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What really is an environmentally sustainable society?

Article excerpt or TLDR:

Understand that a sustainable resource implies that the use is kept at a steady level with no damage to the environment. From there, it's easy to see that the current way of production is far from being sustainable. Placing high importance into environmental sustainability for the development of our species and tackling climate change. With three main pillars of sustainability taking the key role in maintaining that stability - economic, social, and environmental. Each section must to its part, just like governments and companies must understand that they have aa key role in preserving this order, as well.

A picture of freshly cut grapefruit and in front a sign that reads: "What really is an environmentally sustainable society?"

To start our journey, let’s look at the Collins dictionary definition of the word “sustainable” and “resource”:

SUSTAINABLE (adjective)

You use sustainable to describe the use of natural resources when this use is kept at a steady level that is not likely to damage the environment. [...]

RESOURCE (countable noun)

The resources of an organization or person are the materials, money, and other things that they have and can use in order to function properly. [...]

Some obvious examples comprise sunlight, air, water, fossil fuels, plant life, animal life, and many others.

So, a resource is something that we as individuals or organizations need to function. While sustainable portrays using these resources at a level that is not likely to damage the environment.

Already we come across an issue. What are these not likely levels, exactly? Asking different people will yield a whole plethora of interpretations, with various calculations and predictions.

At its core, it is difficult to form a definitive answer, because of many variables affecting the outcome.

But the key factor contributing are our own resource-hungry needs growing year by year at a staggering rate. If we, by definition, need these resources to function, where does the sustainable part come in?

What is a sustainable resource?

Following this, a sustainable resource then must continuously restore or replenish its levels (read: be renewable). Or better yet, have an endless amount of said resource providing us with the much-needed supply.

If a resource has a finite amount, that it’s impossible to renew it, making it unsustainable.

With this separation out of the way, we will focus only on renewable resources, making them sustainable resources. Right off the bat, goodbye to fossil fuels. To no one’s surprise.

But wait. Because something is renewable in theory, often in practice we cannot manage it properly, rendering the resource unsustainable. Because of this, we need to add another important term - sustainable resource management.

One of the clearest examples comes straight from the continuously depleting Amazon forest - yup, wood. Wood, by definition, is a sustainable resource. You grow a tree; you cut said tree. Rinse and repeat.

But, as mentioned before, because of rising resource-hungry needs (or just blatant money-driven goals), we can’t renew the number of trees that are being cut every year.

Thus, while wood is a sustainable resource, we are managing it unsustainably.

Apart from wood, there are many global materials that we’re not managing properly. Here’s a great infographic from UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme).

Infographic from the Sustainable Trade in Resources: Global Material Flows, Circularity and Trade
Source: UNEP and IRP (2020). Sustainable Trade in Resources: Global Material Flows, Circularity and Trade.

The International Resource Panel (IRP), sponsored by UNEP, found that our global material consumption grew from 7.4 tons in 1970 to 12.2 tons in 2017 per capita.

This puts serious stress on the environment, reducing the percentage of renewable resources each year and minimizing our environmental sustainability.

Before rising any alarms, we need to understand why this is important.

Why is environmental sustainability important?

I’m sure all of you have figured by now that our way of living is unsustainable. If we truly want to leave this planet for our future children, we must start thinking (and behaving) long term.

While it’s clear that the issue here is environmental, our environmental sustainability encompasses much more than that.

It aims to ensure the quality of life for all living beings and their future generations while minimizing any potential strain on the Earth’s ecosystem we all share.

At its core, it focuses on balancing the human need for resources and sustaining the living world. A delicate balance, you might agree.

As you see now, this isn’t only about our environment, but also about our economic development, social behavior, and global future.

To achieve this, we as individuals and businesses need to understand our part. Without the environment, there are no resources. With no resources, there are no products, and ultimately no customers to buy them.

Understanding the impact your business has on the environment, creating a sustainable product life cycle, reducing excess waste, and recycling the remaining part are essential practices that businesses must apply.

The benefits of pushing toward reaching these goals are obvious. Minimizing pollution (which provides cleaner air for everyone), protecting endangered ecosystems (allowing the dwindling animal population to renew), reducing the effects of global warming (less unpredictable weather or fires destroying our crops or forests), and many more.

There are also several benefits on the business side of things. From lowering your energy usage (minimizing electricity costs), using renewable resources protects you from any sudden supply crisis, making less pollution reduces the cost of waste management while improving your image as a sustainable brand that respects its environment.

To better understand how every part is connected to forming a sustainable system, we must turn our eyes to the three principles of sustainability - economy, society, and the environment.

The three principles of sustainability

Also called the three pillars of sustainable business, they consist of three basic structures: economic, social, and environmental sustainability. This defines a system’s sustainability.

