four recycling bins in an article about sustainability

Sustainability Isn’t Always Accessible, But Here’s How It Can Be

It's important to the future of this planet, but it's not an investment that everyone can make. How can we change this?
April 15, 2020
7 mins read

Sustainability has changed from a conversational buzzword to a cultural necessity. One of the most cited definitions of the word comes from the Brundtland Report, published in 1987 through the United Nations, also called “Our Common Future.”

The report summarizes the meaning of sustainability as the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” While the term is often linked to the environment, and that is a big part of it, the word really encapsulates all human action including its economic, social and institutional aspects.

The “fast fashion” industry tends to be one of the least sustainable practices in our world, impacting economic, social and environmental sectors. World Resources Institute published an interesting article on this concept. It’s estimated that $400 billion worth of clothing is prematurely thrown out; meanwhile it requires 2,700 liters of water just to make one cotton T-shirt (not to mention most non-biodegradable clothing sits in landfills for upwards of 200 years), and the U.S. Department of Labor found evidence of forced child labor and dangerous working conditions in many countries where these clothing factories operate.

This is just one industry that’s creating an unsustainable future in many different ways. The main consequence of all of this is cheap prices for customers at stores like Zara, H&M and Forever 21 — but at what cost?

The importance of sustainability is not lost on most individuals. NASA estimates many alarming effects brought on by climate change including rising sea levels, droughts, extreme heatwaves and intense hurricanes. In 2017, over 139 million tons of waste was dropped in municipal solid waste landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Garment workers in Bangladesh only make about $96 a month; it’s estimated they need almost four times that just to live a life with “basic facilities.” We even see problems with social sustainability, where people from different generations can’t seem to be on the same page or work together, resulting in alarming effects on future generations.

It’s for these reasons that more and more people are using public transportation, recycling, buying reusable goods, buying from smaller, locally owned businesses, engaging in more open-minded conversations and opting to shop at stores that don’t participate in fast fashion.

Human evolution is imperative for our society, but it can’t be done without considering the future. What’s the point of advancing our lives now, if it’s only going to bring civilization to a halt later? Most logical people understand the significance of sustainability, with some taking it more seriously than others.

But the problem doesn’t necessarily lie with the people that don’t fully practice sustainability. Too often I see people promoting their sustainable lifestyles without acknowledging the institutional reasons sustainability isn’t accessible to everybody.

Sustainability is sometimes colloquially defined as an investment, whether in our shared future, in a company or in one person’s singular life. A simple example would be buying a well-made, classic jacket that can last you 10 years for $300 dollars versus a trendy, fast fashion coat that costs $50 but will be out of style and falling apart before the end of the winter season.

In the long run, you’ll spend much less money on the $300 option. In the moment it’s more expensive, but turns into a quality investment that pays off and benefits ethical factories and corporations.

From a sustainable business point, promoting from within is often more cost-effective than an outside hire if there are two equally qualified candidates. However, if an organization doesn’t invest early in employee benefits and a stable work environment, they’re going to lose employees left and right and experience constant turnover, risking valuable team members. They must invest early in benefits and corporate culture.

In general, purchasing more expensive but higher quality goods or adopting more costly business practices should provide a return on investment a few years down the road. Whether it’s better living conditions for our planet or the difference between a successful business and one that shuts down in five years, this is where the concept of sustainability as an investment comes from.

Now, consider a purely financial investment. Imagine a family that lives off of minimum wage in a paycheck-to-paycheck household. I think if most people had some disposable income to invest now, knowing it would be worth more in the future, they would do it. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for a lot of individuals and families. In the same way not everyone can invest financially, not everybody can invest in sustainable practices.

What’s the best way to combat this? First, “sustainability shaming” as it’s often called, has to stop. It’s unrealistic and close-minded to assume everyone is in the position to play the same game. While it’s understandable to advocate for what you believe in, it’s important to acknowledge reasons beyond “they just don’t get it” as to why people aren’t being as sustainable as they can. When we stop intentionally pitting ourselves against each other and instead think of how we can work together, that’s often when real change occurs.

There are plenty of ways we can collectively contribute to a healthy future for our families, businesses, country and planet. If your city is one where recycling prices have recently gone up, consider sharing a bin with a neighbor if both households use less than the allotted disposal can.

Carpooling to school, or offering to help lower-income families with childcare after classes so their resources can be spent elsewhere can be small but hugely beneficial initiatives. As a corporation or business, it’s important to grow people in order to build a company. Environmental sustainability in corporations is also becoming more and more attractive to potential customers.

Zero-waste stores have recently made their mark in the marketplace. If you’re looking for new Tupperware or reusable items at one of these stores, consider donating your older goods to someone who can’t afford them to begin with. This brings me to another crucial point.

Thrift stores and donation centers might be our greatest weapon in winning the fight for a sustainable world. Thrift stores supply lightly used goods at a fair price, combating landfills by providing a space for old items to find new homes.

Fewer clothes end up thrown out, and higher quality items can be found at much more affordable prices. Shopping at institutions like these, which are usually local (although sometimes national) nonprofits, supports other social and cultural institutions providing relief for individuals in need. It’s also a great place to find cheap reusable goods for storage and transportation, reducing waste and our environmental footprint.

Building sustainable, helpful relationships with our neighbors and communities will ultimately build a sustainable planet. Individual actions are no doubt important, but human connections might be more so. Invest in the people around you, and our world will change. Sustainability is nothing if it’s not accessible to everyone, but we can all do our part to make sure it is.

Katherine McLaughlin, The New School

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Katherine McLaughlin

The New School
Arts Communications

Katherine McLaughlin is a junior at The New School in NYC studying arts communications. When she’s not studying or writing she enjoys reading, watching rom-coms and drinking iced mochas.

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