Much is being discussed in terms of sustainable practices. There is a revival, or popularisation, of eco-conscience. I hear it in the office, in the supermarket, at the dinner table. I see recyclable and “compostable” items everywhere. Differently from when everyone starts listening to my favourite underground bands, I feel good about sustainability being put in the mainstream spotlight.
Having grown up the daughter of a mother whose family ran a for-profit recycling business for decades, and of a father that built a business from the ground up without any venture backing; the topic of sustainability has always had a deeper meaning to me. It was never just about cleaning the recycling before throwing it away or using the correct bins. In my house, sustainability was about decision-making, production chains, economic systems and behaviour. But mostly, it was also about opportunity and longevity.
I have used the word sustainability here a couple of times and I will use it many more times in this article. So before we go any further, I would like to define it in my own words:
Sustainability [to me] is the noun that explains “the best choice for all involved or impacted, in the long-term”. For example: instead of asking “is it sustainable…?”, you could instead ask “is X the best choice for list of all involved and impacted in the long-term?”.
When you think about sustainability using this definition, you can start to look at it from a more meaningful angle. A perspective that can help you become more conscious about your own growth opportunities.
Every day, on average, we make 35,000 choices (Krockow Ph.D., 2018). For every single one of those decisions, there is a “most-sustainable” option to choose from. Perhaps we don’t think about it in that frame of mind, and frankly, if you were starting your path into sustainable decision making today, it would be truly overwhelming to think about every single one of your decisions using that framework. However, I believe that by creating sustainable behaviour in specific areas of your life, it starts spreading. And before you notice it, your neural pathways have been rearranged and you are geared towards sustainability in multiple areas of your life.
So there are three questions I would like to help you answer:
1- Why should I care about sustainability?
Using the definition I have proposed above, sustainability is positioned as both an altruistic and egotistic concept. While the altruistic reasoning is quite obvious – doing what is right for the collective in the long-term, guaranteeing longevity – the egotistic is not as clear.
On paper, it is easy to say that doing what is right for the collective will always result in a NET positive result for the self down the line. However, in practice, you might be required to sacrifice the opportunity to gain a much higher net positive result for yourself alone.
For example, when you choose to drive to work instead of commuting in public transport or bike to work, you are helping the environment by minimising your carbon emissions and you are helping decrease the traffic in the city. However, you need to be prepared to brave the weather, work with the public transport timetables, stand in a crowded bus or train etc. In summary, the choice of using public transport can have a negative impact on yourself.
To help solve the dilemma, you might look into the cost of all options, and usually, with all things considered, if you can have personal benefits for a lower-cost, choosing the “selfish” decision would be a no-brainer. However, if you consider this dilemma in the context of society, it gets complicated, because if everyone chooses to use their cars, then traffic will get heavier, journey times will be stretched, the number of accidents will increase etc. Suddenly, the net benefit of choosing to drive your car (the selfish option) will decrease for everyone.
So while we live in an economic system that rewards the individual for unsustainable choices, we also inhabit a society made up of millions of individuals. For that reason, each selfish choice has a negative impact on the overall result to the point where the math will not make sense for you personally (unless you can afford a helicopter!).
If that can’t convince you, then maybe my next point will.
Ultimately, we are all in this together. Remember: it might not be you at the bad end of the stick for this one specific choice, but there are millions of decisions that people make everyday (taxes, pollution, infrastructure etc). You are guaranteed to be at the end of the stick in many other areas. Do you want to: live in a society where the culture is to do what is best for the collective; or live in a society where the individual is motivated to continue to do what is right for them independently of how it affects everyone else?
2- How sustainable am I in reality?
To assess your level of sustainability, we need to go back to basics. Instead of assessing sustainability as a series of actions, we must look at sustainability as a way of thinking. At the start of the article, I suggested the question: “Is X the best choice for list of all involved and impacted in the long-term?”.
I want to invite you to reflect on that question. While it seems like a simple question, it is far from it. In order to respond it you need to identify those who are potentially impacted, use empathy to try and understand what the impact might be on them, and quantify what “long-term” means for you (is it a year, ten years, ten decades, or 10 thousand years).
So before you can start “measuring” your level of sustainability I would star with the question:
- How often do I assess the impact my decisions have on others?
- How often do you think about the impact your decisions have in the future?
Bringing that type of conscience into your life will help you measure how sustainable you are. If you don’t think about those things at all, chances are that you are not sustainable in your actions. If you think about it for every single decision, you might be suffering from analysis-paralysis. That leads me to our final question.
3- What areas of sustainability should I focus on improving?
Personally, I believe that everyone should focus on their auto-pilot of decision making, so they don’t have to think in order to make sustainable choices. If you can re-wire your brain to think about the good of the collective, to be empathetic towards others (people animals, plants alike), and to think beyond your own generation, the actions will follow.
The question I shared at the start of the article is the key for embarking on this transformational journey.
However, my practical advice to those wanting to action now is: Start with your everyday activities (commute, shopping, food and drinks, childcare, hobbies etc). Each one of us has a routine, I invite you to go through your recurring actions and ask yourself “is X the best choice for list of all involved and impacted in the long-term?”.
Looking at those, plan for smart-sustainable decisions that you can action every day, with no choosing required. As a wise person once said “fail to prepare, prepare to fail”. If you can make sure to have your daily actions covered, you have got 60% of the way.
The habit you form will have a great impact on your life, and will benefit everyone around you.
Everything else is the icing on top!