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What Does it Mean to Live Sustainably?

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What Does it Mean to Live Sustainably?

Sustainability is a buzz word so often heard in mainstream media and the corporate world, its meaning has frequently been misconstrued and even misunderstood completely. Sustainability involves meeting current needs without compromising the needs of future generations. It’s not just about conserving what we have, it also encompasses the need to maintain the environmental, economic, and social networks that support us. These are commonly referred to as the three pillars of sustainability and can be explained as follows:

Environmental Sustainability: Natural resources are consumed at a rate that allows them to replenish, whilst maintaining ecological integrity and equilibrium. 

Economic Sustainability: Economic systems are equitable and accessible to all, enabling long-term economic growth with no negative implications for the social, environmental, and cultural aspects of a community.

Social Sustainability: Universal human rights are available and equitable to everyone, giving access to adequate resources to maintain a healthy and secure lifestyle.

We are currently using up the Earth’s resources 1.75 times faster than they can regenerate. According to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), we will need equivalent to almost three planets worth of resources to sustain ourselves if the global population reaches 9.6 billion by 2050. Given the current population projections, we are expected to reach 9 billion people by 2037.

With all this in mind- what does it mean to live sustainably? Living sustainably is a personal commitment to reducing your impact on the Earth’s natural resources. It means acknowledging the Earth’s resources are not infinite, and in doing so reducing habits of expending energy and finances, to help preserve the environment. Living sustainably can easily be achieved through amending our relationships with waste, consumerism, energy, and transportation.


In today’s society we have become blind to the amount of waste we produce. When we discard something, we do not stop and think about where it really ends up. This “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” attitude has led to a global waste problem. Every year we discard 2.12 billion tonnes of waste, with 99% of the things we purchase being discarded after 6 months of use. Plastic is a major contributor to the global waste problem, with 300 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year, 50% of which is single use. 91% of plastic is not recycled, ending up in landfill and 13 million tonnes of it ending up in our oceans each year. In the USA, 100 million plastic utensils are used and discarded every day, taking roughly 1000 years for each plastic utensil to decompose. But plastic pollution isn’t just from our take-out lunches, the synthetic material that make up our clothing releases 500,000 tonnes of microplastics into water systems each year. The largest source of plastic in our oceans comes from discarded fishing equipment, which contributes to 43% of the 79,000-tonne floating mass of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean, commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. By 2050 it is predicted that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Given the current trends in global annual waste production, it is predicted that global annual waste will increase by 70% between 2018 and 2050, unless considerable amendments to our relationship with waste are made. This is not just a problem to be left to governments and large corporations to fix. It’s important to be the change that you want to see. Incorporating the three Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle) into your lifestyle and consumerist habits is an excellent was to reduce your personal waste production. Reducing your dependency on single use plastic, making small life style changes like bringing a reusable coffee cup or bag with you, are all easy changes you can make to contribute to this change.


The global waste issue is not one of poor recycling, but of mass consumerism and our disconnection from where what we consume is from and the resources required to produce it. The narrative of consumerism is becoming increasingly engrained in our culture, with success and happiness being equated to materialistic possessions and owning more. Consumerism preys upon the innate human desire for reward, and with each purchase this desire is fuelled by the release of dopamine. The advertising industry has made products psychologically obsolete, pressuring consumers to buy more and more and replace products before they reach the end of their lifespan. The constant production of new products continues to pressure consumers to have the latest and best model or trend. Despite representing 2% of the global population, the United States and Western Europe contribute to over 50% of global spending. Many consumers are unaware of the resources used to produce the products they desire and the people that are exploited during production. Clothing production requires large volumes of water and contributes to 10% of the total global carbon emissions. To produce just one cotton T-shirt, 700 gallons of water is needed, and 2000 gallons is needed to create a pair of jeans. The fast-fashion industry is a socio-environmental calamity, enticing customers with their low prices and easy return policies, and encouraging mindless purchasing. Each year 84% of returned clothing enters landfill. This is a considerable figure, considering 40% of shoppers purposely purchase duplicate items with the intent of returning ill-fitting items. Shopping slow fashion, purchasing second-hand items, and practicing mindful consumerism (such as only buying what you need), are excellent ways to reduce your carbon emissions and waste products sent to landfill. In addition, practicing minimalism is a great way to help curb consumerism. Minimalism is the practice of owning fewer possessions, and in turn not buying into the pressures of mass consumerism to benefit your personal contentment and the environment.


