What does sustainability mean?

Published 15/04/2022

Nowadays, we hear it all around us: we must live more sustainably, live greener, live more consciously. But what is sustainability really and what can we, as consumers, do to make our world more sustainable?

The definition of sustainability

In short, sustainability means that people, the environment and our economy are in balance. In this way, we use the raw materials that the earth provides, but we don’t use more than can be restored. If we use more than can be restored, we’ll run out of resources. Tree logging is a good example of this. It takes years for a tree to grow big enough to produce a substantial amount of wood. For example, it takes a 15-year-old tree to make 700 grocery bags. One supermarket in the US goes through 60,500,000 bags a year! That’s 86.428 trees a year for only one supermarket!

The idea of logging a tree and planting a new one is therefore unbalanced. After all, it takes years before the new tree is as big as the cut one. Therefore, we are increasingly searching for sustainable alternatives, alternatives that can be restored more quickly. For example, there is a type of bamboo that can grow up to almost a meter a day. If you cut a piece of that every week, it will still keep on growing, and the supply is enormous.

How does sustainability relate to the economy?

The economy in this situation means how much we as consumers use. The more we use, the greater the risk of depleting resources. This is quite broad and there are many factors that increase the economic burden. Think, for example, of production processes that use a lot of water and gas. So apart from the fact that you use the basic product, such as a wooden table, you also use water and gas for production. If wood from the Amazon is used, which is shipped here, you also have all the products needed to build and operate such a boat. So, the production chain, as we call it, has a big impact on sustainability. This is why it is so often recommended to use local products because you will cut out all those extra steps, gas usage and side products. Therefore, buying local doesn’t only support your local economy, it will also lower your footprint.

How does CO2 fit in the sustainability picture?

When we talk about sustainability, we quickly change to CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions are fairly easy to calculate and are therefore often used as a basis, but that is not the whole story. Increased CO2 emissions cause the world to warm up faster, which in turn can lead to the melting of the polar caps and rising water levels. So yes, it’s a problem. These CO2 emissions are mainly caused by production, the burning of gases and oils for production or the use of chemicals. But also, the droppings of a cow or pig contain a considerable amount of CO2.

These are all measurable effects and therefore the most commonly used measure of sustainability. Yet on the other hand, trees, for example, purify the air and thus reduce CO2 as well. So in addition to the CO2 emissions from the production of your new table, the trees that are cut down are also no longer able to filter the air. And that’s not often included in the calculations. However, planting trees is seen as CO2 compensation. When you hear people say “this product is CO2 neutral”, it usually means that actions were taken to compensate for the CO2 emissions of the production, not that no emissions were released.

How do we live more sustainably?

Although you cutting a tree in your yard doesn’t have the same effect as a company cutting hundreds at once, and your car doesn’t release as much CO2 as a production factory, there’s still plenty we as consumers can do. An economy drives on supply and demand. If we are more conscious about or stuff, buy less and buy items that will last longer, it will ultimately mean less production, fewer emissions and less depletion of our planet. Moreover, it takes a lot of energy and CO2 emissions to break down all our waste or process it into something else. Sustainable plastic is very nice, but that also takes a lot of energy.

Packaging free is a more sustainable option

For example refilling your storage jars in a packaging-free shop instead of buying a plastic bag with nuts, rice or pasta and then storing it in a plastic box you just got from take-out and doesn’t last more than 4 uses. But also eating less meat and more local products, which are not shipped in heavily polluting cargo flights, help to reduce pollution. Ultimately, we as consumers are the ones who buy products. If we all decide to eat less meat, travel more by train and stop buying a new phone with multiple plastic covers every two years, these products will eventually be made in smaller productions.

A good example of this is that a large milk producer in the US went bankrupt after masses of people opted for plant-based alternatives. It is simply a question of supply and demand. And if we all make more conscious choices, we can ensure that we are moving toward a more sustainable economy. Does this mean that you cannot buy anything anymore? No. But if we all make a few more conscious choices, we can achieve a great deal together.

Check out this article for some ideas on what sustainable alternatives to buy for a trip, that could definitely also be used in daily life.