Green is not sustainable!

The highly trumpeted ‘US and Canada Green City Index‘ reported on July 4th is a very well researched report. The ranking methodology was developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in cooperation with report sponsor Siemens. In addition, input from an independent panel of urban sustainability experts provided important insights in the development of the Index. Ultimately however, it is based on eight environmental factors (CO2, energy, land use, buildings, transport, water, waste, air) and one political factor (governance).

Welcoming the report Eric Spiegel, president and CEO of Siemens, said that: “Cities are creating comprehensive sustainability plans, utilizing current technology and proving everyday that we don’t have to wait to create a more sustainable future”. In addition, Siemens Press Release notes that “The US and Canada Green City Index analyzes the environmental sustainability of 27 major metropolitan areas in both countries.” Herein lies a fundamental problem. The report is not about ‘comprehensive’ sustainability plans, or sustainable cities as Spiegel describes them, it is about one, albeit important aspect of sustainability and sustainable cities, namely ‘green’ cities. There is, as this blog tries to show, a very, very big difference.

I am surprised that after three decades of environmental justice activism and scholarship which put equity and justice firmly on the urban sustainability agenda, together with the post-Rio Earth Summit (1992) consensus around the ‘environmental, economic and equity’ based nature of sustainability, together with innumerable other Charters and Agreements, that this report, with the sophistication of the EIU and its august body of expert advisers, should choose not to mention ‘equity’ or ‘justice’ in the entire report, and to conflate ‘green‘ with ‘sustainable‘. This is precisely what I mean by the ‘equity deficit‘ (Agyeman 2005:44) that seems to pervade most ‘green’ and ‘environmental’ sustainability rhetoric.

Myself and many other sustainability scholars, practitioners and activists have argued that: “sustainability . . . cannot be simply a ‘green’, or ‘environmental’ concern, important though ‘environmental’ aspects of sustainability are. A truly sustainable society is one where wider questions of social needs and welfare, and economic opportunity are integrally related to environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems.” (Agyeman et al. 2002:78). Thinking this way offers us more rounded view of sustainability and sustainable development: “the need to ensure a better quality of life for all, now and into the future, in a just and equitable manner, whilst living within the limits of supporting ecosystems” (Agyeman, et al., 2003:5).

This definition focuses equally on four essential conditions for sustainable communities of any scale, especially perhaps cities: improving our quality of life and well-being; on meeting the needs of both present and future generations (intra– and inter- generational equity); on justice and equity in terms of recognition (Schlosberg, 1999), process, procedure and outcome and on the need for us to live within ecosystem limits (also called one planet living) (Agyeman, 2005:92).

Last year, Pearsall and Pierce (2010) updated the research of Warner (2002:37) whose work showed that: “more than 40 percent of the largest cities (33 of 77) in the United States had sustainability projects on the web, but only five of these dealt with environmental justice on their web pages.” Pearsall and Pierce (2010:569) argued that: “while there has been an increase in the number of cities incorporating environmental justice elements into sustainability plans since the early 2000s, their conceptualizations and implementations of sustainability remain highly constrained.”

Interestingly San Francisco, the top ‘green’ city in the Economist/Siemens report, also tops out on linking green issues and equity issues in both Warner’s 2002, and Pearsall and Pierce’s 2010 work: “Warner’s (2002) study found that San Francisco consistently included environmental justice concerns in policy statements with clear action strategies for implementation. For instance, environmental justice concerns permeated long-term social goals, objectives, actions, and community indicators. San Francisco’s attempt to incorporate environmental justice into urban sustainability demonstrates a promising precedent for bringing the social dimension into better focus in public policy.” (Pearsall and Pierce 2010:572)

Let’s move on. Let’s re-conceptualize and re-imagine a ‘just’ sustainability. ‘Green‘ is a big part of the solution but in and of itself, green is really not sustainable.


Agyeman, J, Bullard R and Evans, B (2002) ‘Exploring the nexus: bringing together sustainability, environmental justice and equity’ Space and Polity Vol 6 No 1 pp70-90

Agyeman, J., Bullard, R. D., and Evans, B. eds., (2003) ‘Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World’ (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press)

Agyeman, J., (2005) ‘Sustainable Communities and the Challenge of Environmental Justice’, (New York, New York University Press).

Pearsall, H and Pierce, J (2010) ‘Urban sustainability and environmental justice: evaluating the linkages in public planning/policy discourse’. Local Environment Vol 15: No.6, 569-580.

Schlosberg, D., (1999) ‘Environmental Justice and the New Pluralism: The Challenge of Difference for Environmentalism’, (Oxford, Oxford University Press)

Warner, K. (2002)  ‘Linking Local Sustainability Initiatives with Environmental justice’. Local Environment Vol. 7 No.1, pp. 35-47.

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  1. Eric McNulty July 14, 2011 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    A big part of the problem is that as the business community has embraced sustainability they are most intrigued with the financial aspects: saving or making money. It is the “green” aspects of sustainability that are most easily tied to numbers through new products and services, process improvement, etc.

    When I have been involved with conferences targeted at that community and try to raise the issue of equity I get blank stares. Some smart folks at HBS posted a working paper on eco-cities earlier this year, the principal thrust was comparing the business models that are driving various efforts. My thought — and my comment on the site — was that, yes, the business model is important but only if the social model works.

    There needs to be a concerted effort to clarify that the environment is part of the sustainability solution but not the only part.

    • Julian Agyeman July 14, 2011 at 6:14 pm - Reply

      Absolutely Eric. ‘Green’ can be marketed, merchandised, consumed. Social justice? Not so much. However, work such as Wilkinson and Pickett’s (2009) ‘The Spirit Level. Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger’ (London. Bloomsbury) is showing that, as I’ve always argued, there is a link between environmental quality and human equality, and that the former is not possible without the latter. The sooner the ‘green’ crew understand this, the better!

  2. DuShawn King January 20, 2012 at 10:36 pm - Reply

    Just Sustainability has merit and when conveyed/communicated in a value proposition context, supply-sided stakeholders or the ‘green’ crew – as Agyeman termed – will lend an ear. Also, most of the folk needing to be convinced are not “sustainability scholars, practitioners and activists” so its difficult for a Jeweler to have a meaningful discussion about clarity, color and carats to the corner Butcher who’s only interest in trimming the fat. In essence, an intermediary is needed who can highlight the value margins with mutually beneficial drivers and roi & sroi.

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