Debunking myths about sustainability

The communications team at HBN really hates the word “sustainability.” You can find about a million definitions of “sustainability” online, and not one of them is the same. That probably explains some of the negative baggage associated with the word. We often use alternatives to the word for this reason, but because it is such a prevalent concept in the green industry, it would be foolish to avoid it altogether. In addition to defining what it means to us, we hope in this week’s blog post to change some of the definitions and assumptions that are often held about sustainability.

While there is no one definition that can encompass all that the overused and misunderstood word means, we like the definition produced by the Brundtland Report, which says it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This concept is important to us because we care about the future of our planet and ways we can use technology and renewable energy to make residents and the earth healthier.

Before joining the HBN team, though, we thought a lot of things about sustainability that we now have realized aren’t true.

“Sustainability is too expensive.”

While the upfront cost of much of green technology – like solar panels or electric cars – can be 10-15% more than conventional materials, using renewable resources pays off very quickly. On average, solar panels in the U.S. pay for themselves in just 7.5 years according to EnergySage. And that’s without taking into account gas money that could be saved if the panels are also used to power an electric vehicle, as is the case for House by Northwestern.

“Only hippies care about sustainability. I live in a city, I can’t be sustainable.”  

Being sustainable doesn’t mean only showering once a week or living in a treehouse, nor is “sustainable” synonymous with “green.” Although there’s a fair amount of overlap between the terms, “green” usually suggests a preference for the natural over the artificial. However, with the Earth’s population, it would be impossible to expect a high standard of living without a dependence on technology. Electric cars, wind turbines and solar cells are the antithesis of natural—but they allow people to get around, warm their houses and cook their food with renewable resources that aren’t bad for the planet.

“Adding sustainable features to my house would make it ugly.”

There are plenty of features you can add to your house that aren’t even noticeable. House by Northwestern is a great example of how new technology has made practicing sustainability much easier. Our solar panels are roof-integrated, which means they last as long as roofing and can be installed by roofers, too. We also use a heat pump, which both heats and cools our home by moving around heat energy. Improving air conditioning systems saves energy costs and also could eliminate a full degree Celsius of warming by 2100 according to the New York Times. These are just two examples of ways our residents will enjoy the benefits of more environmentally-friendly practices without needing to sacrifice how their house looks.

“I recycle. I must be sustainable!”

Of course recycling is important: reusing metals, paper, wood and plastics rather than tossing them reduces the need to extract raw materials from the ground, forests and fossil-fuel deposits. More efficient use of pretty much anything is a step in the direction of sustainability. But it is just a piece of the puzzle, and to think you are living sustainably just because you recycle isn’t fair.

“Okay. I know what sustainability means. Now I can be sustainable!”

Sustainability isn’t black and white: a product or person isn’t either sustainable or not. You cannot really declare any practice “sustainable” until you have done a complete life-cycle analysis of its environmental costs. It has taken us almost two years to create a house with products we know are sustainable. Many of our materials use recycled materials and come with entire life-cycle analyses. Living sustainably requires tons of thought on an ongoing basis. And realistically, you’ll never be able to entirely eliminate your carbon footprint. But you do have the power to do your part to reduce it.