Musings – Why I hate the word “sustainable”

sustainable  /se’stanebel / • adj. • Ecology (esp. of development, exploitation, or agriculture) conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”

– New Oxford American Dictionary, Second Edition

I have an innate dislike for the word “sustainable” because it’s a kind of contemporary neologism that doesn’t seem to have a naturally comprehensible meaning. It doesn’t fit intuitively, to my mind, into the syntax of sentences where it’s used. If one says “sustainable furniture,” what is it about the furniture that’s able to be sustained? Looking at the definition above, I can’t help but think that the word should instead be “sustaining,” or “sustained” – both equally awkward.

It reminds me of another term that I’ve always hated: “relationship,” referring to a state of being between two persons. When it came into general use in the 1960s I thought: what’s wrong with “marriage,” or “friendship”? Presumably it was applied to the growing number of couples openly living together out-of-wedlock, but to me it had a false ring to it, a pretentiousness. Frank Zappa made his feelings about the term quite clear with:

“No one could understand our bizarre relationship because I was your intellectual frigid housekeeper.”

– Frank Zappa, Our Bizarre Relationship, Uncle Meat (1969)

It irks me that I have to use “sustainable” because it’s so obviously a necessary keyword in our digital world/marketplace. But I don’t use it because I like it!

– Dave Wilder


2 thoughts on “Musings – Why I hate the word “sustainable”

  1. I assume it’s the term you don’t like, rather than the concept. It’s true it’s definitely a buzzword of late, and those are often irritating. And I would agree that it’s a bit clumsy and artificially generated. My daughter is in her final year of environmental technology at college, and is the sustainability director for several committees, so I hear this word a lot. When I asked her to define it, back when she started doing this, she said something to the effect that it’s the natural system that we’re sustaining when we think in these terms. So not the item itself, such as the piece of furniture in your case, but the environment from which was drawn. I agree that the term is misleading and imprecise, though the idea is fantastic and necessary, and what you’re doing is a wonderful example. Is there a word for this that you think works better?

    • Hi Jan, again!

      Thanks for your salient comments on my little “rant.” Yes, it’s the term I dislike, simply because doesn’t intuitively mean anything in the way it’s used. What works better for me? “Husbandry.” Its definition is posted above the “Musings . . .”

      How cool that your daughter is doing “environmental technology,” a major I hadn’t heard of. I’d be curious to know if she’d be at all interested in our philosophy (see our very first post). But, also, I wonder if she knows of any one in your neck of the woods who is doing anything very similar to what we are.

      Thanks again for your very kind compliment.



Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s