Last updated on October 22nd, 2019
Sustainability is crucial to conserving natural resources and living a more fruitful life. We need to make decisions today that are sustainable for years to come. We need to stop making decisions that only provide quick near-term benefits.
What is Sustainability? 13 Examples to Become More Sustainable in Daily Life
“Sustainability” is one of those words that get slung around a lot. But what does it actually mean?
The United Nations has tasked the International Institute for Sustainable Development with defining “sustainability” and providing information and solutions.
According to the IIS, When individuals and society provide for their own needs without ruining the prospects of their children and grandchildren, that’s sustainability.
Why is sustainability important?
Unsustainable conditions can cause an economic or environmental crash. Crashes can occur in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of our children. Flooding, loss of homes due to storms, plagues, and lost retirement accounts all arise from unsustainable conditions.
When conditions anywhere become unsustainable, there is usually a lack of foresight and planning to blame.
Sustainability is often easier to define in its absence. When farmers put down rat poison that kills all the barn owls who were eating their rats, that’s unsustainable.
When cod are fished out of existence, that’s unsustainable. When Flint’s municipal water becomes contaminated with lead, that’s unsustainable.
When island cultures that have existed for centuries become flooded and all the islanders have to be relocated, that’s unsustainable.
When crops don’t get pollinated because all the bees are dead, that’s unsustainable.
What makes a resource sustainable?
A resource is sustainable when it is used in a way that does not deplete it in the short or long term. Fishing industries provide us with the best models. Overfishing of a single species, like cod, can cause a collapse that lasts for years.
This puts families that relied on that industry out of business. Their loss of income trickles down to the towns they live in, impacting the whole economy.
But, with a little thought, a resource can be sustained. For example, Maine lobstermen (and lobstering women) agreed not to harvest female lobsters who are known to be fertile.
When a lobsterman finds a female with eggs in his catch, he puts a small notch in her shell. The notch signals to other lobster fishermen that this is an egg-producing female. Even if she is not bearing eggs when next caught, she goes back into the sea to bear more lobsters.
Through this simple method, the Maine lobstermen have managed to keep their lobster population at a steady level. More people than ever are fishing for Maine lobsters. But the population remains at a level that can sustain newcomers.
What is Social Sustainability?
“Sustainability” is most often used to describe environmental conditions, especially as they intersect with economic conditions.
But “sustainability” also refers to poverty and health. Extreme poverty is, in itself, unsustainable. Poor neighborhoods can become incubators for crime, sickness, and loss of infrastructure.
In a sustainable culture, all residents have at least minimal access to safe housing, health care, police protection, and nutritious food.
A society with a large population of homeless is unsustainable. Cities that resort to driving the homeless from one area to another need to provide sustainable options.
They need to create safe housing or improve the shelters that the homeless are already using.
Municipalities that do not have free clinics are unsustainable. If not treated and contained early, contagious disease can quickly spread.
Cities in which transgender people are bullied and beaten without police intervention are unsustainable. A city that does not protect all its residents is in danger of falling into criminal anarchy.
Cities with food deserts in low-income neighborhoods are unsustainable. A food desert occurs anywhere residents cannot walk to a grocery store or farmer’s market that sells whole foods.
Food deserts are further aggravated when fast-food restaurants and liquor stores crop up in a neighborhood that has no full-service grocery store. Studies have shown that the residents of food deserts are at higher risk for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
See Related: Top Quotes About Sustainability
What is Economic Sustainability?
Economic sustainability occurs when inflation is slow, the currency is stable, most people can find work, and it’s safe to invest money for retirement.
The foreclosure crisis of 2009 provides us with a textbook case of an unsustainable economy. Predatory lenders encouraged home buyers without steady incomes to borrow money at unfixed rates of interest.
When mortgage holders got behind on their payments, lenders then foreclosed. All at the same time. This put a glut of empty houses on the market. Those houses had to be sold cheap. That lowered the value of surrounding houses that had not been foreclosed.
In a domino effect, this financial collapse affected the larger economy. People lost their retirement funds. Many businesses had to lay off employees and cut services. Even ivy league universities lost huge portions of their endowments.
Today, we are still in recovery from that unsustainable behavior.
Economic sustainability is often linked to environmental sustainability. A good example is the coal industry. Former United States President Barack Obama took the blame for declining jobs in coal.
The truth is that coal jobs have been lost mostly because of automation and over-mining. Coal that use to exist in thick veins now exists in thin veins heavily mixed with quartz. The cost of mining has risen while the demand for coal has fallen.
This means that coal miners are out of work. Their families and small towns feel the brunt of this lost income.
