Sustainable Living is lifestyle and philosophy, sustainable living is as popular a term as it is nuanced. It is encouraged by renowned activists, NGOs, lifestyle blogs and used in marketing and advertisements from cotton t-shirts to water-efficient showerheads. But what does it really mean? Broadly, sustainable living comes down to choices and behaviours that focus on living within our means to encourage human and environmental health. Practicing sustainability in our household, community and lifestyle ensures we prioritize the use of renewable resources without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
But sustainable living is not just about the individual.
The connection between sustainability and how we live our lives has its roots in a much larger, global principle. First defined by the Brundtland Report in 1987, the notion of sustainability – then termed sustainable development – aimed to present environment-related issues and challenges in the context of political, social and economic development.
Today, the central tenets of sustainability are emphasized by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seek to preserve the planet for future generations by addressing climate change, energy use, land and water management and consumption.
Much like it is wide-reaching, sustainable living can mean different things to different people.
Picked up by revenue-seeking companies and brands, sustainable living trends are an opportunity to greenwash products and enter the eco-market.
For Indigenous people and their communities, values of sustainability are culturally entrenched. Though not all traditions can be generalized, the basic environmental knowledge derived from historical traditions and experiences of a group is defined as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). Acknowledging the ecological effects of biodiversity, and the ways in which human activity can impact the carrying capacity of an environment, TEK is the blueprint for what we recognize today as sustainable living.
And for others, sustainable living can have no cultural significance at all, but instead, be a type of lifestyle that depends on their socio-economic status. Making sustainable choices and investments can be expensive, and depending on one’s existing needs and means, a sustainable lifestyle is not always accessible.
Simply put: sustainable living is not a perfect system. Rather, the shift towards sustainability in our homes, communities and lifestyles is a process of change that looks different for everyone. Coming back to the Brundtland Report, they summarize it quite well:
“It is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs. We do not pretend that the process is easy or straightforward.”
Why Sustainable Living Matters?
Sustainable living highlights individual actions to lessen our impact on the planet, but do our choices actually make a difference? The simple answer is yes, but there’s more to it.
Addressing sustainability challenges related to climate change and environmental degradation, individual choices don’t make the difference, but they do make a difference.
Individual actions are a part of the collective, they are valuable contributions to a larger, stronger movement aimed to reduce human impact on the environment. Similarly, in living a sustainable lifestyle, the benefit goes beyond your own household – the community, economy and environment thrives.
When you chose to buy produce from your local farmer as part of an effort to eat a more plant-based diet, you are 1, reducing your risk for chronic illness by eating cleaner; 2, contributing to the community economy by shopping local; and 3, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by limiting the travel required for the produce to get to you. Sustainable living goes beyond the self, and individual actions do make a difference.
But it is important to note that the onus is not exclusively on the individual. Over half of global industrial emissions since 1988 can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producing entities – nearly 500 gigatonnes of CO2e over the past 30 years. To put this statistic into perspective, the average Canadian produces 15.6 tonnes of CO2e per year. This startling dichotomy has been the source of a contentious debate among the international community. Why advocate for individuals to adopt a sustainable lifestyle when there is a widespread lack of accountability among governments and top-polluters?
The answer to this question rejects the question itself!
Debating individual versus collective action is an unfortunate mistake in the conversation surrounding climate action and environmental protection. Advocating for individual behaviour changes does not distract from the necessary political and systemic action needed to address the planet’s environmental crisis. Rather, individual, collective and political action are self-reinforcing, working together to strengthen, deepen and expand the environmental movement. There is no zero-sum game in environmental activism.
Sustainable Living: In your Home, In your Community, In your Lifestyle
Like we said, sustainable living is a multifaceted process and can look different for everyone. There is no such thing as a have-to-do or strict rules when it comes to making environmentally conscious choices and lifestyle changes. With this in mind, we can organize sustainable living actions, choices and behaviours into five easy-to-follow categories.
- Reduce your consumption
Reducing your consumption, and changing the way you do consume, is – much like sustainable living – open-ended. The word ‘consumption’ is all-encompassing, we consume food, energy, water, and material things like clothing, electronics and lifestyle accessories – it’s hard to know where to start.
Reducing our energy use means more than turning off the lights when we leave the room. Investing in energy-efficient appliances can make a significant impact in saving energy and money – switching to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) can save you approximately $40 per lightbulb over its lifetime. If you are interested in learning more about your energy use and how you can cut back, check out this DIY home energy audit.
While 70% of the world is covered by water, only 2.5% of it is fresh water, and of that only, 1% of it is easily accessible for human use. Adding to that scary statistic, global water use has increased more than twice the rate of population growth in the past century. Living a sustainable lifestyle, we can change the way we use water and effectively reduce our overall consumption. The Spruce has a great list of water-saving devices you can install in your own home.
And it’s not just about shorter showers, turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, and letting the grass grow brown, you can also save water just by changing your consumer behaviour. For example, it takes approximately 2,700 litres of water to make a single cotton t-shirt. Instead, next time you stain your favourite white t-shirt beyond repair, try shopping at a local thrift store or an ethical fashion brand, it’s also asking yourself what does ethical and sustainable fashion mean?
