Sustainability Filter

Defining sustainability

Sustainability is advancing quality of life for all equitably while living within ecological means. Advancing sustainability has been on the political agenda for decades as a dynamic process of advancing human and ecological wellbeing in ways that are green, prosperous, healthy and just.

City priorities differ from place to place depending on political cycles and community needs. Regardless of where you start, advancing sustainability requires that we overcome a fragmented approach and advance sustainability in a fundamental way.

Sustainability is rooted in a 'whole systems approach', which requires a broader and more integrated way of meeting social, ecological, economic and cultural needs with a longer-term perspective. It is about inclusion - about equity now and intergenerational equity into the future. It is an ideal toward which humanity is striving, and a mindset – a way of perceiving our world and the systems within which we are embedded.

Sustainability Filter: A lens for assessing your Sustainable Consumption Initiatives

This sustainability filter aims to support you as you select, design and implement consumption initiatives in ways that advance sustainability.

Here are a few tips in terms of using this filter:

Consider the sustainability questions in an integrated way in order to find opportunities for advancing several objectives and achieving multiple benefits.

  • An example of developing an integrated approach to sustainable solutions around housing, mobility, food and consumer goods is the implementation of bylaws that support complete compact communities to reduce the need for vehicle transport (fuel use) and housing size while improving access to food and goods.
  • Many cities are already exploring sustainability in an integrated way by using the STAR Communities Rating System to assess their current state, set goals and measure progress toward community sustainability. Click Measurement for more detail.

Make use of cost-benefit analysis and other tools for assessing trade-offs among different priorities.

Use terms and approaches that align with city priorities and interests.

Guiding Questions: Sustainability Filter

The following guiding questions enable you to assess whether consumption focused  initiatives are advancing sustainability. Ask these questions when you are determining which initiatives to pursue and how to take action as well as measure progress. The questions are based on our definition of sustainable consumption.

What is a "Whole System Approach?"

When we apply a whole systems approach, we explore problems in terms of their parts as well as the connections and relationships among these parts over time, rather than in a narrow or fragmented way. The advantage lies in moving beyond simple understandings of cause and effect and instead paying attention to dynamic interrelationships. A whole systems approach can lead to innovative and longer-lasting solutions that are grounded in a sense of the big picture and a deeper understanding of reality. 

Rebound Effects

When addressing living within ecological means, watch out for rebound effects: where benefits from a sustainable improvement are undermined by new problems that emerge from the improvement itself. For instance, when a product becomes more efficient it can also reduce the price which can lead to people purchasing more of that product. Local governments instead can reinvest any financial or material savings into additional sustainability practices - for instance, taking money saved in creating parking spaces because of the success of integrated mobility programs and investing in even more walkable communities.

Living within Ecological Means

  • Is the sustainable consumption initiative leading to absolute reductions in material goods and energy we consume?
  • How is the sustainable consumption initiative enabling technological innovation and efficiency gains that can help us to refine the production process, creating less impact to the planet?
  • Is the sustainable consumption resulting in a transformation of our economy from one defined by continuous growth to one that functions within the very real limits of a finite planet?

Equity and Social Inclusion

  • How is the sustainable consumption initiative advancing equity and social inclusion, recognizing that consumption will need to increase for those individuals and communities whose needs are not being met?

Wellbeing and Social Connection

  • How is the sustainable consumption initiative contributing to a shift in values away from material wealth and consumerism toward new measures of progress and well-being?

The following are sample STAR Communities Rating System metrics that align with the filter questions above.

Living within Ecological Means:

  • Climate and Energy – Waste Minimization – Total Solid Waste – Demonstrate incremental progress towards achieving a 100% reduction by 2050 in total solid waste generated within the jurisdiction that is disposed of via landfill, waste-to-energy facility, or incinerator.
  • Climate and Energy – Resource Efficient Buildings – Energy Efficiency – Demonstrate incremental progress towards achieving an 80% reduction by 2050 in the energy use intensity of the community’s building stock.
  • Natural Systems – Green Infrastructure – Facility and Infrastructure Improvements – Increase the percentage of funding invested in green infrastructure.

Equity and Social Inclusion

  • Education, Arts & Empowerment – Social & Cultural Diversity – Diverse Community Representation – Demonstrate that appointments to local advisory boards and commissions reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the community
  • Equity & Empowerment – Civil and Human Rights – Resolution of Complaints – Demonstrate that all civil and human rights complaints in the past 3 years have been investigated and violations redressed in a timely manner
  • Equity & Empowerment – Environmental Justice – Policy and Code Adjustment – Incorporate environmental justice criteria and priorities into zoning, land use planning, permitting policies, and development of new projects

Social Connection and Wellbeing

  • Education, Arts and Community – Community Cohesion – Neighborhood Cohesion – Demonstrate an increased percentage of neighborhoods reporting positive levels of neighbourhood cohesion through community surveys

Note: The Sustainability Filter draws on previous work by One Earth in creating the Local Governments and Sharing Economy Report (2015), with generous support by The J. W. McConnell Family Foundation.