Inter-connected and supporting the entire structure, if any of these pillars are lacking, the complete system becomes unsustainable.

To provide a clearer visual, check the image below.

Three pillars of sustainability - social, environmental, and economic sustainability
Taken from a Thwink.org article

Defining each of the three pillars of sustainability

Economic sustainability focuses on business accountability. Sustainable businesses are urged to use their resources in a responsible manner. Its focus is to provide permanent (or at least long-lasting) economic growth to each member without causing harm or destruction of the environment or reducing any social or cultural facet in the entire international community.

Social sustainability derives its goals toward providing a sustainable way of life for individuals, their local communities, and countries. Like reducing famine, poverty, and providing a better quality of life, shared evenly across the planet.

Environmental sustainability ties everything together with the goals we already mentioned. It encourages individuals and companies alike to use and promote renewable resources, actively regenerate what has been used, and reduce waste.

As you can see, each pillar cannot function without the others supporting it. And for many years, different organizations focused on individual pillars as their goals.

But in 2015, United Nations took each of these principles and together made 17 interlinked global goals called SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) forming a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030.”

Three pillars of sustainability forming a sustainable system.
Taken from a Wikipedia article of Sustainable Development

For the curious, the 17 SDGs are:

No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, Reducing Inequality, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, Partnerships for the Goals.

But many of you will wonder - if this is technically possible? Are we capable of creating an environmentally sustainable society? Let’s define this society and delve right into it.

What is an environmentally sustainable society?

Our environment plays an integral part in our lives. And vice versa, we play an integral part in shaping the landscape of our environment.

Most of you have seen the image of a man sawing off the branch on which he’s sitting. It’s a fitting image of our fragile connection with the environment.

An illustration of a man sawing off the branch on which he’s sitting.
Taken from a Museum of Psychology article

Understanding this makes it easy to see what an environmentally sustainable society looks like. With government-regulated environmental conservation initiatives that conserve, renew, and improve our environment. And by doing so, improving our quality of life alongside it.

Limiting the liberties that many multi-billion-dollar businesses take in managing their approach toward the environment they use (and abuse).

Providing strict policies in disposing of any type of toxic waste, paying a living wage to its workers, forming a carbon tax, pushing out the fossil fuel industry, and many others I’m sure you can come up with.

But at the essence of it all, shifting the company bottom line from “here only for-profit” to “sustainable growth for all”.

I know that this right now seems like a pipe dream. But the sooner we push for these regulations, and the faster these companies grasp, they are only sawing the brunch the world is sitting on, the closer we will be toward truly understanding how an environmentally sustainable society works.

Because otherwise, it’s not the planet that’s going to leave. We will.

Or in the immortal words of famous comedian/social critic George Carlin:

George Carlin with his famous quote: "The planet is fine. The people are f#%&ed."
Taken from reddit

What can we do? Or… what practices will lead to environmental sustainability?

While minimizing your consumption of red meat, use of bottled water, plastic packaging, and many other points you’ve heard from all sides over the years are good.

It’s not something that will tip over the iceberg and start making significant changes.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do them, everyone should! They are great, small ways each person can contribute, but if we want to tackle the elephant in the room here…

For individuals

  • Always do your diligence when checking a company. Research!
  • Don’t fall for common marketing traps and lingo. Eco-friendly, all-natural… buzz words.
  • If something has green packaging, it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.
  • Don’t jump ship immediately if a big name creates an “eco” line. Fact-check.
  • Support local businesses.
  • Push for local waste and recycling regulations.
  • Push for country-wide carbon tax regulations. Fight for your right to a more sustainable way of living.
  • Understand the worldwide issues with fast fashion. Buy second-hand if possible.
  • Use your wallet as a fighting tool. Companies need your money; you don’t need them.

For businesses

  • Define your industry-specific environmental goals.
  • Don’t try to fix all environmental issues. Take one step at a time.
  • Determine and measure your impact and address it.
  • Minimize waste in your production process.
  • Clearly communicate your process. Be transparent in each step.
  • Understand who is your audience.
  • Clarify the message you wish everyone to hear.
  • Form a concrete goal for your website.
  • Hire professionals to help you toward your goal.

What’s the next step?

I hope this article was helpful and informative about the issues we are facing today as a society. I’m aware that these things are difficult to look at or even try to comprehend.

Also, I hope this last part will spur you into action toward fighting for change. Making a push to reach our 17 sustainable development goals and providing a deeper understanding of how we’re all in this together.

If you’re a business that strives toward a more sustainable way of working and want professional help for the last four points in the previous section (brand, message, audience, and website), you can always reach me for a free consultation here.

I wish you all the best in your journey toward a more sustainable future.

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