Looking beyond the markets oversaturated with terms like 'sustainable', 'green', 'eco-friendly', what exactly is sustainability? In essence, it's the capacity of human society to continue indefinitely within earth's natural cycles, or 'meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' according to the Bruntland definition.
After the second industrial revolution, a need for slowing down the use of earth's natural resources came to be. But sustainability even then was a concept that struggled with translating into action and common knowledge of the people. In 1989, a Swedish Oncologist, Karl-Henrik Robert circulated a paper on sustainability to 50 scientists, asking for their input. The extensive deliberative process involved 22 versions, but a consensus emerged that led to The Natural Step.
The Natural Step is a framework based on scientific principles focused on the beginning of cause-effect relationships that incorporates the wider environment-social-economic system in its thinking. Designed to guide actions and behaviours, this framework works towards achieving sustainability.
The Natural Step uses earth's natural systems to take us deeper into understanding sustainability. Let's take the Biosphere for example — a layer where life is possible. The simple yet essential cycle of photosynthesis happens here that converts CO2 to oxygen which the animals breathe and in return provide fertilizers for the trees.
The scientists also agreed that there are other, slower geological cycles like the matter emerging into the biosphere from earth's crust through volcanic eruptions and other weathering conditions and just about the same amount of matter seeping back into the crust via mineralization and sedimentation. This cycle is extremely slow and takes millions of years to complete.
Nature has had its own pace in its fascinating systems to create and breakdown substances; but we've disrupted it and in a short period of time. The scientists illustrated 4 ways in which we did this. Firstly, by digging up large amounts of minerals and material from earth's crust that otherwise would've taken million of years to come up, secondly, creating new chemical compounds or producing existing substances like CO2 in such large amounts that it becomes impossible for nature to breakdown, chopping down trees and forests and destroying ecosystems that inhibit nature's capability to run natural cycles of photosynthesis and finally, a social disruption by creating barriers for people to meet their basic needs. Oppressive systemic poverty and sweatshops in developing countries for example.
Moving forward with what we know now, one cannot in good conscience say that what they do as an individual has no impact on preventing climate change. The sustainability problem lies at the core of climate change. We're too late and climate change is the result of those decades of neglect. It's like slowly moving into a funnel where with time and our options are getting more limited, the pressure is increasing and we have lesser and lesser margin to manouever.
The impact people can have on organisations and the way they manufacture products is often understated. On one hand, we agree that cancel culture is a powerful phenomena that can destroy careers instantly, but on the other we become passive to the unifying power of people and the internet in holding corporations accountable for their practices that harm the environment. It's true that the CO2 emissions and toxic waste of large industries are exponentially large compared to an individual but that doesn't negate the fact people can initiate social change.
At least, Gen Z believes in it more than the previous generations. Sustainability is important to them and the industries that target the youth know this, which is why upclycing and eco-friendly practices have become the forefront of their brands. With some awareness people of all ages can manipulate the forces of supply and demand and slowly change the ethos of companies that are proven to be the biggest contributors to toxic emissions causing climate change.
The new age is all about awareness — from our fight for equality, representation, reparations and finding ways to improve the human condition that was previously haunted by oppression, poor mental health, and unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Frameworks like The Natural Step ask us to extend the same wholesome care to our lifestyles that directly determine our planet's future.
So what are some ways we can translate these intentions into our daily lives? Almost every aspect of our life can be modified to a more sustainable way.
Food — Choosing vegan and vegetarian options as many times a week as we can to decrease our contribution to the meat and dairy industry which is one of the most prominent source of carbon emissions. And if possible, growing our own food and reducing food waste with cooking instead of take out, kitchen gardening and composting.
Clothing — Embracing slow fashion, choosing brands that are serious about sustainability and use upcycled and recyclable materials. Also switiching to eco-friendly and ethical personal hygiene and beauty products.
Travel — Using public transportation and reducing the amount of our flights.
Housing — Renting. We joke about Gen Z not being able to afford houses but there might be an upside to it. Construction of independent houses and apartment complexes take up lot of raw materials. Maybe the ownership we desire of our own houses could be directed towards the planet instead.
All of this might seem overwhelming but like any new practice if we just start, the way shows up. Also, there's already a community of people innovating ways to live sustainably with minimal expenses that can guide you online. Some people from India you can follow are Nayana Premnath, Aakash Ranison, Vani Murthy, Saniya Malhotra, Ankita Katuri & Pankti Pandey.
The iconic British fashion designer and business woman, Vivienne Westwood who brought punk and new wave subcultures into mainstream fashion died last week. And as a ritualistic consequence the internet filled itself with her designs and monologues, one of which found its way into my personal principles. Vivienne was a radical thinker and her definition of punk wasn't what had entered into the iconography of reckless rebellion. For her it had no credibility and it wasn't just an excuse to "run around without thought" and elude responsibility. It was much deeper than that. It was choice and crafting your own identity.
I think we need Vivienne's punk school of thought in the current times to live consciously; unsubscribe from mindless consumption, study ourselves and build our own identities, bring what matters to us into the light and carve a lifestyle around it. So many excessive things we indulge in are a way of running away from ourselves. Our identities in that sense are linked to our consuming nature which ultimately goes against the principles of sustainability. Like earth's natural systems we too suffer from an imbalance inside ourselves that's definitely worth checking and recallibrating. And like gears in an engine that change might just translate onto our ecosystem.