What is Sustainability?

The term sustainability has taken on a life of its own. It seems everyone has decided that they have their own meaning and that that is good enough. Taken this way, sustainability is more like a value—not unlike, love, life, or happiness—than a business strategy. While this in itself is not a problem (after all, we all have the right to decide what we make of the world), when were trying to work towards sustainability, something a little more concrete would be helpful. In fact, I dare say, necessary. How could you possibly move towards sustainability when you have no real idea what that means on a working level?!

To illustrate, let’s take the nebulous meaning used by most Sustainability Practioners and the one forwarded by Local Agenda 21 at the Earth Summit way back in 1992. To paraphrase their basic idea, leaders urged us ‘to meet the needs of our current generation without sacrificing the needs of future generations’. O.K, fine, no problem. But what about if I am trying to assess whether I should use recycled paper towels or an air dryer in a clubhouse washroom? Which is more sustainable? The fact, is by using the LA 21 definition you can never tell if recycled paper or hot air meets our needs without sacrificing the needs of our children or our children’s children. Something more grounded is required.

The Natural Step, an international non-governmental organization based out of Sweden, has understood just this and worked for the past 15-20 years trying to bring the idea of sustainability back down to earth. They realized that science was our best hope of really understanding what all this means and so consulted a group of Scientists world-wide with the problem. The results can be complicated to understand at first, but with some time and practice, becomes second nature. Before we delve right in to what they concluded, we first must understand the context of their findings.

Basically, Earth is a closed system; which means, for the most part, material does not move freely beyond our atmosphere and into Space. (We can, of course, contradict this with modern technology; however, it is at great energy and financial costs). Because Earth is a closed system, everything that is used on Earth simply does not just ‘go away’. It does, however, change its form, dissipate and then re-accumulate as time passes. For some materials, this is not a problem, for others, it literally means life and death for humanity.

From understanding these natural processes, The Natural Step deduced what it would mean for human society to operate in accordance with the phenomenon of material dissipating and re-accumulating. If these ‘conditions’ are met, human society will, according to science, be environmentally sustainable. They are;
In a sustainable society, Nature is not subject to systematically increasing of...
1) Concentrations of materials produced from the Earth’s crust.
2) Concentrations of materials produced from Society.
3) Degradation by physical means.
And, in that society...
4) People are not subject to conditions which systematically undermine people’s ability to meet their own needs.

A mouthful, I know, and at first, not the easiest to understand. But if we return to our paper towel vs. air dyer example, we at least know what questions to ask in our assessment. Does the paper get recycled again when its done or is it burned to heat homes? Where does the energy come from to produce the hot air, hydro or coal? Who and how often does the paper get picked up as garbage? What do those trucks run on? And so on...As you can see, at this level, although complicated, we can, at least get some work done.

So what does this mean for golf and the golf industry? Through experience I have seen that 3 or 4 major categories come up as high priority sustainability issues: Turf resources (water, labour, pesticides, fertilizers), Energy, Waste and Transportation. With these areas as our focus, we can then apply, on a case by case basis, what sustainability means for each and every course. We must ask questions about how each course is receiving, storing, applying, and managing turf resources in accordance with the above conditions; we must ask how each course is receiving and using energy in accordance with the above conditions; we must ask how each course is managing their waste in accordance with each condition; we must ask how each course is supplying transportation, both on and off-site, in accordance with each condition. I know this is labourious, but it is the only way we have right now because each course is different and in a different position in the market.

Which brings us to our last and perhaps most important part! Sustainability must be an effective business strategy in the golf industry if any results are to be achieved. After all, without profitability, no one will implement environmental initiatives. And so, each course must deal with its sustainability issues individually and in a way that makes good business sense. The fortunate thing is that with today’s technology, combined with passionate business leaders and proven solutions, sustainability is a viable business strategy within the golf industry.

This article is cross posted on www.greensportsolutions.com/blog


After taking a break from golf industry and entering the research field I am convince more than ever that at its current state our industry is not sustainable. We continue to plant the wrong types of grasses for the situation which in turn leads to increased inputs. Take topdressing for example; is this really sustainable? We went from topdressing greens to know topdressing tees and fairways. The soil has only one advantage and that is drainage. Everyone of its other characteristics require increased inputs

Anonymous, are you optimistic or just a pessimist? I'd say about 30% of colleagues are doing it as environmental and sustainable as you possible could that is probably the same in any industry. maybe only 30% are actually bad and the remainder do the best they can given the economy and products.
I wont waste my time defending topdressing.