Sustainability Week at UG

September 24, 2009

Making a Difference

Sustainability Week was kicked off today at the University of Guelph.  I was asked to bring remarks.  I was really impressed with the “Community Sustainability” message for the week.  This was brilliantly demonstrated by the organizers partnering with the United Way to kick off the campus fundraising campaign.  The United Way raises money for many community organizations that build community sustainability. 

These are my remarks:

Hello everyone, and thank you for inviting me to be here to help kick off Sustainability Week.

I think this week will be a great opportunity to share perspectives and engage in discussion about the concept of sustainability. It’s an important discussion, and one that I think university students are particularly well-positioned to tackle.

 Over the past couple of years, I have noticed that the term “sustainability” is being used more and more.  Many companies now publish “sustainability reports” in addition to their annual reports. In some industries, “sustainability” is seen as synonymous with corporate social responsibility.

At City Hall, sustainability often comes up when we are debating the merits of various initiatives. And citizens often question City policies and programs based on whether they believe they are sustainable.

Yet, for all the talk of sustainability, there is not one, commonly-accepted definition of what the word means.

Many use the word sustainability to mean “environmental protection.”

I think such a definition is too narrow. I believe in a triple bottom line approach that encompasses environmental, economic, and social sustainability.  To be honest – today – policy makers do not have the luxury or ease of clinging to single bottom lines.

As a community, Guelph has had a lot of success in balancing the triple bottom line.  

On the environmental side, Guelph has an international reputation as a green community. I often receive invitations to speak about our Community Energy Plan and other initiatives to audiences across Canada and in other countries.

On the economic side, we are a prosperous community with a diverse economic base. Our unemployment rate is usually below the national and provincial averages although has suffered recently with the economic downturn.

We also do well on the social side. Maclean’s magazine named Guelph the most caring community in Canada, and one of the smartest. Stats Canada identified us as the safest community in Canada. 96% of Guelph residents say they are happy with the quality of life in the city.

We did not reach any of these successes through single bottom line thinking – whether environmental, economic, or social.   Our community has built a remarkable capacity to collaborate across many different sectors.

Some try to pit one against the other –the environment against the economy or the economy against people. This stifles our potential and threatens our community’s ability to build a secure and healthy future.

I believe in the triple bottom line not only because all three are important, but because they are dependent on each other.

Consider how social and economic success is intertwined: the best way out of poverty – and the best way to improve quality of life – is a job.  Economic and environmental sustainability are also intertwined.  

The more jobs we can provide in Guelph, the fewer residents who will have to commute to the GTA or Kitchener-Waterloo every day for work. Many will be able to take transit or ride a bike to work.

The more attractive Guelph is for investment, the more we will be able to choose what kind of industries we’d like to see in our community. We can attract green-sector companies that will not only have a small footprint; they will develop environmental technologies that can be exported around the world – further cementing Guelph’s reputation as a centre of environmental leadership.

None of this is possible if we get caught in narrow-minded, single bottom line thinking.

I encourage you to think about the triple bottom line as you discuss sustainability this week.  

Thinking holistically is not easy. There is not black and white – only shades of grey.  It requires you to be willing to open up your worldview and assumptions to be challenged. That takes courage and confidence.  It means being prepared to listen to very different points of view and honestly trying to understand them. 

But it is worth the effort because I believe that sustainability will be central to everything we do in our community and in society in the years to come.

And I think the university community has a great deal to contribute to the debate about what it means, and the potential it holds for our future.

I want to thank and congratulate you for devoting a week to this important topic.

All the best for a great week!

Thank you.

About Karen Farbridge

An unwavering change maker seeking a just, democratic and sustainable world.

View all posts by Karen Farbridge

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