awards. In order to ensure we do not dilute the meaning of sustainability and the spirit of the award, the ISTC is launching a fight against “sustainababble” (PDF).

We encourage our applicants to pursue projects that show scope, scale and significance relative to their organization’s primary operations. We hope that these three S’s may help others in this same fight. Sustainability and pollution prevention award/certification programs must work especially hard to maintain their integrity amidst a growing cacophony of sustainababble.

The Governor’s Sustainability Award

The Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award was founded in 1987 as the Governor’s Pollution Prevention Award. In 2009, the name was changed in order to recognize the expanding scope of environmental initiatives among Illinois companies and organizations.

Illinois Governor's Sustainability Award image courtesy of ITSC

Illinois Governor’s Sustainability Award (image from ITSC)

Every year, Illinois companies strive to win the prestigious Governor’s Sustainability Award. Oftentimes, when companies change a process to reduce waste or eliminate a hazard, they also find opportunities to save energy and water. They may even find that the environmental problem-solving process fits well as a core part of company operations.

In the mid-2000s, ISTC saw an increase in award applications from businesses outside of industrial and manufacturing sectors. Industrial or manufacturing facilities represented 70 percent of awardees in the early 2000s, but less than half of awardees since 2009. Applicants and winners from the education, government, non-profit, office-based and retail sectors have increased in recent years.

We are excited about this trend because it reflects a growing awareness that pollution prevention and efficiency have benefits for all sectors. But we are cautious to not lose touch with three key qualities of a sustainability award winner: scope, scale and significance.

1. Scope

In evaluating scope, we ask whether an applicant has made impact improvements in the areas most relevant to its business. The latest GRI reporting guidelines refer to this as materiality. For example, a clothing company’s sustainability scope includes processes such as fabric manufacturing, washing and dyeing. If the company only touts its lighting retrofits and low-flow toilets, its scope is incomplete.

The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (PDF) was a 2013 winner that had a strong scope. Almost all of its reported achievements centered on its primary business: Bus transport. In 2009, CUMTD began incorporating gas-electric hybrid buses into its fleet. Today, hybrid vehicles comprise more than 50 percent of its 102-bus fleet. All new buses also are fitted with diesel particulate filters, which remove 90 percent of particulate matter (soot) from emissions. To further reduce bus emissions, the district implemented an anti-idling policy, which mandates that bus drivers will idle for no more than three minutes.

40-foot hybrid bus image courtesy of CUMTD

Champaign-Urbana’s 40-foot hybrid buses are standout examples of sustainability, but policies such as anti-idling and less routine washing make them all the better. (Image courtesy of CUMTD)

Champaign-Urbana’s 40-foot hybrid buses are standout examples of sustainability, but policies such as anti-idling and less routine washing make them all the better.

CUMTD focused its water reduction initiatives on the wash bay, where buses are washed on a nightly basis. By installing a water conservation system that recycles rinse water, the district cut consumption by 20 percent. Additionally, the district now requires the bus garage’s supervisor to make a daily decision about whether each bus truly needs a wash. This simple step cut water use by an additional 5 percent. CUMTD reports that these changes reduced water consumption from 12.4 gallons per vehicle-hour to 9.4 gallons per vehicle-hour.

2. Scale

Our awardees range from small family-owned organizations to multinational corporations. We want to continue recognizing a wide range of businesses for their accomplishments, so we evaluate scale relative to an organization’s operations. Ideally, every applicant would report information on a relevant per-unit basis, as CUMTD did. Instead of simply reporting “gallons of water reduced,” they reported gallons per vehicle-hour, providing us with a measure that can be compared across years, regardless of how many trips the buses make. This type of measurement, a normalized metric, is extremely helpful for evaluating the true scale of a sustainability project.

Each year, only a handful of applicants report normalized impact information, leaving it to our judges to evaluate the context and scale of our applicants’ achievements. In 2014, we are nudging more applicants toward normalizing their data by requiring them to provide square footage, number of employees and annual hours of operation in their applications. These units allow us to compare year-to-year performance. The 2014 application also includes additional instructions on normalizing data by relevant units of production.

3. Significance

Significance is where we discover whether an applicant truly has incorporated sustainability — a commitment to environment, economy and society — into the operation of the company or organization. Sustainability has become a significant part of the organization when a company normalizes green purchasing practices, employees routinely seek efficiencies and management is as familiar with impact data as it is with financials. In 2013, 17 of the 27 awardees included descriptions of how true sustainability is being woven into the fabric of their operations, either through an active and multi-functional Green Team, ISO 14001 Certification or sustainability reporting efforts.

