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What’s “Sustainable”?

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For the past few years, as chairman of a regional business group whose below-the-logo tagline is “Advancing Sustainable Enterprise,” I’ve read and heard a lot about sustainability and sustainable development. Among my conclusions:

— We’re a long way, in consensus and time, from universal agreement on a definition of sustainability.

— It’s nice, but not crucial, that we agree on a definition.

— What is crucial is that we who are asked to weigh claims of sustainability come up with a practical definition that we can use day-to-day to make the decisions that come before us.

That’s no simple task. Opinions on a project’s sustainability will often range widely among commissioners. Moreover, assessing a project’s attributes will seldom be a matter of black or white, but rather a frustrating grey.

But grey terms are nothing new for us; we toil in a realm of squishy definitions. What’s the pay range, for example, of a “well-paying job”? What project attributes constitute “responsible” development?

We shouldn’t — and in my opinion can’t — shy away from our own determination of whether project features really are sustainable.

How might we do that?

image of vision of green city and development— Make developers or applicants do the heavy lifting. When they tout their project’s sustainability, ask how they define that term. Then ask them to explain how their sustainable features meet that definition. Don’t settle for generalities: get names of processes, materials, and methods. Also be sure to ask what additional up-front amount they’re spending, beyond regulatory requirements, to achieve long-run sustainability.

— Give an “A” for effort. Sustainability means different things to different people, has no widely accepted metrics, and — truth to tell — few projects that come before us can be called sustainable. So (without ignoring any stated requirements for project approval) cut some slack for applicants who show you they’ve made a commendable effort to fashion a project that conserves resources, respects its surroundings, and is built to last.

— Devise and think through your own list of sustainable project features. My current list (always subject to change) includes attributes of

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