When is a product sustainable?

Sustainability for every day

The term "sustainability" is on everyone's lips. Read here what this really means and which criteria distinguish a sustainable product.

When we talk about nutrition, we usually refer to the health aspects. Origin, production and water consumption play an equally important role. The long-term effects of our food system on humans, animals and the environment are now the subject of research.

Four pillars of sustainability

If you want to eat sustainably, you have to pay attention to a number of things, from production to processing, packaging, transport and trade to consumption and disposal.

The term sustainability can be divided into four major areas, namely health, the environment, society and the economy. The keyword environment is about the question of how soil, water and energy can be used sparingly. The society dimension integrates, among other things, the cultural aspects of food. Business deals with the question of fair and global trade and the health dimension is about avoiding foods that make us sick.

Implementation in everyday life

There are no simple instructions on how to implement sustainability in everyday life. The problem is the complexity of the topic mentioned at the beginning - measures are often a double-edged sword. For health reasons, it is beneficial to eat more sea fish. The fatty acids it contains are healthier than those in other animal products. On the other hand, we must not lose sight of the ever decreasing fish stocks. "The fact that the large fishing companies are endangering the livelihoods of small fishermen should also be part of the decision-making basis," says Dr. Theres Rathmanner, nutritionist and expert in the field of sustainability, of course.


The term sustainability has meanwhile been overused and is gradually becoming an empty phrase for soft-drawn advertising films. There are also some errors associated with this term, which Dr. Rathmanner clears up in the course of a press conference of the Association of Nutritionists Austria (VEÖ) on the subject of sustainability.

It is often said that eating sustainably is only "a drop in the ocean" in the fight against climate change. Around 20 percent of all greenhouse gases come from the food sector, around half of which from agriculture, the majority of which can be traced back to the production of animal-based foods. You are what you eat: every person makes consumption decisions for or against sustainability several times a day. All in all, each individual's decision has a major impact on the global climate.

Expensive and complicated

Again and again you hear that eating sustainably is complicated. It is getting easier and easier! Once you have made a sustainable product choice, it will be easier for you to eat sustainably. Sustainably produced food is gradually finding its way out of the niche and becoming a mass product. However, it is important to take the initiative in the kitchen: sustainable finished products are hardly available.

An equally widespread (false) belief is that sustainable nutrition has to be downright expensive. Rathmanner points out in this context that this is a question of appreciation. On average, we Austrians spend twelve percent of our household budget on food and beverages. Cars and the like, on the other hand, make up 24 percent of the individual budget. Here everyone has to decide for themselves what they want to spend their money on!

Rathmanner also draws attention to the fact that conventionally manufactured products incur a lot of indirect costs. Although these are borne by all of us, they are not directly associated with food production. This includes, for example, the (re) treatment of water contaminated with fertilizers. If the costs involved were included in the food price, they would be significantly more expensive.

Regional, little processed and predominantly vegetable

In principle, according to Claus Leitzmann and Karl von Koerber - two leading nutritional ecologists of today - sustainably produced products are characterized by the fact that they ...

  • predominantly vegetable,
  • little processed,
  • organically produced,
  • regional and seasonal,
  • packaged in an environmentally friendly manner,
  • fair trade as well
  • are enjoyable and tolerable for the individual.

Those who adhere to these criteria when selecting their products are very likely to be sustainable.


Sustainable nutrition is a matter of appreciation. That demands something from all of us. Even if the selection in the supermarket is getting bigger and bigger, we have to think more about sustainable consumption decisions and dig a little deeper into our pockets. In view of what we get for it - namely the certainty of origin, fair working conditions, ecological and environmentally friendly production - it should be worth it to all of us.

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Helga Quirgst, MSc
Editorial editing:
Mag. (FH) Axel Beer

Updated on:

Press release from the Association of Nutritionists Austria: pleasure or annoyance? What does sustainable nutrition bring, May 2014

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