What sustainability means to me, revisited
On 29 November 2019, soon after I started Buy Sustainably, I wrote a post about what sustainability meant to me. 29 November happened to be Black Friday, which is ground zero for the consumption-driven world that we live in. Every year around that time we seem to be bombarded from all sides with advertising messages trying to convince us to buy things we don’t really need. I wanted to revisit that post two years on and see if anything had changed.
My aim in setting up this site was to share information and products that help you live and buy more sustainably. But what does sustainable actually mean? If you look it up on Wikipedia you find reference to ‘the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to coexist’ and a UN report defining sustainable development as “meet[ing] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
By any objective measure we are not meeting this definition of sustainability. The Global Footprint Network measures the demand on and supply of nature and calculates our Ecological Footprint every year. In 2021 we exhausted our ‘supply’ of nature, meaning we used up what the Earth’s ecosystems can regenerate in a year, on 29 July. The date is one of the earliest ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ (EOD) has ever happened and significantly earlier than 2020, when the initial COVID-19 lockdowns mean consumption dropped enough for EOD to be delayed until 22 August. For the remainder of the year we are in ecological deficit, depleting our natural capital and compromising the planet’s future regenerative capacity. The chart below shows how we have gone from a balance of demand and supply in 1970 to using resources equivalent to 1.75 Earths.
To me, sustainability means redressing that balance and moving back to equilibrium with the planet. By using more resources than can be regenerated, we are effectively depriving future generations of their fair share. Not to mention all the other animal and plant species we share Earth with currently. Collectively we need to move away from a model of growth that relies on the consumption of non-renewable resources and embrace green, renewable sources. That is going to require significant policy changes by our governments, and transformation by our biggest corporations. Individually, particularly here in the West, we need to do our bit too. There are a wealth of resources out there on living more sustainably, not to mention the mantra ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, all of which I will cover in future posts. Fundamentally though, I think we all can start by challenging our behaviours around consumption. When consuming anything, we need to consider how we can do less with more, how we can move away from using things once and throwing them away, and indeed whether we need to consume something at all.
Two years on, I think what I wrote in 2019 still stands. But things have gotten a more complicated, especially for eco-minded consumers. Sustainability has entered the mainstream, but at the same time the number of companies who attempt to greenwash their products is on the increase, making choosing products and services that are actually sustainable a minefield.
Take buying a cup of coffee for example. You use a reusable coffee cup – that must be sustainable right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. You actually need reuse that cup between 100 and 250 times to offset the additional resources required to produce it and keep it clean. And if it’s made of plastic then there’s a risk that it will shed microplastics when it is washed (so go for a stainless steel one if you can). Then what if you forget your reusable cup? Since the café is using plant-based packaging using a disposable cup doesn’t matter so much does it? The answer depends on how the cup is disposed of – plant-based packaging can be composted in industrial composters, but if you put the cup in a bin on the side of the road then it won’t be separated and will end up in landfill, where it’s no better than any other disposable cup. And all this is even before you consider what kind of coffee to buy!
So having established what sustainable means, actually identifying which products are sustainable is rather difficult. Should we consider how much energy something takes to be produced, it’s carbon footprint, or something else when deciding how ‘sustainable’ it is? This is something I’m keen to explore, so keep an eye on future blog posts as I try and investigate further and sort the truth from the BS!
Cover photo by Andrew Gosine