I’ll be the first to admit it: living a completely sustainable life isn’t easy. But that does not — and will never — translate to: so just give up. As I think every time I drag myself out the door to go running: Nothing important ever comes easy. You have to work at it. And global sustainability is a lot more important than my afternoon jogs.
I’m not letting you ‘off the hook’ but I’m not saying I expect you — or anyone — to be perfect. Bente Halkier actually claims to show that no one, not even the most stringent environmentalists, likely lead 100% ethical and sustainable lives. She argues that our habits and, perhaps, the simple volume of decisions we make on a daily, hourly basis, get in the way of our ability to be completely reflective consumers.
Three of the primary factors hindering our ability to be as sustainable as we might like to be are money, time and knowledge. I have dubbed this potent combination the Sustainability Triad. While there are certainly a variety of other factors that contribute to unsustainable lifestyles, these areas create the structure upon which our determination to be more sustainable teeters.
And here’s why: this trio represent finite resources we possess (to various degrees). Other factors in our lives, such as taste preferences, are more flexible and do not inherently rely upon possession. This is not to say that these other factors aren’t important or that our attempts at sustainability can’t come crashing down if we don’t have social support, available options, etc. BUT, this triad is a powerful force we need to understand better.
My favourite foods at one point were steaks and barbecued ribs, but my own sense of morality made me stop eating those foods. Now, I could never imagine eating them and foods that I once detested — namely, mushrooms, legumes and beans — have become central to many of my most treasured recipes. My taste preferences did not stop me changing my habits and, in fact, they even changed over time.
Humans are malleable creatures. We adapt not just because we have to, but because sometimes we want to.
But, there are areas outside of our control, factors that we cannot adapt to. You can’t create more time or money in a day, just as you can’t use knowledge that you simply don’t possess! Unless you are Leonardo DiCaprio and can pay someone to plant thousands of trees to offset your carbon footprint or you have $50 USD to spend on some snacks wrapped in biodegradable rice paper and produced by an American Football player, it generally takes time and know-how to figure out what is sustainable and how to get it.
Jo Litter describes each person as ‘burdened with an overwhelming, rather than partial responsibility’ to make the world more sustainable. This burden, which Lewis Akenji has dubbed ‘consumer scapegoatism’ (a term I personally think is brilliant), allows us to criminalise people for their unsustainable choices. This allows sustainable lifestyles to be commodified, something we can invest in through time, money and hard-to-access information. Thus, as Litter argues, many people have come to view ethical and sustainable consumption as prestigious, ‘a mark of social or cultural distinction’.
Sustainability should not be something we have to work at, it should be the default.
There are a few levels on which this problem can be addressed:
First, through policy: those with the money, with the resources (who have also largely been the ones that created the problem in the first place), need to be at the forefront of making the world more sustainable.
Second, through business: businesses can prioritise making sustainable choices convenient, accessible, affordable and, above all, ‘easy’.
Third, through support: we can each recognise the resources we posses and do a better job of sharing them, without criticising those who don’t have the knowledge, money or time we do. When we ourselves are likely not perfectly sustainable, we should focus on improving the resources and knowledge-base possessed by ourselves and our communities.
And, finally, as I’ve said before, we can evaluate our own ethical code to have the greatest positive impact through our own consumption habits. This could mean buying clothes, furniture and other essentials from charity shops. It could mean reducing our household waste. And (/ or), it could mean cutting out or reducing the amount of animal products we eat, since this is one of the easiest ways to substantially reduce our impact on the environment, climate change, global inequalities and animal suffering.
Importantly, we have to remember to forgive ourselves if we aren’t perfect. After all, no one can know everything. We are all still learning.