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Sunday, January 24, 2016

What does sustainable mean?

Alive and well: the only truly natural state for chickens

Sustainability means different things to different people and different organizations. For Food Empowerment Project (F.E.P.), the word is in the first sentence of our mission statement: Food Empowerment Project seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices. 

Recently, I was invited to a small planning meeting for an upcoming conference on sustainability. When there was talk about having a company participate that had done some work related to environmental sustainability, but was not great when it comes to human rights abuses, I had to ask, what was their definition of sustainable?

So when they asked me for my input on food issues, I had to tell them that my definition of sustainable was probably different than theirs.

To me, how is any system sustainable when it involves the suffering or exploitation of any being.

Animal consumption is clearly not sustainable for the planet when you look at the environmental impacts of just the waste and the water usage. And then look at the impacts of this waste on communities of color who live near these facilities. Living with the smells, dealing with the health impacts, etc., is not sustainable for them.

And how is it sustainable to the animal for them to be killed? Clearly it is not sustainable for them at all. The idea that animal consumption is sustainable is like seeing the word “natural” in relation to dead chickens being sold in a supermarket. Chickens are naturally alive and walking around.

Given the 100% turnover rate of slaughterhouse workers, surely that cannot be considered sustainable. Who can continue to kill other sentient beings every day, and why should anyone else expect someone to do this? Psychologically the toll is great, as are the impacts on their bodies and the injuries they face. It is not sustainable.

And how sustainable is produce for the farm workers? They deal with low wages, wage theft, horrible working and living conditions, the women face sexual harassment, and they are exposed to agricultural chemicals.

It is not sustainable to treat farm workers like this by exposing them and the planet to chemicals.

Nor is it sustainable for children to be working in the fields because their families (who are also working) are too poor to send them to school.

Is it sustainable that portions of our population do not have access to healthy foods that are necessary for them to be healthy themselves?

Is it sustainable to not pay workers living wages?

So far I have used the word “sustainable” more than a dozen times in this blog, so I think you get my point. I have been asked to give a talk to some students about sustainability and I am looking forward to what they think of my definition.

The word “sustainable” has no boundaries and neither should we when we talk about what it means and what we need to work on to achieve a truly sustainable world. 

Photo courtesy of VINE Sanctuary. 


  1. Excellent! Thank you for this Lauren.

  2. Great article, lauren. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this lauren. The word "sustainable" has become overused, co-opted, and lost much of its meaning and impact.

    I really appreciate your definition that ""sustainable" has no boundaries."

    Hope the students see the bigger picture of "sustainability."

  4. Brilliant analysis of what should NOT be part of any discussion on sustainability. One of the most frustrating aspects of talking to many people about (for instance) organic produce is their focus on "does it benefit me?" vs. "does it benefit the planet and the people who farm and handle the produce?" Many people seem quite self-centered when it comes to these issues.Thanks, Lauren, for making me think about all (animals, people, the planet) that are hurt in the system that we have now.