What is sustainable living?
In simplest terms, sustainable living is a lifestyle choice that attempts to reduce consumption of the earth’s natural resources. People who choose this way of living do so with the aim of reducing their carbon footprint by altering various methods such as diet, transportation and energy consumption. Some describe it as intentional living; being thoughtful and aware of the implications of your daily actions. Practitioners believe that living sustainably will allow us to conserve our limited resources more wisely so they will be available for future generations.
Creating a sustainable lifestyle means rethinking our way of living, what we consume, how we buy and being aware of the personal energy we use for transportation and in the home, and taking steps to reduce that energy use. It’s thinking about the products we purchase and their impact on our health as well as the environment. It’s giving consideration to waste produce and considering how it may be reduced, recycled or reused. In short, it’s taking no more than the environment can supply and renew and meeting one’s needs in the present without compromising the needs of future generations.
Why is sustainability important?
Even just ten years ago, the idea of sustainability wasn’t taken particularly seriously. However, sustainability and consciousness about the environment among the general population have increased and the idea has become global today, thanks to growing concerns about the quality of our environment and climate change.
Though many still believe that issues such as these are beyond personal control and continue consuming as before, many others are realising that change must begin at home with personal lifestyle choices. Findings by a global 2015 research study by Tetra Pak of 6000 consumers across 12 different countries show that two-thirds of consumers consciously choose to avoid specific brands or items due to environmental concerns, a figure that has increased by 26% in the last six years.
Earth is being destroyed by its greediest inhabitants – humans. Humans are responsible for the extinction and endangerment of countless species and polluting our shared environments with toxins. The bulk of the world’s energy consumption comes from non-renewable sources such as coal and oil and these resources are being depleted at an alarming rate. CO2 emissions are the primary cause of climate change – resulting in rising sea levels, extreme weather, melting ice caps, dying coral reefs and plummeting wildlife populations. As the earth’s temperature rises, these effects will only worsen.
Simply stated, our global future depends on sustainable living. The importance of finding a sustainable future is rooted in three issues that are very much linked to one another: 1) climate change due to CO2 emissions, 2) fossil fuel depletion, and 3) the increasing costs of energy and water.
Living more sustainably
Sustainable living means different things to different people but whether you are solo living or in a couple or family household, the principles of sustainable living are the same – being mindful of and reducing your energy consumption, looking for more eco-friendly alternatives and using public transport instead of driving. These measures can go a long way in reducing your environmental impact.
Home energy use
Making some adjustments to your home energy use can be the easiest introduction to sustainable living. They don’t have to be costly improvements, such as solar panels, but small changes can still have a positive impact on energy efficiency. Switching to energy efficient light bulbs, adjusting the boiler temperature by a degree or two or waiting for a full load before washing clothes can all make a difference. Getting into the habit of ensuring lights are turned off when not in use and turning all electric equipment off at the socket instead of leaving on standby are further practical steps to save energy.
Perhaps one of the most important contributions to make towards sustainable living is reducing waste. While most households are familiar with and participate in local recycling initiatives for their waste, a sustainable living household actively tries to reduce, reuse or recycle wherever possible.
Efforts may include composting food waste, eliminating the use of disposable paper towels and plastic utensils by using washable alternatives, reusing glass jars as storage containers and making old t-shirts into cleaning cloths, to name a few examples.
Most of the food we consume travels hundreds of miles to reach us before ending up on our plate, with the carbon emissions from storage and transport significantly contributing to climate change. Growing your own food is a fantastic sustainable alternative and ensures your food is pesticide and fertiliser free, plus avoids any unnecessary plastic supermarket packaging. Home growing fruit and vegetables truly defines sustainable living, especially when done organically.
If you don’t have access to a garden, shopping seasonally and locally from farmer’s markets or community projects is the next best thing. Not only does it support the local farming economy, it saves significant transport energy from importing food from long distances.
