This is a loaded question. For most of us, it's practically impossible to fully decouple one's consumer behavior from the global cycle of consumption. Nevertheless, it's essential that we develop an understanding of what sustainability is, what levers we do have as individuals, and what we should pressure governments and businesses to do for the betterment of the entire collective.
The Cambridge Dictionary provides a couple of useful definitions of "sustainability." Most simply, sustainability is the "quality of being able to continue over a long period of time." But there's also the definition "the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time." This second one describes a process or entity that exerts little negative influence on the world around it, and is therefore morally considered usable.
Finally, the third and most specific definition they provide is: "the idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment." This definition is most useful. It refers to sustainability by how most companies and thought leaders refer to it: as an idea.
Sustainability has become a word that no longer means what it literally means. When we say "sustainability," virtually everyone means this third definition: the idea that we shouldn't engage in behaviors that harm the planet.
Products are claiming all the time that they're "100% sustainable" - but what does this really mean? And how can we be sure we're making the most moral decision when we buy something? We can't answer this for every single product. But what we'd like to do is provide a blueprint for living a lifestyle that has a lower destructive impact on the planet's natural resources.
In economics, every consumer decision has externalities, or unintended consequences (some positive, some negative). But this doesn't mean we have to accept that global industries emitted 37.5 billion tons of C02 in 2022. In our article on the Carbon Business Council, we discuss a bit more about why the release of C02 and other greenhouse gasses is a global problem. In this article, we wanna talk about how you have the power to do something about it.
The release of carbon dioxide is often considered the externality which we most urgently need to reverse right now, in 2024. Of course, there are other negatives that our consumer decisions can impact. This list is an attempt to cover not just carbon dioxide emissions, but how to ensure your lifestyle decisions have a lower destructive impact on all of the planet's natural resources.
One other point of clarification is also helpful. "Electricity" comes from a lot of different sources (here's a great article on the topic). Natural gas was the source of 40% of the electricity generated in the US in 2022, while renewable sources were only about 20%. Natural gas is mostly made of methane (a greenhouse gas). So consuming electricity (yes, even via electric cars) still does not necessarily have zero negative impact on the Earth's health. (Nevertheless, electric cars probably a net positive over gasoline-powered cars!)
Before we dive in, full disclaimer: we used Chat GPT to help us draft this list, but then modified it extensively and added lots of our own ideas to the list!! Let's dive in.
- Understand Your Carbon Footprint: Since atmospheric carbon dioxide is the big metric, causing some of the most urgent effects on the Earth's health, we suggest you start here. There are lots of online calculators that are super easy to use to estimate how your lifestyle adds up in terms of tons of C02 released per year.
- Reduce Energy Consumption: The less energy you use, the less emissions. Use spot lighting in your house. At night, turn off all lights and unplug electronics. Do you really need a fridge that big?
- Switch to Renewable Energy: If possible, source more of your electricity from renewable sources like solar or wind, the production of which results in far fewer C02 emissions and doesn't tax Earth's non-renewable natural gas reserves.
- Energy Efficiency: Make your home more energy-efficient by insulating, sealing drafts, using energy-efficient appliances, and turning off lights and electronics when not in use.
- Use Public Transportation: Whenever possible, use public transportation, carpool, or bike instead of driving alone. According to the EPA, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of C02 per year. That's a lot!
- Drive Efficiently: If you must drive, choose a fuel-efficient vehicle and drive in an eco-friendly manner by maintaining proper tire pressure, avoiding aggressive driving, and reducing idling time. This ensures your car is using power efficiently to get you from point A to B, and not wasting anything in between.
- Reduce Meat and Dairy Consumption: Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Consider reducing your meat and dairy intake or adopting a plant-based diet.
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Minimize waste by reducing your consumption of single-use items, reusing items when possible, and recycling correctly.
- Support Sustainable Products and Practices: Choose products and services that prioritize sustainability and eco-friendliness. Be critical of certifications and claims by businesses (even Fair Trade can still mask unethical business practices.) Ultimately, try to stay as engaged as you can with journalism on the supply chain so you can be sure you're supporting the most ethical companies.
- Offset Remove CO2 Emissions: Invest in carbon-negative technologies. More in our 'Revolutionizing CO2' Article available here (coming soon)
- Plant Trees and Maintain Green Spaces: Trees absorb carbon dioxide and contribute to carbon sequestration. (They also keep neighborhood temperatures low!) Consider planting trees in your community or supporting reforestation projects.
- Conserve Water: Reduce water waste by fixing leaks, using water-saving appliances, and being mindful of your water consumption.
- Advocate for Change: Support policies and initiatives that promote sustainability and climate action. Engage with your local and national governments to push for climate-friendly policies.
- Educate Yourself and Others: Stay informed about environmental issues and share your knowledge with friends and family to inspire collective action. (If you're at our blog, you're off to a lovely start!)
- Sustainable Investments: If you have the means, consider investing in sustainable stocks, bonds, or mutual funds that align with your values.
- Reduce Air Travel: Air travel is a significant contributor to carbon emissions. When possible, choose alternative modes of transportation or reduce your flying frequency.
- Eat Locally and Seasonally: Support local food systems and reduce the carbon footprint of your diet by eating locally grown, seasonal foods.
- Calculate and Monitor Your Progress: Regularly assess your carbon footprint to see how your efforts are reducing your emissions, and make adjustments as needed.
Remember that any goal can take time, and that we simply can't have all the information all the time. Though it may seem that we're limited as to what impact we can have, global trends can and do significantly influence the economy. When young, thoughtful people act on their values they can shake up the old money. It's essential for every one of us to think BIG with our daily consumer decisions. We are moving the needle, one glass bottle of kombucha at a time. Get your friends onboard. Certainly they're thinking about it too.
What are some ideas or techniques you don't see on this list? Add your thoughts in the comments below, and with your permission we'll re-share on social media to spread the word!