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Sustainability: what it is (and what it isn’t)

As the world gears up for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow next week, the concept of sustainability is everywhere.


But bizarrely, sustainability is a buzz word that has lost a lot of its original meaning while, at the same time, has expanded to mean a whole lot more.

Confused? Me too.

So, in full knowledge that I’m barely scratching the surface, I venture to ask (at 11.25 on a chilly Thursday morning in October 2021): exactly what does sustainability mean?

First off, let’s bust some common myths.

Myth 1: Sustainability equates to environmentalism

It can often feel like it, but sustainability is not solely about recycling your yoghurt pots, making your own compost, or remembering to pack a Bag for Life when you pop into Tesco.

Is the environment a big part of sustainability? Oh hell, yeah.

Is it everything we need? Not unless you intend to live up a tree and feed your family off berries for the rest of your days.

Seventeen sustainable development goals were agreed by the UN members in 2015. These set out a plan for the planet and its people to prosper. These 17 goals cover everything from ending hunger to providing quality education, from eliminating inequality to eradicating world poverty.

Y’know, little stuff.

So, whereas sustainability started off as the effort to preserve our planet’s biodiversity, sustainable development has built on this, and now encompasses ALL the systems required so humans can ‘live and meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

Hmmm…

In a nutshell, sustainability now refers to the 3 P’s in equal measure: planet, profits and people. But crucially, it’s also about the way in which all three of these P’s are inextricably linked and entirely dependent on each other.

Myth 2: If it’s not natural, it’s not good

While natural products are often preferable to manmade ones, it’s oversimplifying the matter to say all technology is bad. For example, we can’t harness wind power without building some giant state-of-the-art wind turbines to do so. And we can’t reduce carbon emissions from the commute if employees ditch their very lovely but unsustainable MacBooks.

The reality is that building a future where everyone and everything can thrive will mean a reliance on very artificial technology.

Myth 3: Technology will save us

While technology may certainly seem integral in our quest to save the planet, it shouldn’t be seen as the ultimate saviour.

Replacing your gas-guzzling motor with an electric one is clearly very beneficial. But walking the kids to school and shopping on your local high street is a whole lot better.

Ultimately, we’re going to have to reassess our priorities and make changes where we can. But more than we need new technology, our understanding of the role the natural world plays in our everyday lives needs to undergo a radical, radical shift.

Myth 4: Sustainability is not profitable for business

The world is changing. Younger generations care about issues that affect the world and are prepared to do something about them. In my sleepy hometown, they’re organising Black Lives Matter protests. They’re converting to vegan lifestyles. Just yesterday, my five-year-old waved goodbye to her last bacon butty as she announced she was becoming ‘a herbivore, mummy’.

Businesses are realising the absolute need for them to be sustainable for this generation to even think about giving them their money. And that means really sustainable. None of this greenwashing nonsense. There’s no point in using sustainable materials if your supplier is paying its people £3.50 an hour. (Boohoo can definitely tell you that...)

These shifting attitudes among consumers and future employees mean one thing: if a business wants to make money and wants to thrive to boot… sustainability is non-negotiable.

Myth 5: Sustainability is expensive

It clearly makes business sense. But what about your average Joe? And not in ten years’ time. Not tomorrow. Right now?

It’s undeniably true: sustainable materials and products are more expensive. This is in part due to a lack of demand from the marketplace. As demand increases, we live in hope that our capitalist society will see prices fall.

But while we’re waiting, we need to remember what sustainability is really about:

  1. Reduce

  2. Reuse

  3. Recycle

So, no… this doesn’t mean you need to throw out your IKEA bowls and replace them with bamboo ones. It doesn’t mean you ditch your non-ethical glad rags and go on a shopping spree for eco-friendly fashion. And you don’t need to waste your Christmas turkey from the freezer (some people are prepared, y’know) and stock it with the fanciest vegan fare this side of Waitrose.

Use what you already have. Recycle what you can. Reduce your consumption.

That costs nothing at all.

The greatest myth of all: you’re too small to make a difference so why even bother?

Because until you do, those sustainable materials will remain high in price. Because until there are more calls, pleas, demands for change, there will be none. The planet will keep rising in temperature and whole nations of people will keep going hungry.

We can only start small. But collectively, we can call for big, BIG change.

‘Big things have small beginnings.’

- Promethus or Lawrence of Arabia (depending on your age!)