What Does Sustainability Really Mean Anyway?

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Climate change is surely the single biggest issue the human race now faces.” – David Attenborough (2007)

Today, climate change is still one of the most significant issues we face as a global generation. One of the defining terms for protecting our planet from further environmental pollution is sustainability. The word sustainability is used in almost every context and industry from fashion to agriculture. It seems the word ‘sustainable’ is so overused that it has no meaning anymore. So, are there words that enable actual discussion and action, not just elicit greenwashing — or eye-rolling?

Some environmental warriors chimed in on this question with a variety of answers. A common theme amongst them is that nothing is truly sustainable and every term from eco-friendly to ecological empathy to sustainability can only go as far as the connotations that we give the terms. Corporations and individuals are the two groups that should be discussing environmental issues. Sustainable events consultant, Julia Spangler, says, “Corporations need to address transparency and accountability. When an organization is not transparent about its specific sustainability initiatives, that is when we should be suspicious of greenwashing. Effective sustainability programs have measurable key indicators that are regularly assessed and reported to stakeholders, including consumers.”

As individuals, we need to practice what we preach. Alexa Gantous creator of TrashTalk Studio says, “It starts with leading by example. More than preaching, you have to live your values and align how you live your life with what you believe. A lot of us are stuck in the mindset that this is how things are, when at the end of the day, that is not true. We have the ability to design the world that we want to live in and then change our habits to live in that world—we have the power at our fingertips.”

Why should you care, really?

Try to think of active and aggressive environmental preservation as ‘self-care’. Take a step back, reflect, and awaken to the fact that we are one with the earth. Gantous explains, “We are not separate. The things that we are throwing out will eventually come back to us—in our water and in our food. If we are creating chemical and plastic waste that the earth cannot take, it contaminates our water, our food, our air. These actions have changed us biologically—we all have plastic inside of us now. So, if we keep on this path, the earth will survive—we are not even killing the planet, we are killing ourselves, it is auto-destruction.” In fact, a recent investigation by the Orb Media found that 83% of the world’s tap water has plastic fibers, in the U.S. plastic fibers contaminate 94% of our tap water. Meaning that just by drinking water, you are consuming plastic.

So, what actually is sustainable?

It is as simple as paying attention. There are so many companies that claim that they are helping our planet, but it is effortless to spot the brands that are actually making a difference because they are not hiding behind ad campaigns. Dig a little deeper than marketing tactics and see where the products are coming from, who’s making them, and then support and advocate for those brands once you find them.

Pay attention to your daily habits: What are you eating? What are you throwing away? And, how do these actions interact with the greater system of the world? Today, an estimated five trillion pieces of plastic currently litter our oceans and each year, and enough plastic is discarded to circle the globe four times. Focus more on living by example by doing the sustainable actions you believe in big and small.

Here is what you can do

Questions to ask yourself: Do humans dominate nature? What do you do that makes you feel proud to help the environment? What makes you feel environmentally guilty? “We need to internalize and self-reflect on what we are doing every day and how it is affecting the greater good. Then take action.” Gantos says, “Reflection and action are not exclusive from one another—they inform one another. You think about things then you do them then you do something and reflect on that action.”

Pablo Solomon, environmental artist and designer, suggests that anyone who really cares about preserving, restoring, and properly utilizing our natural world should do the following, “Avoid the politically charged terms and debates and stick to the basics—clean air, clean water, finding and developing clean energy sources, cleaning up our messes, and practicing good stewardship. Once you and I really love our fellow human beings and our beautiful earth, we are clever enough to solve any scientific or engineering challenges.”

What does sustainable really mean anyway?

To inquire and reflect on how we can make a more significant difference and awaken our everyday decisions by leading by example. Gantos ends with the prose, “The most important message is the importance of paying attention.” It’s not about politically charged terms and debates. It is about thinking of our greater global civilization and establishing healthy systems that are connected to the natural world.

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