Why are we not living sustainably already
Are you going through a conflict between the fact “we need urgent actions on the environmental issues” and seeing no changes in your life? Do you feel bad about doing things that are damaging the planet, but have no other easy solutions?
You are not alone.
Oh, did you feel a bit better knowing others are going through the same struggle? But everyone else doing the same doesn’t make the problem goes away.
We know that we need to do something about it. But why are we not doing it?
Sustainability issues and solutions
What problems do we have?
Do you know what problems we have? The top 5 environmental concerns among European people are plastic pollution, global warming, deforestation, air pollution, and water pollution. There’re more issues around the world including loss of biodiversity, ocean pollution, waste management, etc. Those problems are not new. They are the results of years of accumulation and some scientists and corporations have known about the problems for decades. In recent years, more people are aware of environmental issues and about 90% of people say they care about sustainability.
Does it mean we haven’t solved the issues because we don’t have good solutions? The truth is we already have all the solutions we need. We have the technology, renewable energy, a variety of vegan food, and natural resources. The problem is not about what we have, it is how we use them.
For example, a lot of water, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides are used to grow good while 30 to 40% of food is lost or wasted. Most food waste is sent to landfills and produces 6% of global greenhouse gases. Potential solutions are shortening the supply chain by producing more locally, diverting and utilizing discarded food, and composting food waste to enrich the soil. But changes are very slow because of the current worldwide supply network held by a few big corporations.
Another example is plastic. Humans were using bio-based plastics made from plants and animals before we started using plastics made from fossil fuels. We used to deliver milk, oils, cosmetics, and other products in refillable containers made of glass, ceramic, and aluminum. Since plastics made from fossil oil became the mainstream, products and packaging designs followed the disposable trend. The solution is redesigning products and packaging with the minimum resources required, creating systems to reuse rather than dispose of them, and using alternative packaging options rather than plastic.
The biggest issue is energy. Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a part of the solution to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a long term. But a faster and cheaper way to reduce carbon emissions is by using less energy.
Is it possible to reduce consumption?
We have about 8 billion people on this planet and only 17% are living in developed countries that produce 79% of global carbon emissions. Some say we need to decrease our population to have less consumption. But it is not the number of people, it is how much each person consumes.
We still have a lot of opportunities where we can improve to produce more with fewer resources. Current production processes start with taking resources from nature and end with disposing of waste in the environment. We need to take more from nature and dump more if we want more products. This is not sustainable.
One solution is to reuse the waste materials. Metals are almost infinitely recyclable, paper can be recycled up to 8 times, and plastics could be recycled twice. However, the most effective solution is to simply reduce our consumption. Reusing and recycling are good to reduce the need for new materials. But it’s not simple as it seems. Do you feel collecting and taking empty bottles to a store is too much effort? After you saved the bottle, it still goes through a long process, transporting, sorting, cleaning, heating, etc. It costs more to recycle than to make new. This is why we recycle only 20% of waste globally and recycling will be even harder as the amount of waste increasing.
Sustainable consumption is achievable only with help from all of us. Because no matter how eco-friendly the product is or how good the recycling system is, we will still have problems if we keep increasing unnecessary consumption and waste. We need to consume less, produce less waste, and support the system to reuse recycle and compost.
The real challenge
What is holding you back from making your daily life more sustainable? Common reasons we hear are eco-friendly products are expensive and have lower quality, or that an eco-friendly lifestyle is inconvenient. These are not true in many cases. What is true is people are willing to make changes only if the solution doesn’t cost now, is easy, and is desirable. In the report by EY, only 30% of consumers said they are willing to pay a premium for sustainable goods. However, people understand that higher quality products last longer and will be a cheaper option in a long run. The cost is not the real challenge, it is more a reason to support their inaction.
The real challenge is human nature. We don’t like changing everyday routines because it takes effort to change. On top of that, we are social and we don’t change unless others are changing.
- 54% of people agree “what I do doesn’t make a big enough impact on the environment”
- 40% agree “It’s the government’s responsibility to make sure people act as sustainably as possible”,
- 68% agree “companies need to act as leaders in driving positive social and environmental outcomes”.
- We need to find ways to transition that will be accepted by consumers
- Our products are recyclable. Consumers need to recycle correctly
- We have no control over how much consumers buy
Indeed, only one person switching from single-use plastic bags to reusable bags will not make a big difference now. But when enough people take the action, it will make a difference, and companies and governments must change. While you are giving money to single-use plastic bag producers, the plastic industry still makes money and will continue producing it. While plastic bags contribute to economic growth, it makes it hard for the government to ban them.
What you do makes a difference. Even just a small thing such as riding a bike instead of driving a car will make quite a reduction in carbon emissions when you do 5 days a week for 30 years. And you don’t need to spend extra money to make some changes today.
1 small action x 365 days x 50 years x 8 million people = HUGE difference
Some small action examples…
100 km driving a car = 25000 km riding a bike : Both are accounted for 20 kg of CO2 emissions
1 beef burger = 10 x vegan burger : Both accounted for 4 kg of CO2 emissions
How to transition to a new lifestyle?
Many people feel overwhelmed about changing their lifestyle to be more sustainable. It is normal to feel it whenever you are facing something unfamiliar. Here’re some tips to develop your new sustainable habits.
Be clear about why it is important to change: Think about the benefits of changing your habits and the consequences of inaction.
Start with the simplest change: It could be having meat 4 days a week instead of every day or buying vegetables without plastic packaging.
Continue for a month: Stick with only a couple of changes at a time and make sure to repeat until the change becomes a new habit. Once you are settled with a new routine, move on to the next one.
Know a trigger: A trigger is a certain event or action before you do something automatically. For example, when you see more than 50% off discount, you will buy without thinking twice. If you know the triggers, you can prevent doing things unconsciously.
Be imperfect: It is totally normal to compromise some along the way. Do your best.
Prepare your environment: For example, if you decided to use public transport to go to work instead of driving a car, put your car key somewhere you don’t see.
Write it down or set a reminder: Create a reminder on your phone or calendar, or you can write on a piece of paper and put it where you see it often.
Don’t compare with others: You are making changes for what you believe. What the majority of people around you are doing is not always the best. If what you believe is important to you, keep challenging what has been “normal”.
It is like we are all in a bus running at 300km per hour and there is a big concrete building in front of us. Everyone is arguing about which seat they want to sit in while what needs to be done is someone stepping on a brake pad. Everyone living on this planet is a consumer no matter if you are a president or the CEO of a big corporation. Everyone is on the same boat when it comes to climate change. We all have different agendas and opinions. But one clear thing is the earlier we start making changes, the easier it would be.
Food loss and waste - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_loss_and_waste#Prevention_and_valorisation
Now 8 billion and counting - https://unctad.org/data-visualization/now-8-billion-and-counting-where-worlds-population-has-grown-most-and-why
Developed Countries Are Responsible for 79 Percent of Historical Carbon Emissions - https://www.cgdev.org/media/who-caused-climate-change-historically
7 Genuinely Shocking Facts About Our Global Waste Problem - https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/global-waste-facts-plastic-fashion-food/