Introduction to Sustainability

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What is Sustainability?[edit | edit source]

Redwood tree from WikiMedia Commons, author Mick Lobb

In 2014, the AIC’s Sustainability Committee and Collection Care Network wrote the following conservation-specific definition of sustainability:

"Sustainability derives from a commitment to policies and practices that ensure social, economic, and environmental endurance. Applied together, the principles of collection care, preventive conservation, and sustainability enable the preservation of both our world and its cultural heritage."

The United States Environmental Protection Agency describes sustainability this way:

“Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.”

As the negative impacts of climate change continue to escalate, and severe, “once in a lifetime” weather events increase in frequency, we will continue to see threats to our communities and cultural heritage. It is imperative that we focus our efforts as individuals, and as conservators, on minimizing these losses and ensuring the preservation of cultural heritage for generations to come by including sustainable practices in all aspects of our professional lives.

Climate Change, Sustainable Development, & Cultural Heritage Preservation[edit | edit source]

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Fig 2 SDGs.png

In addition to its devastating consequences for our planet, climate change both creates and is indirectly accelerated by factors that cause human suffering. We cannot solve our planetary crisis without also addressing the other global challenges that affect all of us.

In 2015, all United Nations member states adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes at its core 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 SDGs are “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.” The goals include urgent issues impacting both our planet and human wellbeing, such as ending poverty and ensuring access to sustainable energy.

These goals address the interconnectedness of our world, highlighting the global nature of the problems we face, and the just, responsible, and holistic approach needed to solve them. As professionals in the field of cultural heritage preservation, we must acknowledge that preventing the loss of cultural heritage is not just about caring for the objects collected by institutions and individuals, but also about positively contributing to a world that does not endanger entire communities and cultures who are most vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)[edit | edit source]

We want to make informed, meaningful environmental choices, but how do we really know if one product is better than another beyond a hunch?  And if something is better, how is it better?  Lower green house gas emissions? Less impactful raw materials?  Less pollution? Recyclability?  Biodegradability?  An LCA is like the environmental equivalent of a nutrition label.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a life cycle assessment is a research “technique to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product, process, or service.”  This type of “cradle to grave” analysis accounts for the raw materials and energy involved in creating, using, maintaining, and disposing of a particular product or service.  There are many environmental impacts an LCA might seek to address, including but not limited to greenhouse gas emissions, other forms of air pollution, water pollution, land use, and human or social costs. 

An innovative and valuable set of tools involving LCAs has been recently developed for use by a team of conservation professionals and scientists through a project called STiCH (Sustainability Tools In Cultural Heritage).  The website, which continues to be updated as research progresses, includes:

This website may be the single most important tool for conservators seeking to answer questions about the environmental impacts of their daily professional activities.

Hear the STiCH team discuss their work in a January 2021 interview with members of the AIC-Sustainability Committee.

To hear an environmental scientist who regularly performs and publishes LCAs talk about her work, check out this AIC-SC interview with Professor Shelie Miller, recorded in April 2021. Professor Miller has performed LCA’s on everyday practices, such as single-use plastics, grocery store shopping vs. meal kits, and the use of coffee pods.