Luckily, some former miners have been able to find work in the growing alternative energy field. But it would have been better if coal states had planned further ahead for this inevitability.
What is Environmental Sustainability?
Environmental sustainability occurs when natural resources are preserved. Monocropping, pesticides, and fertilizers all deplete good soil. When that soil becomes sterile, it can no longer produce food.
That’s one example of environmental sustainability.
A key concern is the sustainability of our water. When industries pull vast quantities of drinking water from common aquifers, that is unsustainable. Similarly, dumping industrial and lawn chemicals into streams and rivers kills our fishing industry.
Unsustainable water management threatens us all. This is why we need to care for the environment.
Unfortunately, our culture heroizes billionaires without asking whether they depleted natural resources, like water, trees, and soil. We need, instead, to applaud people who do well by doing good. Good examples of sustainable business are:
- Wind farms
- Solar distributors
- Organic food producers
- Wildlife experts who re-establish wildlife corridors
- Bee farmers who provide guest bees to farmers who killed all their pollinators with neonicotinoids.
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Sustainability Examples in Everyday Life
What can you do in your own life to make our world more sustainable? Here are some ideas, ranked from crucially important to very important.
Buy or rent a smaller space
Lamentably, the average dream house is a big house. But the best thing you can do to implement sustainability is to downsize. Many people do not need a guest bedroom and a formal dining room. Downsizing saves on energy use, and the production of electricity from coal and natural gas is unsustainable.
Not only that, but living in a smaller space costs less. Many people have freed themselves from slavery to corporate jobs by downsizing drastically. This has left them free to write poetry, paint, turn wood bowls, or whatever they would rather be doing.
Live near where you work
Transportation is the leading cause of climate change. So anything you do to lower the amount of traveling you do will make this a more sustainable world. Commuting from home to work by yourself in a full-size car is unsustainable. It costs you too much money.
And it costs the earth too much air pollution.
Studies have shown that people with long work commutes are miserable. How could they not be? They live in their cars when they could be playing with their children or making ceramics.
Limit your breeding
Everyone has a carbon footprint. The easiest way to reduce it is not to make any more humans. Humans are the only animals responsible for climate change. We have created an unsustainable world through deforestation, over-fishing, and pollution.
Having fewer children not only supports planet sustainability, but it also makes your family economy more sustainable. The more children you have, the higher your housing and utility costs. If you are on the fence about having children, first get a dog. If you enjoy the responsibility and care of an animal, you might be ready for kids.
It’s better for your health and for the environment to bicycle short distances rather than drive. Cycling emits way less carbon dioxide than cars do.
Not only that, but bicycles take up less space. We don’t have to tear down forests to build parking lots for bicycles. Are you not in good enough physical condition to ride a bike to work? Then buy an electric bike!
Buy a hybrid or all-electric car
Gas guzzling cars are unsustainable. They clog up spaces that would otherwise be beautiful. They ruin our air. And we get fat driving them.
What’s the solution? If you must drive a car, buy an electric car, like a Nissan Leaf. Or a hybrid, like a Prius. Hybrid cars run on gas and electricity, so they get great gas mileage.
For many people, a plug-in hybrid, which can be run entirely on electricity, is the ticket.
It has a gas tank that you can use in an emergency, but it plugs into an outlet.
Reduce appliance use
Look around your house and ask yourself if you are using too much electricity. Do you really need the thermostat at 76 in winter and 70 in summer?
You can save the planet and your own bank account by wearing two sweaters and lowering the temperature to 68 in winter. In the summer, try setting the temperature at 75 and running ceiling fans for auxiliary air circulation.
Refrigerators are energy hogs. Get an energy star fridge and keep it on a low setting. In general, refrigerators should be kept at thirty-seven degrees Fahrenheit and freezers at minus four degrees.
You may need to raise the refrigerator temperature during winter if you are also reducing your thermostat. If your onions are freezing in the crisper, the temperature is unsustainably low.
See Related: Proven, Eco-Friendly Energy Conservation Methods
If you can afford to do so, consider equipping your house with a solar array. Solar panels cost approximately $20,000 upfront for a typical house. That makes them cost-prohibitive for many people.
However, if you think of solar panels as a lifetime investment, they make a lot of sense. They pay for themselves for over twenty years.
After that, you have free electricity in a market where electricity prices are not stable.
If you don’t have the cost of solar panels upfront, there are many loan options.
Some solar distributors will finance your panels; you can also borrow against your home’s equity. In many states, there are tax credits available for people who convert to solar.
There are ways to get free solar panels if you can sign a lease, power purchase agreement or qualify for other incentives.
