I catch myself saying it; using the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘wellbeing’ separately as additions to each other rather than expressing the understanding that wellbeing is part of sustainability.
It’s a journey of education, all of us are going through it, and the better we are at learning the difference in each term, the better we are at delivering both. We are becoming better at both understanding what sustainability really is, and understanding how important wellbeing is. What we still need to get better at is to understand that wellbeing is part of sustainability. Wellbeing is part of a sustainable outcome.
In a nutshell it is this; if we are not well then we will not sustain any system or situation, we will also not have an incentive to save the planet/environment or create a flourishing economy. We lack the purpose to push through difficulties and frankly, have purpose to stay alive.
Sustainability is not a thing in itself but it is describing the outcome of a situation. Can something that we are doing right now, in our decade, keep happening in an ongoing fashion, done in the same quality with the same benefits for generations hereafter? If the answer is ‘yes’ then it is a sustainable situation, and we say that ‘so and so is sustainable’.
Wellbeing is a personal choice as I am frequently found saying, and no matter what conditions you are in, it is a choice that is available if one is conscious of it. What is also true is that unless we have comfort in our state and through the setup of our surroundings then we are using our resilience to find and maintain our comfort. In a binary situation, if we do not have comfort, then we can’t sustain our wellbeing. We only have so much resilience and it is topped up by moments of wellbeing in equal measure. So if the future conditions of our planet do not support human comfort then we are also depriving wellness and a life worth living, and making it all unsustainable. Life is unsustainable.
We have some structural issues though in relation to all of this and the three pillars of sustainability help us understand where to focus and categorize things and inform where to place priorities. Diagram 1 shows the mix of the issues discussed above and how we only achieve a sustainable outcome if we have accounted for the impacts to the environment, the people and the economy and made the best decision for the three in the specific circumstances. Then diagram 2 explains the hierarchy of the thinking for the objectives we may hold. If a person’s objective is dominated by one of the three pillars only and does not include all three pillars, then their objective fails.
Let’s look at a few scenarios
Prioritising people over the environment: quoting the philosopher Henry David Thoreau who said “what is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” We are, quite simply put, hosted on this planet and its health will impact how well it is able to perform that hosting function. Sweating a design detail without considering its environmental impact is like trying to save the champagne in a sinking ship. People are screaming around you and only when you feel the water at your own ankles do you really believe the ship is sinking. At present, hearing other people’s screams is still not convincing designers and architects that they need to also take action right now and update priorities.
Prioritising only the environment over people and economics: if we design lighting for example in such a way that we use the lowest amount of energy without considering the amount and type of lighting needed for the occupant activities of an interior, we will find that people stop using it or change it to meet their needs and all environmental efforts go to waste. Also, if we purchase the cheapest item that does not meet occupant expectations or needs, it will be quickly replaced and with that impact both financial and environmental sustainability.
Prioritising economic profit over people and the environment: an economy is only as strong as the society that runs and uses it. If the society collapses then the economy will also collapse. This applies to companies working locally as much as internationally.
If we wish to sustain wellbeing for ourselves, the rest of humanity and those we cohabit earth with, we need to understand that it is intrinsically linked with environmental sustainability. So when someone says to you they wish to target wellbeing and are seen to respond sluggishly to environmental concerns, or wish to grow their profits without caring for the wellbeing of their staff, suppliers or community, you can now help prevent them being unsustainable and nudge them towards better thinking.
It only needs each of us to do that little action every time we have the opportunity. Be brave and seize it!
And if you need guidance we’d be delighted to hear from you firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 20 7580 0611.