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The Consequences of Sustainability

Isabella Blair, Portland, Oregon

Week 4: 1 October 2018

It is a common misconception that sustainability is an end-all goal. The word “sustainable” has become a symbol of a utopia that we think we should all be working towards. We ride our bikes to work, recycle, compost, and take shorter showers all for the goal of “sustainability.” There seems to be a view that sustainability means only one possible, perfect outcome. This view is idealistic and simplistic. When you really look at it, sustainability can have many different interpretations, and each of these interpretations have positive and negative trade-offs.

Let’s discuss plastic straws, for example. Lately many businesses have decided to make the change from plastic straws to paper straws. These businesses, we could argue, may be doing this because they think it is ethical to make positive environmental change. On the other hand, businesses could be employing the strategic marketing approach of having “sustainable” practices. There is no doubt that in consumer society today, there is a higher demand for sustainable products. The business’s motives could be a mix of the two. They could be looking to increase sales and care about the environment. Now, if these businesses are no longer using plastic straws, then what are they using? Most will go for the paper straw option. Here, we are trading plastic for paper. Which waste is the lesser of two evils? Paper does make up a large portion of our waste. And yes, I would agree that plastic waste may be much more harmful, however, let’s consider the trade-offs. By using paper straws, are we not cutting more trees down? Are we not also increasing the amount of paper waste? This is a very simplistic analysis of these two items, but you get the point. Sustainable efforts can never be 100% perfectly sustainable. There will always be trade-offs. It is a matter of weighing the options.

Starbucks is one of the businesses choosing not to use plastic straws. Their solution is a strawless lid. Here’s my question: The lids that I have seen previewed online may not be what the actual Starbucks corporation is planning on using, but what I have seen are plastic lids. If we are still using plastic for the rest of the cup, then are we really doing much by just cutting out plastic straws? There are many questions to consider when striving for “sustainability.” In order to make change, we must accept that there will be negative outcomes.

In Guthman’s article titled, “Strawberry Fields Forever?” about the California strawberry industry, she discussed the issues faced by strawberry growers who use traditional methods of farming when new technology, incorporating soilless agriculture, becomes prevalent. With soil agriculture, there will be pathogens, and when there are pathogens, farmers will turn to pesticides. The problem with pesticides is that there exists a constant fight between pests evolving to resist the pesticide and new pesticides created to kill said evolved pest, which then leads to a new species of pests that can resist the new pesticide. The other option, soilless agriculture, does not need as many or any pesticides, but the strawberries created have less flavor. The materials needed to create hydroponic systems are costly and the manufacturing of these materials may emit more pollution than we are aware of. There is also a question of the livelihood of the farmers who have depended on California soil all their lives. They will lose business by employing the sustainable practice of not using pesticides because they will not be able to keep up with soilless agriculture yields. Food transportation was another factor considered in the article. Soilless agriculture can be placed near urban centers where strawberries are demanded. However, transportation of food isn’t the biggest greenhouse gas contributor, so this may not be a very important factor. These are all consequences of the different types of agriculture. Achieving “sustainability” is a matter of choosing which option has less consequences. Our sustainable future could involve a mixture of both options! It is never a matter of finding one simple answer to all of our problems.

The point of this article is not to say that we should stop all of our sustainable efforts. This is not what Guthman was trying to say about strawberries either. The point is, “sustainability” is not a simple, one answer concept. There are many possibilities and solutions that have good and bad results. As a species, we are not perfect, and we must accept our flaws if we are to move forward.

Photograph from