- Reduce your waste
The part-two to reducing our consumption is reducing our waste – the less we consume, the less we’ll waste! Living zero-waste is not easy, and it seems that no matter what we try to keep our trash empty, there will always be excess packaging, food that goes bad or a pair of headphones that break. When trying to reduce our waste a great place to start is learning how to recycle. If you’re in Canada, check out your local municipality guide on what can be recycled and where.
For the non-recyclable products, avoid purchasing single-use plastics and explore new ways to repurpose items before throwing them in the trash.
Given that approximately 60% of landfilled materials are organic matter, composting is a great alternative to throwing out food in the trash. If you don’t have a composting program in your community, check out these simple ways to reduce your waste and garden.
Doing It Yourself drives creativity and innovation. Tackling the challenge to find new and sustainable ways to produce, create, and substitute products and services that you would otherwise purchase encourages self-sufficiency while lessening our impact on the environment.
DIYs also encourage using what we have at home and within our means, which in turn reduces the waste of unused goods. From growing your own food and herbs, sewing and repairing clothing, making your own cleaning products, home goods and beauty accessories, the possibilities for DIY are endless.
Can’t DIY? No problem, try DIFO – Do It For Others. This isn’t a real acronym but it does represent a real practice: a time bank. A time bank is an organized system among community members to exchange services and skills with one another. Services can be as simple as carpooling with your neighbour or helping clear snow from the sidewalk, to offering music lessons or excess produce from your garden – time banks make the community stronger and foster a sense of unity.
- Shop locally and shop fair-trade
When and where you can, change the way you shop. Much like other sustainable living measures, some choices and behaviours are more accessible and realistic than others depending on your financial flexibility. While shopping locally is more ethical and less taxing on the environment, it can be expensive and difficult to stock your kitchen with locally produced goods. Instead, look for legitimate fair trade certifications at the grocery store and do your research into the ethics and business practices of brands you frequently buy from.
When it comes to material things, we’ll keep this short and sweet: shop less and shop with purpose rather than impulse. Consider purchasing goods that are well-made and less likely to have a high turnover rate. If you’re in need of new clothes, try thrift stores or a local clothing swap before looking for something brand new. The Good Trade has a great summary for online thrift shopping – a super useful resource given we should all be staying home as much as possible this year.
- Offset your emissions
Offsetting your emissions is simpler than you think. When you choose to take public transportation, car-pool, walk or bike as a means of transportation, you are effectively offsetting your daily carbon emissions. Walking 2.5 km will release 75% less greenhouse gas emissions when compared to driving the same distance in the city; driving less is healthier for our bodies and the environment.
If you’re a frequent flyer, this is likely the largest contributing factor to your carbon footprint. When distances allow, opt for a less carbon-emitting means of travel, such as taking the train or traveling by direct flight – 25% of airplane emissions come from landing and taking off procedures. But when changing the way you travel isn’t always an option, consider purchasing carbon offsets when you fly. Carbon offsets offer a way to counter pollution by investing in projects that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Through organizations like Flightnook, you can purchase a carbon offset to account for the specific environmental impact of your flight.
Offsetting emissions goes beyond travel. Re-evaluate your investment portfolio and consider divesting from funds and stocks connected to the fossil fuel industry or other large polluters responsible for environmental destruction.
How Else Can We Make Green Choices for sustainable living
The core beliefs of sustainable living go beyond our homes and communities, and we have a responsibility to continue educating ourselves in the conversation surrounding the environment. Familiarize yourself with local sustainable initiatives in your community and find ways to contribute with your household – but don’t stop at the local level. Pay attention to national and international environmental and climate events and causes and learn how your individual actions might have international reactions.
Engage and start a conversation with friends, family, coworkers and neighbours about making sustainable and environmentally conscious choices and behaviours. Promoting environmental awareness is an important part of being an environmental steward, and we can all learn something from one another.
Donate to sustainability initiatives. Not everyone is in the position to donate, however, charitable contributions to local and international environmental initiatives and causes dedicated to improving sustainability can have a tangible impact on local human and environmental health. If you can’t donate financially, don’t fret – donate your time instead! Here is a list of Canadian environmental organizations and charities to get involved with.
While it might feel like an overwhelming feat for environmental causes, we have power in our voice and our vote. Hold public servants, governments and corporations accountable, and advocate for environmental protection in your community and country.
Some Final Thoughts on Sustainable Living
Sustainable living, and all its working parts, means much more than saving the planet. Sustainable actions, choices and behaviours positively contribute to your lifestyle, home and community. A sustainable community – and world – is one that supports itself and its natural surroundings, and encourages both human and environmental health.
But as this article proves, sustainable living is not a perfect system and will look different for everyone. When exploring new ways to reduce our consumption and waste, and live sustainably and ethically within our means, there’s always room for improvement!
Interested in knowing more about your environmental footprint? The World Wildlife Fund offers an online assessment to calculate how your actions impact the planet.
Please share your thoughts, comments and other sustainable living suggestions in the comments below!
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