The UK Experience by Malcolm Morley*

The environment is a key issue for all Councils. All Councils consequently have policies and strategies that relate to the protection of the environment and the term ‘sustainable’ has, it seems, become an absolute must have in any environment related publication. Indeed, so popular has the term ‘sustainable’ become that we now see sustainable economic strategies, sustainable human resource strategies, sustainable community strategies and so forth. It seems that the term ‘sustainable’ has become the chosen adjective to illustrate commitment, empathy, progressiveness, support and caring about everything.

No one can argue about the importance of the environment, its impact on the quality of life and the need to act responsibly in protecting it both now and for the future. There is a danger, however, that overuse/misuse of the term ‘sustainable’ runs the risk of undermining its importance and impact in relation to the environment. In using ‘sustainable’ in so many contexts the public and staff become confused.

In a series of seminars recently for staff on environmental sustainability, it was clear that the term ‘sustainable’ was being defined in many different ways. There was genuine confusion about what ‘sustainable’ actually meant. One definition was, “The goal of being sustainable is to enable all people to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life, without compromising the quality of life of future generations.”

I’m sure that if you were to ask 20 of your colleagues what this definition actually means you’d probably get 20 different answers. You might also get some people quite reasonably stating that they didn’t know what this definition actually means.

It is interesting that the delegate stated: “The goal of being sustainable….”. The adjective has become an objective: To be sustainable! This linguistic transformation illustrates the problem. Being sustainable appears to have become an end in itself. The objective should not relate to the adjective but to the noun to which the adjective relates. Whether this is community, economy or environment is of vital importance. The noun starts to provide the context. The next step is to understand the objective(s) in relation to the community, economy, environment and so on.

Clearly issues cannot be treated in isolation. There will inevitably be an impact from economic development and housing development on the environment. The issues are what are the nature, level and location of such impacts and how can they be mitigated if that is possible or desirable?

What may be appropriate to pursuing sustainability in economic development terms might be in conflict with what might be appropriate in pursuing sustainability in environmental terms. These apparent conflicts are where clarity of definition and the issue of choice become really important. Councils often have to choose between different priorities and the implications of different proposals. Too often the term ‘sustainable’ confuses and inhibits choice.

It is as if ‘sustainable’ is being used as a brand – a brand that seeks to give issues, strategies, initiatives and even organisations a seal of approval. It would be sad indeed if the proliferation of the use of ‘sustainable’ in so many contexts leads to it becoming a meaningless term.

Environmental sustainability is a key issue for everyone. While it cannot be viewed in isolation, the context for considering options/proposals and making choices about it must be distinguished from other issues. The overuse of the term ‘sustainable’ is not helping in this process. More focus and less branding are required.

*Malcolm Morley is Chief Executive of Harlow District Council and can be contacted via the Editor, email The views expressed in
this article are not necessarily those of his employer.