Can new raw materials ever be sustainable?


The number of Google searches for sustainability was at a record-high in 2021. So was impact of climate change and how to conserve. Today, most companies have a sustainability statement and for us who work in retail, sustainable materials are always at the forefront of discussion. What makes a material sustainable? We know recycled materials are a good option, but what about newly produced raw materials? Can they ever be sustainable? Let’s look into it.

With sustainability being the hot topic of the decade, you would think that we all know what we mean by sustainable. But this isn’t necessarily the case. The most common definition of sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations”. This may seem clear at first glance but, in reality, poses a myriad of follow-up questions: What counts as a need? How do we decide when needs are met? Are the needs of future generations the same as those of present and past generations? The list goes on and on. Unfortunately, this definition is confusing at best. But of course, we cannot sit around waiting for leaders to agree on definitions. So for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that sustainability means not depleting, destroying or compromising nature and its resources beyond timely recovery.

Based on this, a sustainable material is one that is produced in such a way that whatever is compromised during production can recover, and can do so in a short enough period that no permanent damage is done to nature or the basic needs of human beings. We can already count non-renewable resources out. But what about renewables? Do they fit the criteria?

Resources are characterised as renewable if they can be replenished. Resources that come to mind may be materials such as wood or cotton, but less tangible resources such as rainwater and solar energy are also renewable. We also have the so called rapidly renewable resources, which are resources that regenerate themselves within a 10-year timeframe, such as bamboo and natural rubber. If we only consider material sourcing, one would think that renewables, or at least rapid renewables, would be de facto sustainable. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. When we harvest plants for material production, it is not unusual that a diverse natural area is replaced by monoculture – the cultivation of a single species of crop. Although monoculture is efficient, it faces issues that natural vegetation and polyculture do not. Monoculture can easily become a breeding ground for pests which may make heavy use of pesticides necessary. The single-specie plants can deprive the area of certain nutrients making fertilisers required. Pesticides and fertilisers tend to be washed away to nearby vegetation and waterways, causing imbalances in the natural ecosystem. Additionally, it is likely that a homogeneous species over a large area will not have the root system required to keep the soil from eroding – once again resulting in a loss of local resources and pollution of nearby ecosystems.

So, it is clearly not enough to just make sure that the resource itself is renewable, we also need to make sure that ecosystem around the area in which we sourced the resource is not damaged, or at the very least can be restored within a reasonable timeframe.

We then move on from sourcing and look into processing. Many natural and renewable materials are processed to improve performance in one way or the other. This could include chemical, heat, or water treatments, and in some cases mixing of materials. The potential environmental damage of chemical and water treatments are obvious in processing, through pollution and excessive freshwater use, while other treatments can cause issues at disposal.

For a fully circular system, we must avoid waste, which means that materials must either be reused, recycled, or biodegrade. Treatments that improve performance of materials can have the side-effect of reducing recyclability and biodegradability. A prime example is vulcanized rubber. Natural rubber is, as mentioned, a rapidly renewable resource but to make the rubber sturdier it is often vulcanized – treated with heat and sulphur. This makes the natural resource resistant to breaking down and will at disposal pollute the environment for much longer than it would usually. Same goes for some cases where materials have been mixed – these can be difficult to recycle and resistant to decomposing.

Naturally, we have only covered a small number of issues with materials here. When we consider energy use, transportation and producing the necessary machines, we add many more.

So, in light of this, can newly produced raw materials ever be sustainable? The short answer is “maybe.” The long answer is “yes, if we meticulously consider the entire lifecycle of a material, from sourcing to transport to production to disposal.” Sustainability is complex – because nature is complex. We now need to work together with an age-old planet-wide ecosystem that we have spent thousands of years trying to outsmart, and that without even having a clear definition of what sustainability actually is. It is far from easy – but we cannot let it be impossible.