Plastic chip image by John Mulrow

By sending plastic scraps and defective plastic parts through a grinder on-site, J.L. Clark saves space on the manufacturing floor, makes fewer trips to the recycler and sells the regrind at a premium. (Image by John Mulrow.)

By sending plastic scraps and defective plastic parts through a grinder on-site, J.L. Clark saves space on the manufacturing floor, makes fewer trips to the recycler and sells the regrind at a premium.Packaging design and manufacturing company and 2013 winner J.L. Clark (PDF) provides an excellent example of a company that pursues sustainability in a significant way. The company’s Green Team includes several plant managers and engineers, the vice president of operations and often the president himself. It is a group well-positioned to evaluate and make changes that are highly relevant in both scope and scale.

In 2012, over 25 percent of J.L. Clark’s waste reductions and cost savings were achieved by improving process efficiencies on the manufacturing floor. By grouping all high volume production lines in one area, the company was able to eliminate the need for two sets of constantly running chillers, cooling towers and air compressors. It also achieved significant savings by rebuilding and reprogramming injection molds and tooling. The involvement of engineers and plant managers in the Green Team made these achievements a seamless part of company operations, rather than a special side project.

The Green Team subdivides its work into four project categories: Land, Air, Sea and Mind. This framework ensures that the company addresses all aspects of sustainability in its constant quest for improvement. The evaluators also were impressed that the categories described their purpose and impact more explicitly than the word “sustainability” does.


As the administrator of the Governor’s Sustainability Award, ISTC staff is keenly aware of sustainababble and excited to help more organizations pursue true sustainability. Sustainability award and certification programs, including ours, must practice continuous improvement by employing meaningful terms and greater rigor in our evaluations. In the fight against sustainababble, we must choose our weapons and words wisely.

  One Response to “Three Magic Words to Defeat ‘Sustainababble’”

  1. Hybrid buses are sustainable? I think not, though perhaps a step on the road to eventual sustainability. Is an electric bus sustainable? No, frankly buses are not sustainable for a whole number of reasons, an increasing lack of raw materials and a tremendous amount of energy required to either mine, refine, and process raw materials, or recycle raw materials, processes in both cases that suffer from a depletion rate.

    Perhaps if buses were built out of wood, rather than out of rubber, steel, copper wire, and plastic they would be more-sustainable, and the same basic flaw goes for trolley cars powered by any means other than sail, Sure if we can get high ridership trolleys and buses will cut down on other vehicle emissions however that simple fact doesn’t make buses or trolleys sustainable either.

    About a year ago there was a study done of metro-Denver’s progress toward sustainability. Sure, we have built 7500 housing units in walk-able neighborhoods near downtown and we have also installed over 100 miles of light rail trolley transit as well as embraced all manner of sustainability initiatives across much of the city too. After all, Denver is allegedly one of the most-sustainable urban areas in the US.

    However, all that work toward progress toward sustainability near downtown Denver as well as the light rail and numerous TOD mixed-use projects at train stations has been counter-balanced by the construction of five times as many single-family homes around metro-Denver;s suburban fringe, where just over the next three years more than 30,000 additional single-family homes have already received permitting.

    How many buses will it take to haul the extra 250K new suburban commuters from their homes on large suburban single-family lots all over town to their jobs as well as on shopping trips, trips to the dentist, and trips wherever else suburban commuters travel, or would it be better to now try to plan as many local suburban walking, bicycling, and electric golf cart destinations as possible, which will of course subtract from additional allegedly green growth downtown?

    I think that the greater message is that economic growth by whatever name isn’t sustainable in the long run either, especially not in a State that is rapidly running out of fresh water, a State that also stands to be forced to host as many as many millions of climate change, drought, heat, and food scarcity refugees from other places to our south and southwest that exhaust their water and food supplies before we do.

    I already know that some aquifers near Greater Chicago are already in-danger of depletion after being drawn down by as much as 800-1000 vertical feet. Now can anyone in Illinois imagine the virtually certain outcome where Central America, Mexico, and most of the Greater US Southwest simply runs out of enough water and food to meet their own needs, after temperatures rise and cause additional surface water evaporation, an ever-higher rate of crop failure, as well as an ever more-rapid drawdown of remaining aquifers, as well as the needs of ever-larger hordes of refugees?

    So you think that the act of building, operating, and only occasionally washing hybrid buses is “highly sustainable” in Illinois? You had better build lots of them now then, and keep them in-storage until they are sorely needed once the giant refugee hordes start showing up very likely much sooner than many of us have planned for.

    You know what I think might be more-sustainable in Illinois than building and operating hybrid buses? How about building some very large reservoir storage for the day when your aquifers are on their last legs and millions of refugees begin flooding into town. How about all of those old quarries out there, and instead of filling them with trash you fill them with fresh water for future demand instead?

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