Eat lower on the food chain
Raising livestock is rarely a sustainable undertaking. Beef cattle eat enormous amounts of grain. Many forests have been decimated to create fodder for beef. Cows and steers also emit methane which is a major source of air pollution and contributes to climate change.
These ecological problems exist with chicken and turkey farming as well, but the overall costs of raising poultry are quite a bit lower. Except for farmed salmon, the ecological costs of eating fish are even lower.
When people recommend “eating lower on the food chain,” they mean: Eat less red meat and more plant food. Eat more turkey and less lamb and beef. Be aware that plant food has enough protein to meet your daily needs. It’s a fact that meat is optional.
It’s not just what you eat. Where you get your food is potentially more important. The local food movement was born when people realized how unsustainable most food distribution really is.
Consider the transportation costs involved in eating grapes imported from Chile. Those grapes probably had to board a train and then a jet before disembarking onto a truck that brought them to your store.
That’s a lot of fossil fuel that got burned. Food transportation is a huge contributor to climate change. Ultimately, that model of bringing food in from all corners of the earth is unsustainable. It causes too much air pollution.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that someone is growing apples less than twenty miles from your home.
It’s also likely that some hard-working farmer less than twenty miles from where you are sitting right now is raising organic chickens.
Dining on local food isn’t just more sustainable, it’s better for you. It hasn’t been sitting in a truck, going sixty miles an hour down the highway. Local food tastes better. And, if you buy from a small grower, he or she probably used fewer chemicals in producing the food.
Buy in-season produce at farmers markets
But where you might be wondering, am I going to get this locally grown food? A quick internet search should show you where your local organic farms are. Many of these farms offer “consumer supported agriculture.”
CSA works a lot like a magazine subscription. You order a season’s supply in advance. The farm then delivers a prescribed amount of food every week or every month. The consumer gets a batch of whatever is in season.
Some people can’t live with the uncertainty of knowing what food they will have in their refrigerators. But CSA is a great way to learn creativity and spontaneity.
Never had okra before? Lookup a recipe!
You can usually find something imaginative and delicious to do with those veggies.
For the less courageous, farmers’ markets offer a great way to pile up on locally grown plant food.
Many farmers’ markets have expanded to include organic chicken, organic eggs, organic ducks, organic beef, and non-GMO baked goods.
It is increasingly the case that such markets provide all the food you really need to feed your family throughout the week.
If you like to dine out, choose restaurants that brag about using ingredients that they bought locally. Some restaurants even have their own local farms! Others forge agreements with local growers to buy a certain amount of produce weekly.
That’s good for everyone because it encourages the creation of small farms. Meanwhile, customers get great food that hasn’t gone stale inside layers of plastic.
Reduce food waste
It can take a while to wrap your head around food waste as a major contributor to climate change. But it is. According to some estimates, a third of the world’s food goes to waste.
That is, indeed, tragic, especially when we consider how many people are starving. Wasting food is unsustainable in two ways. When you throw out a tomato, you are also throwing out all the water, air, and fertile soil that went into growing it.
Simultaneously, you are also sending food to a landfill. There, it rots and creates methane, that same toxic fume that cattle emit.
What’s the solution? Buy only what you need. Freeze bread and other bakery items that you aren’t going to use in the next two days. Make “fridge cleaner” meals like soup, pasta, and eggs in which you can throw an array of week-old veggies.
Minimize single-use plastics
You may have noticed that some communities and even whole countries have banned one-use plastics.
That happened because some folks started photographing whole ocean reefs composed of trash.
They also photographed seabirds being throttled by six-pack plastic rings and turtles who died after eating polystyrene.
We don’t know exactly how our day-to-day plastics consumption destroys the ocean, but we know that it does.
But one use plastics are avoidable.
Make your own coffee at home or at the office. Use a ceramic cup instead of a styrofoam cup. Refuse plastic straws.
Reject food and other commodities that have been over-packaged.
Take cloth bags with you when you shop. Don’t let cashiers give you a bag for one or two items.
See Related: Pros and Cons of Bottled Water
Conclusion on Sustainability
What is sustainability? For the individual, it’s a mindset. It’s compassion for the earth. It’s compassion for the people who will inherit our mess. It’s little, sometimes random acts of daily kindness.
It’s minding the details of how we live our lives, without expecting to be thanked or praised.
Have any questions about sustainability? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.
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Green Coast is a renewable energy and green living community focused on helping others live a better, more sustainable life.
We believe that energy and green living has become far too complex, so we created a number of different guides to build a sustainable foundation for our future.