No two definitions of sustainability are exactly alike.
Take, for instance, this definition from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
Sustainability is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.
Or this definition from McGill University in Toronto:
Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In addition to natural resources, we also need social and economic resources. Sustainability is not just environmentalism. Embedded in most definitions of sustainability we also find concerns for social equity and economic development.
Whatever the definition, though, the meaning goes well beyond recycling bottles and cans at home.
“Recycling does help, but we need [to make] change on a larger scale,” says Lauren Larry, a yoga teacher, barre instructor and health coach who speaks regularly about sustainability.
Why does sustainability matter?
If for no other reason, this is why sustainability matters: According to an article published in 2017 by Phys.org, humankind’s ecological footprint has exceeded the Earth’s capacity, rising to the point where 1.6 planets would be needed to supply sustainable resources for our planet. Meanwhile, the global biodiversity index has dropped more than 50 percent as various populations of species decline.
“Sustainability matters because we all care about the future. We are part of the natural world and dependent on the use of natural resources to sustain our business and activities,” according to Stanford University.
What can you do to promote sustainability?
OK, so it’s one thing to know what sustainability is and why it matters, but the more important question is this: What can you do to promote sustainability? The short answer: plenty.
Below are 10 steps you can take to boost sustainability in the U.S. and around the world. These suggestions are courtesy of Larry, the yoga teacher; Energy Upgrade California, an energy-saving initiative; Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics, which sells sustainable personal care products; and Pablo Solomon, a “green” artist and designer in Texas.
1. Turn off the lights.
“This is the oldest and the easiest trick in the book,” Energy Upgrade California says. “Remember to flip the switch every time you leave the room so that you can reduce your [energy] use.”
2. Unplug fully charged devices.
Leaving charged smartphones and laptops plugged in wastes energy.
3. Use the cold cycle.
Hot water in the washing machine can account for about 18 percent to 25 percent of your energy use, while cold water gets your clothes just as clean as hot water.
4. Thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator.
Running hot water over frozen foods to thaw them wastes water and energy. You’re better off defrosting your food in the refrigerator overnight.
5. Keep your freezer full.
An empty freezer uses more energy to stay cold than a full one does.
6. Support businesses that support sustainability.
Check out this Newsweek article to get a start on finding sustainability leaders in the U.S. Overall, you should do business with brands that use natural ingredients, don’t test products on animals and commit to reducing their carbon footprint, Backe recommends.
7. Do your homework.
Dig deep to learn just how sustainable the products on your shopping list are. Some “green” or “sustainable” products don’t live up to their claims, Solomon says.
“In many cases, hyped-up products have jacked-up prices,” he says. “In some cases, it would be more beneficial to the Earth if you bought products that may or may not be 100 percent sustainable, but are long-lasting. Then use the money you save to plant a tree.”
8. Take even the smallest action.
“Every little bit helps when it comes to preserving, protecting and restoring our beautiful Earth,” Solomon says. “Far too often, people want the government to do these massive [sustainability] projects while they do nothing themselves. If each American does a little bit each day, the combined efforts can be amazing.”
9. Keep ethics in mind.
When evaluating sustainable products or practices, don’t overlook how humans and animals are treated to make those products or carry out those practices. For instance, blue jeans made by workers who endure horrible conditions would not be sustainable.
“Something can be completely biodegradable, in recyclable packaging, but if an ecosystem, human or animal is harmed [in making it], it’s not sustainable,” says Larry, the yoga instructor.
10. Urge change.
Email, call or write companies and elected officials to encourage them to adopt higher sustainability standards. This could include advocating for better air quality, improved water quality or greater accessibility to locally grown food.
“It’s a big job, but asking questions and demanding positive actions will go a long way,” Larry says.