Some of the biggest savings in energy can be made by changing your mode of transportation. Most of us are dependent on car use and this can be a difficult luxury to give up. Living in a city with good public transportation infrastructure can make this a much easier choice; no insurance or petrol to pay for and no time wasted looking for parking spaces. Otherwise, replacing a large car with a smaller, fuel-efficient or hybrid car is a worthy alternative, as is car sharing for commuting. Riding a bike or leaving the car at home and walking are the best sustainable options and as a bonus, they also improve your health.
Bringing sustainability to life
Hockerton Housing Project is a small community of five homes designed by ‘green’ architects Professor Brenda Vale and Dr Robert Vale. Low carbon living is achieved in a number of ways. Firstly, through the use of renewable energy and growing food, rearing sheep and chickens on site and further; through the water system and the community operating a co-operative whereby members must undertake 300 unpaid hours per year maintaining the site and 300 paid hours per year supporting the joint business.
The five homes cost just £65,000 to build and were completed in 1998. Hockerton has been recognised as a model for sustainable living and has attracted a lot of interest from developers, architects and planners, district councils and housing associations since its construction and it is hoped that further sustainable communities like Hockerton will be built.
Solo living and sustainability
Interestingly, solo living people tend to live more sustainable lifestyles due to a number of factors. A US study published in 2013 by Devajyoti Deka found that solo people are more likely to settle in central cities, commute shorter distances and use public transport more often, as well as being less likely to live in single-family homes. Almost half of solos live in rented accommodation compared with a quarter of married couples, and while three-quarters of couples live in detached single-family homes that characterise suburban sprawl, that’s only true for about 45% of solo men and 48% of solo women.
The travel data shares similar findings; solo people live about three miles closer to work than couples on average, and are much more likely to commute by public transport, with a roughly 6-7% transport share for solo people versus about 3% for couples. Nearly all couple households own at least one car, compared to about 85% of solo households. Given the rise in solo living, it would not be unreasonable to assume a similar pattern may be emerging in the UK and Europe.
According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2016 around 7.7 million people lived alone in the UK, with the majority of these being women, and the General Lifestyle Survey showed that the proportion of adults living alone almost doubled between 1973 and 2011, from 9% to 16%.
Sustainability in business
In today’s competitive landscape, more and more businesses are realising that being sustainable makes economic sense, and are responding to consumer demands. According to research commissioned by Unilever, half of all consumers already buy or want to buy sustainably. 33% already purchase products with sustainability in mind, and a further 21% do not currently but would like to. Additionally, according to a report by the Guardian Professional Network, companies who adopted sustainable business policies (e.g. relating to carbon emissions reduction and water strategies) in the 1990s have financially outperformed those that didn’t.
Concentrating on energy efficiency can be a sound investment as energy costs can have a significant impact on a business’s profit margin and more and more businesses are considering options such as cutting down waste, using smart technology to manage buildings and even generating their own power.
Other brands place social missions at the heart of their policies, such as American ice-cream company Ben & Jerry’s who were one of the first companies in the world to place a social mission in equal importance to their product and economic missions. Ultimately, by embedding sustainable practices early in their development, businesses are not only helping to preserve the planet’s resources but ensure their own business longevity.
Sustainable living for the future
Though living in a world where waste is the norm can make achieving sustainability difficult, developing good habits and making positive behavioural changes can help. By altering your lifestyle in small ways, you have the opportunity to save money, become more involved locally and contribute to a healthier style of living.
Living a sustainable lifestyle can be a philanthropic effort however, it’s important to recognise that it is something we must do to preserve our qualities of life and life on this planet. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report 2016, the biocapacity equivalent of 1.6 Earths is being used to provide the natural resources humanity to consume and absorb waste.
It’s a sobering thought but if we continue to use our natural resources at the present pace, future generations will need at least an extra planet to supply the resources to sustain the life on earth. The danger is, if we don’t act now, we potentially risk the existence of future generations.
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