Sustainability is on everybody’s lips. Over the past few years the topic of sustainability has been a popular phrase amongst media coverage. From traditional companies and energy service providers to small, innovative start-ups that come up with visionary ideas – they all apply the concept of sustainability also in PR work, in order to position themselves with a positive image in the market. Over the past few years, sustainability has become a competitive factor – both on a national and on an international level. But how sustainable is sustainability really? Are all products and procedures that are labeled as sustainable actually resource-efficient and can therefore be communicated as eco-friendly to the press?

Main thing sustainable
The word sustainability stems from the verb to sustain, which means “to provide what is needed for (something or someone) to exist, continue, etc.” (Merriam Webster).
In the modern, economic sense of the word, it is understood as „Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources” (Oxford Dictionaries). The most recent example for a sustainable product is bamboo toilet paper, which probably will be available in stores starting in October/November 2015 thanks to start-up financing via crowdfunding. By using bamboo as a rapidly growing resource, the toilet paper is supposed to be more resource-efficient as compared to traditional toilet paper – the latter usually consists of high quality cellulose fibers, which are gained from freshly cut trees. At first sight, this is an ecological innovation. When you take a closer look, however, the bamboo toilet paper could mean the end for an ecological concept that has been established on the market for years, is made of waste paper and is therefore protecting the forest: the classic recycled toilet paper. If it carries the label “Blauer Engel”, it even consists of 100 percent recycled paper. Not a single tree has to be cut down for the production of paper. Moreover, the long transport on container ships becomes unnecessary, which in addition positively adds to the carbon footprint. Therefore, is toilet paper made of bamboo actually sustainable?

Save energy at any cost?
One further negative example of sustainability are energy-saving lamps. Having been highly praised for saving energy, they turned out to be a misjudgment in terms of ecology in most cases. An energy-saving lamp is said to use up to 80 percent less energy than a normal light bulb. However, many of the conventional energy-saving lamps contain the neurotoxin mercury, which renders their disposal highly problematic: Due to their harmful ingredients, energy-saving lamps definitely have no place in the household waste. The recommendation is to dispose of the lamps in communal waste disposal facilities or to bring them back to the vendor. But what happens after that?

Additionally you have to keep in mind that in case such a lamp breaks, the mercury it contains leaks, which can have disastrous effects on our health. Following the negative headlines, LED lamps have come to replace such energy-saving lamps as an ecofriendly alternative. According to the latest results, prices for the once so expensive LED lamps will continue to fall.

The downside of sustainability  
So how sustainable is sustainability? And how ecological are energy saving measures? This and many other examples make us realize that some supposedly sustainable innovations have their downsides – ecologically reasonable things can come with considerable dangers or problems for the environment – including adverse publicity. What is good for humans and nature shall be decided for each product individually and be re-evaluated on a regular basis. This is the only way to ensure that the chosen approach really corresponds to the aim of sustainability. Only then does this commitment really pay off for the company’s reputation.

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