On Sustainability

There is barely a topic I have been thinking more about in the lasts months than sustainability. Being boosted by the Fridays for Future movement and most recently by the corona pandemic, sustainability seems to have reached beyond my Berlin hipster bubble and found its place in the middle of society.

Sustainability and us

Sustainable behaviour means different things for different people. Due to current discussions in media, it might be mostly associated with stopping global warming by reducing CO2 emissions and saving resources. For others it’s mainly connected to environmental issues, like the destruction of ecosystems, production of waste and extinction of species. For those who take the term more literally, it might be as simple as considering the long-term effect of actions and prioritising actions with lasting positive effects.

I’m using the term sustainability here, because it best describes the lowest common denominator different groups of people care about. Some groups and their main interests I’ve been in contact with can be classified as the following:

1. Vegans x Environment

Since last year, my diet is 90% vegan while I had been a vegetarian for about 5 years. From conversations with other vegans, I found that their reasons centre around the following aspects of sustainability:

  • Reducing CO2 emissions caused by factory farming
  • Protecting ecosystems and helping them to recover
  • Dealing with other life on earth in a healthy and ethical way
  • Supporting own health and reducing risk of diseases

2. Parents x Capitalism

Two weeks ago, I was invited to a BBQ with my boyfriend’s parents and their friends where I listened to a lot of conversations about reports from mass media. Since I don’t consume mass media, it surprised me that almost all conversations touched aspects of sustainability. Topics ranged from groundwater being used intensively by Coca Cola, to reforestation to preserve biodiversity, to food manufacturers earning prices for pretending to sell healthy and eco-friendly products.

The overall resonance that came through was “something is going wrong”, but also “private companies are in control”. While this is not new, simply the amount of reports in media has created a shift in what my parent generation talks and cares about. Their conversations didn’t only cover environmental aspects, but formed criticism towards capitalism they themselves have largely benefitted from.

3. Low-income households x Affordability

In her book Small is Necessary – Shared Living on a Shared Planet, author Anitra Nelson makes a point that there is a correlation between unsustainable behaviour and high incomes. Put differently, high income households can afford more – more cars, more flights, bigger housing that needs to be heated, more equipment that needs electricity and so on – making for bigger use of resources and a larger ecological footprint.

While this seems logical, it was completely mind-blowing to me. Today sustainability often comes at a high price resulting from higher costs for the producer or new green technology that needs to be researched and invented. I drew the conclusion that sustainability became exclusive for the rich and that high-income households should lead by example through the consumption of more sustainable, eco-friendly products.

However, sustainability at its most basic sense – consuming less while preserving and repairing more – should actually come with higher affordability, making it attractive to low-income households.

One great example is second hand clothing. By buying second hand clothes and reselling them, I drastically reduced the amount of money I spend for clothes (I have things in my wardrobe that costed 1.50 € which you don’t even find at H&M during sale season). The best part is that I began to value my second hand catches more and keep them for longer than my first hand purchases: While first hand clothing comes in masses and in all sorts of sizes and colours, second hand clothes usually come as a single, unique piece I was lucky to find.

Sustainability and earth

While different people act sustainably for different reasons, they all fight for the same: Extending our life on earth – short-term or long-term.

Sustainability starts and ends with us. We should always remind ourselves that we’re just a tiny fraction of earth’s history. When we’re gone, earth will live on. So all our sustainability efforts are egoistic by nature. I believe that if we internalised this fact more, we would behave more sustainably.

3 Sustainability Principles

While coming across different sustainability efforts in the last months, reading books and articles, watching documentaries and talking to people, I came up with principles that help me make decisions in daily life.

This is not a To Do list. You won’t find things like ‘Only buy organic food’ in here. That would be too detailed to call it a principle. Also this is the status quo of August 2020. The list might change based on future insights and experiences.

  • Welcome all efforts: Celebrate and encourage small steps in the right direction. Don’t expect everyone (including yourself) to act fully sustainably from the beginning.

  • Consume less: Seek for resource-efficient alternatives to buying new products (e.g. sharing, renting). Remember that even “green” products need resources to be produced.

  • Be a guest on earth: Be humble and respect your surroundings as if you were in your friend’s apartment for the first time.