What Is Sustainability, Anyway? Consider This Your Go-To Guide
Here's your complete guide to sustainability, including what it is, what it means, common misconceptions, and tips to be more sustainable.
No matter where you look—whether you're scrolling through Instagram or grocery shopping—it's likely you'll see the term "sustainability" being thrown around.
No term has had quite the soaring ambition and community-mindedness that sustainability has. It's a priority that has come to the forefront of many industries globally in order to help our endangered planet. But what is this catch-all solution that’s flooded our collective dialogue?
Sustainability can feel hard to define and even harder to practice, but we're here to help you do both.
What Is Sustainability?
Sustainability is a very broad term that has many definitions. Simply put, sustainability refers to the maintenance of natural resources in order to preserve ecological balance. It also describes a broader effort to meet our environmental, economic, and social needs without compromising the ability for future generations to meet their own.
It might seem pretty all-encompassing, but according to the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, it’s mainly about the three E’s: Environment, economy, and equity. By pursuing environmental health, economic vitality, and social equity today, we can make choices that will maintain our communities for the future.
Why Is Sustainability Important?
Sustainability is an essential part of creating thriving, resilient communities because it challenges us to question our collective priorities. Most of us understand the concept of finite resources when it comes to food or money in our own lives, but we have trouble seeing resource depletion on a larger scale.
It’s also important because it requires a three-pronged effort (remember the 3 E's!) to remain informed about what's going on in the world while taking the necessary steps to prioritize its permanence.
Sustainability is about knowing that the Earth’s natural, economic, and social resources are finite, and making it a priority to conserve them.
Now that you know what sustainability is and why it's important, let's discuss what sustainability isn't.
Misconceptions About Sustainability
Misconception #1: Sustainability Is a Synonym for Environmentalism
"Sustainability" is often used interchangeably with "environmentalism," but it was actually coined to expand on that concept.
Environmentalism is a "political and ethical movement that seeks to improve and protect the quality of the natural environment" through political, economic, and social policies. Sustainability complicated this by suggesting the environment is a part of a larger system of balance that, in addition to the environment, involves future generations.
Misconception #2: Sustainability Simply Means Being "Green"
While the word "green" has become shorthand for "natural over artificial," it's certainly not what sustainability is all about. Achieving a future where humans can thrive will likely mean a reliance on decidedly unnatural technology.
Renewable resources like wind energy and solar energy are important technologies that have proven their sustainability. Wind turbines, for example, are essential to sustainability efforts but wouldn’t be considered “natural."
Misconception #3: Sustainability Is All About Technology
Though technology is an important aspect of improving living conditions for our communities and for life on this planet, it isn’t the only one. Reassessing our collective priorities and making smarter decisions about how we utilize resources in our everyday life is even more important.
For example, replacing all cars with more technologically advanced electric alternatives isn’t necessarily a better solution than finding ways to reduce our car usage in general.
What Does It Mean to Be Sustainable?
Though it may seem multi-faceted, the question can actually be rephrased for daily living: How can we make an effort to rearrange our priorities?
In order to be sustainable, we simply need to make an effort to factor in the long-term effects of our choices when deciding how to do things like travel, eat, and shop. It’s always easiest to break up seemingly large tasks into more manageable pieces. Sustainability is all about small choices, and if we refer to the three E’s, it looks a lot simpler.
The good news? Virtually everything you do in your daily life presents an opportunity to be more sustainable, from buying products made from recycled materials to implementing slow fashion into your life. Here are a few tips that you can implement, no matter where you are on your own sustainability journey.
4 Tips to Live More Sustainably
1. Start Small (Those Changes Add Up!)
Sometimes it can be overwhelming to think about all the things you could be doing to live more sustainably. But implementing small, simple changes is the perfect start—and small changes add up fast! This can be anything from switching to energy-saving light bulbs to opting for a reusable water bottle instead of a plastic one.
2. Talk to Your City About Recycling
Most people make an effort to recycle, but our current methods leave room for improvement. One thing you can do to ensure you're doing your part is talking to your city about recycling best practices and protocols, such as washing food out of items before recycling them.
It's also important to be wary of recycling myths that are floating around, like "anything with a recycling symbol on it is recyclable." (That's unfortunately not the case.) Recycling can be confusing, but when we ask questions and seek answers, we can all do our part to help achieve environmental sustainability.
3. Be Mindful of Where (and How) You Shop
A lot of harmful emissions are released in the long-distance transport of things like food and clothing. But shopping with the planet in mind doesn't have to be challenging.
Start small by searching for grocery items at farmers' markets. This not only reduces pollution, but also helps support economic sustainability by funding community growers. And when it comes to shopping more sustainably for clothing, you can always try thrifting from online retailers like ThredUP or other secondhand buying methods.
4. Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Greenwashing
So many of us are on the hunt for eco-friendly products. While many are putting the environment first with their initiatives, there are plenty of others that tout "eco" or "green" claims that are anything but—aka greenwashing at its finest. Some will use this verbiage without any real proof at all.
Before you buy a product, do your research to ensure you're not a victim of greenwashing—or all the new versions of it. FTC green guidelines can help you make determinations, too. The guidelines make brands explain why a product is sustainable before they can make those claims on labels.
Sustainability is a collective exchange of support—one that involves corporations and governments as much as it does individual people. It implores us to think through our decisions and place people and the planet at the forefront of our global priorities.
One important thing to keep in mind? We're all imperfect environmentalists here. Every time you apply sustainable knowledge to your daily life, you're taking yet another small step to better the planet.
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