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A recipe for more informed and precise use of the concept of sustainability

Sustainability is a critically important goal for the co-existence of humanity and nature. It concerns society’s ability to meet its basic needs and produce wellbeing within ecological limits. However, sustainability is a multidimensional and vague concept and research subject. It is especially challenging to communicate about it, as different people use and interpret the term in different ways, which can lead to different interpretations of the term or misunderstandings during communication.

At Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), a group of researchers delved deeper into this challenge. As part of the Sustainability Lab network’s activities, researchers considered the essence of overall sustainability and whether there is a need for the concept at all. The goal was also to clarify Luke’s messages relating to sustainability and how to best communicate how we are pursuing sustainability. The results were published in Luke's first publication on defining what we mean by sustainability.

What should be considered when communicating about sustainability?

Sustainability research can be characterised as multi-perspective by nature, and consisting of conceptualising entities aimed at reconciling different interests. Unequivocal answers can rarely be given to questions regarding sustainability because research results depend on the systemic, geographical, and temporal framing of the topic or phenomenon studied, as well as the chosen perspective.

Researchers must be aware of research frameworks and communicate them. That allows the information user to assess the possibilities and limitations of applying sustainability information. It is also relevant to consider whether the use of the term ‘sustainability’ is necessary when, for example, discussing environmental effects, or the rights of a certain population group.

Informed and precise sustainability communication helps to avoid misunderstanding one another

The concept of overall sustainability has appeared in Finnish sustainability discourse in recent years. Although it aims to take into account different points of view, it is not specific enough to clarify the discussion. Instead of defining overall sustainability, researchers proposed three interconnected frames for sustainability talk: policy frame, functional frame, and relational frame. Each frame has its own intended use.

The policy framework is needed when the solutions required for sustainability are negotiated among society. The functional framework is used to examine sustainability in different bounded systems, and to understand the nature of sustainability problems more deeply through the frameworks. The relational framework breaks down the root causes of sustainability problems: values, feelings and beliefs, as well as interaction and power relations.

Initiating discussion in the research community and wider society

These frames were used in two synthesis reports. Several of Luke’s researchers whose work ponders sustainability issues from different perspectives and fields were involved in writing the reports.

"We researchers are increasingly being challenged to examine and report on the state of sustainability in our own research field, including those of us who do not really think of ourselves as sustainability researchers. Participating in developing the report increased both my theoretical background knowledge and the ability to look at my own research field from a sustainability perspective. Dialogue between researchers from different disciplines was also beneficial to all of us”, says Maria Leino, one of the specialist researchers who participated in writing the report.

The work and publications were presented in open webinars. Almost 300 decision makers, authorities, researchers, and representatives of educational organisations participated in the webinar that presented the sustainability frameworks. The forest-related research discussion was presented in conjunction with the publication of the Finnish Forest Sector Economic Outlook report and at the National Forest Days event.

Sustainability publications function as societal discussion openings. We hope that they will promote more informed and precise public debate on sustainability issues related to the use of natural resources.

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