Climate change has been linked to rising sea levels and extreme meteorological events, such as flooding, droughts, and storms. Changes in climate are occurring due to the large quantities of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere by human activities, such as burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heating, and transport. Burning fossil fuels also releases pollutants into the air that are harmful to environmental and human health.  Energy consumption is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, with two thirds of emissions as a result of burning fossil fuels to produce energy consumed for heating, electricity, transport, and industries. Our use of energy is altering our climate, however, the converse of this is also having implications on energy usage. For example, changes to the water cycle as a result of climate change will have considerable implications on hydropower, and rising temperatures will demand more energy for cooling in summer. Remembering to turn off lights, unused electronics, and air conditioning are all ways you can reduce your energy consumption at home. Taking shorter and colder showers, turning off the tap as you brush your teeth and wash your face, washing your laundry in cold water and hanging it to dry are also ways you can reduce your energy and water consumption. Fossil fuel combustion is not the only source of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Industries, such as the meat industry, are also responsible for the release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere. Additionally, the meat industry is the largest contributor to the mass deforestation of rainforests, with 70% of the amazon rainforest having been deforested livestock and feed crops. This has considerable impacts on climate change as trees are vital carbon stores, converting carbon dioxide into the oxygen we breathe. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, contributing to the build-up of greenhouse gases and climate change. By reducing your red meat consumption, you can decrease your carbon footprint by 25%, and switching to a vegetarian diet reduces your carbon footprint by 50%.


Burning fossil fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, for transportation further contributes to the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions as a result of transportation represent 28% of the emissions in the USA, and have increased more than any other source of greenhouse gases between 1990 and 2018. Reducing transportation emissions and shifting away from fossil fuel-powered vehicles toward zero emissions-vehicles are vital steps in fighting the climate crisis. You can help by taking public transport, riding your bike to work, walking instead of driving, and switching to using electric vehicles. Additionally, regularly servicing your car increases your fuel efficiency from 4% to up to 40%. Nevertheless, cars are not the only source of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. Planes, ships, and trains also contribute to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the USA, aircrafts are the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, representing 9% of the emissions. Although trains are still responsible for some emissions, they provide a more sustainable alternative to air travel.  A trip from London to Paris via the Eurostar saves 90% of emissions. A flight from London to Paris emits 63.6kg of carbon dioxide, however the same trip on the Eurostar emits 4.1kg of carbon dioxide. Reducing you air travel and taking alternative modes of transport, as well as limiting the number of long-haul flights you take, are excellent ways to reduce your carbon footprint and live more sustainably. Ships are responsible for releasing 3% of the world’s carbon emissions, and are a large source of nitrous oxide. Increases in international trade suggests that emissions from shipping could increase by 250% by 2050. Choosing to support local retailers is a way you can help reduce your emissions from shipping.

One Last Thing to Consider…

While it is important to understand the value of sustainability, it is also necessary to recognise the intrinsic link between privilege and living sustainably. Living sustainably is not always accessible to certain groups of people. Eating organic and locally produced food or a vegetarian/vegan diet, supporting sustainable retailers, owning electric vehicles, and going zero-waste require more money, time, and energy than unsustainable alternatives. Systematic oppression and financial disparities make living sustainably implausible for many people. While sales like Black Friday and Boxing Day may be viewed extreme displays consumerist culture, these sales can be a necessity for underprivileged groups to afford what they need to live. Within the sustainability movement there is a high degree of judgement towards those deemed as “not doing enough”, but what’s important is not striving for perfection, but working towards doing what you can, given the means that you have. A perfectly sustainable lifestyle is not attainable to many people. Bridging the divide between disparities is a vital part of the social and economic pillars of sustainability, and is imperative for the unhindered progression of the sustainability movement.

One Last Last Thing to Consider...

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Thiele, L.P (2016) Sustainability [online] John Wiley & Son. [],it%20was%20at%20around%202%25.,Transportation%20and%20Climate%20Change,greenhouse%20gas%2C%20into%20the%20atmosphere.&text=Between%201990%20and%202018%2C%20GHG,terms%20than%20any%20other%20sector.,the%20future%20of%20rail%20travel,good%20for%20the%20animals%20too!,is%20for%20single%2Duse%20items.&text=But%20a%20whopping%2091%20percent,landfills%20or%20in%20the%20environment

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