Sustainability is such a broad term and can mean so many different things in so many different ways depending on what exactly you are talking about. My favorite definition of sustainability is from UN World Commission on Environment and Development:
“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
But what does that even mean?
It means that every decision we make matters, big or small. It means that we all have the power to make a difference. We are stronger together but it only takes one person to start the change. Sustainability means to me that we design a product while thinking what will happen to that product beyond consumer purchase. What happens when it no longer can be used or it no longer is needed? Who is responsible for it then? The consumer? The manufacturer? The government? Asking these questions, finding answers, and start changing our designing and shopping habits is the very beginning of sustainability. Wouldn't you rather prevent the mess rather than clean it up after? Too many companies are focusing on cleaning up the mess rather than avoiding it all together.
To a business, sustainability should mean being aware of the impact of your decisions - educating and implementing quality solutions that your company can sustain indefinitely. Where resources can be re-used or re-generated, where ecosystems remain unharmed, where workers are paid a living wage and treated with respect. Just because you re-used something doesn't make it sustainable. Farming methods, chemical use, water use, energy use, and disposal of all these are taken into consideration. Are the workers being protected? If it's from an animal, are the animals being treated humanely? Where are they being raised, what types of methods are the farmers using to keep carbon into their soil to keep them healthy? How is this product being made? And is it being made to last forever, and should last forever? Or is it something that is being made to use once but will remain on the planet for thousands of years? (ex: a plastic water bottle) How is this product being shipped? How is it being packaged? How is it being re-shipped or re-homed? How will the consumer use it? Will they know how? What will the consumer do when they are done and will they know what to do with it when they are done? These are the types of questions that should be asked and considered before creating a product. Not as an afterthought. People's lives on the line, future generations on the line, our planet is on the line. Businesses should feel that they have the responsibility to stop hiding this information from the consumers, step up, and be transparent.
As consumers, we should be asking these questions to ourselves and seeking the answers from businesses. Some other questions we could be asking ourselves is before purchasing: Why am I buying this? How long will I use this for? Do I need this? Is there something else I already have that serves the same purpose as this? What will I do when I am done with it? Will this add to my life/happiness? Where did this come from? What is this made of? How do I think this was made? Was the environment taken into consideration when making this product?
Sustainability to me is all about transparency. It's about understanding where processes aren't working to benefit the people and the planet, and fixing it. It's understanding that there is no one right way, but having the intention to find one. This care free, "not my problem" mindset isn't working anymore.
I'll admit that we live in a world that can't be entirely sustainable yet - but the more it's pushed for, we can make these weakness our strengths. Nothing or no one is perfect, but together we can create a sustainable world to live in. We have to change out mindset, our shopping habits, and our way of living in this materialistic world.
All of this starts with education, self awareness, understanding, compassion, and a drive for change. Sustainability is so much more than using natural dyes, or recycled plastic bottles. When we start asking companies all the other important questions, and those practices are implemented into their supply chain, thats when the real difference starts. Yes, small steps are a start and better than no steps at all. But the goal is that those small steps keep growing into eventual big steps and big changes.