For example, most south/western European countries (Germany, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, UK) have their 2021 country’s overshoot day in these first two weeks of May. That means that these countries consumed their budget of the planet’s biocapacity in just 115 days, or 35% of a year, and that they would need 2,7 planets to make their lifestyle sustainable. The worst performers in this ranking are Qatar and Luxembourg, whose demand for ecological resources could be sustained only by more than 8,5 planets. On the globe, only 53 countries, predominantly located in South Asia and Africa, can claim to have a sustainable demand for ecological resources. Oddly enough, these are the so-called low-income countries working their way up towards the status of “developing” or “developed countries”.
Looking at these data a very pressing question arises: Is there any chance we can achieve the much claimed “sustainable development”?
When talking about sustainability, we have to admit that things can get a bit confusing. For different reasons, this word is constantly abused by governments, businesses, and media. Our goal is to make some clarity on how to deal with the s-word in our lives.
Sustainability, like sustainable, has a broad domain of application but it refers, in general, to the capacity to endure in a relatively ongoing way. In other words, it characterises a process that can go on (almost) infinitely. Since the late 20th century, sustainability has been increasingly related to the capacity for Earth's biosphere and human civilization to co-exist. Then, the concept evolved into that of Sustainable Development (Brutland Report 1987), defined as the ability to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, and Triple bottom line, the three domains at play in the definition of sustainable development: economic, social, environmental.
From where we stand now, we must admit that we failed to find a balance within these three domains at the expense of the social and environmental domains and in favour of the economic one (and even there we failed to achieve an even distribution). Thus, we now find ourselves facing an environmental and social crisis and with an economic system calibrated on unsustainable consumption levels.
Thus, while we are often presented with greenhouse gas emission and pollution as the main causes of the current environmental crisis, we seem to forget that over two-thirds of the countries on the planet consume more ecological resources than they should. Even Bill Gates, in his recent book How to avoid a climate disaster (see our review here), while brilliantly points at all the different solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change (even if we do not agree on all of them - especially on agriculture), still considers the American living standard as the benchmark for global populations.
A more recent, but very effective, formulation of sustainable development is provided by Kate Raworth's Donough Economics theory. The Doughnut, or Doughnut economics, is a visual framework for sustainable development – shaped like a doughnut or lifebelt – combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. The framework was proposed to regard the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth's ecological ceiling.
This framework gives us a better perspective in understanding that only if we stay within those boundaries we would be able to reach a sustainable development that inevitably can't be measured by GDP.
We have seen that it’s possible to give a measure to sustainability on a national or global scale. What about on a personal level? Different start-ups are coming up with tools to measure our carbon footprint based on what we eat, how we travel and how much we buy. Though, as we have highlighted before, what we should consider is our Ecological footprint and not just our carbon footprint.
The Ecological footprint measures the ecological assets that a given population, product or person requires to produce the natural resources it consumes and to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions. This indicator is measured in global hectares, globally comparable/standardized hectares with world average productivity. To give you a metric, most western European citizens require 4,4 global hectares to produce the resources they consume and to absorb the waste generated (i.e. tree area to absorb emissions).
Now, it would be crazy to think that people should be there measuring their ecological footprint every time they buy something or take the car. Though, there are three golden rules that we can apply in our daily life to make sure we reduce our demand for resources.
We are well aware that this may sound very unpopular. It is probably why most people do not even think about trying to live more sustainably. The equation success - money - consumption is so deeply rooted in our society that our ability to consume is what defines our success.
In any case, there is no way around it. If we want to secure a prosperous future for our children, children of children and so on... we should reduce our consumption levels. This can happen in two ways. One is by stopping buying so much useless stuff (to give you an example: it's hard to understand why our closet is always empty and yet we don't use up to 87% of the clothes we have).
The second solution is to replace the concept of ownership with that of access. There's so much stuff we buy and only use a few times, or much less than that product is designed for, either because we don't need it or because it becomes unfashionable. Gaining access to that product (i.e. renting it), rather than buying it would drastically reduce the amount of resources we use.
More fashionable than the first point, buying better is the sexiest way to approach a sustainable lifestyle. It means choosing products that respect the several environmental and social parameters like nature of raw materials, processing etc. This is where it gets tricky. Since sustainability has become a fast growing trend within consumers, many businesses are leveraging on information asymmetry and poor information availability to greenwash consumers.
Here the biggest piece of advice we can give is, go beyond the marketing claims and go beyond the label. You have probably heard this over and over but it is the most effective tool at this stage to fight green companies greenwashing. Take some extra time to investigate the brand and its practices.
The reason why we constantly need to dig so much resources out of the earth is because we only recover 8,6% of what we extract yearly. Of course there is stuff we can't control as consumers but there are also many things we can do. To help us with this, we have the 5 R's of the circular economy (discover more about circular products here
Thus, to go circular we need for sure to buy less (rule 1), but we also have to extend products' life cycle. It means that we need to make sure that the products we buy are designed to last longer, can be repaired, remanufactured or refurbished and eventually recycled back into their original resources (rule 2 - buy better).
Another strategy often used by brands to increase their “green look” is to use words like recyclable, which means everything and nothing. Since there is no regulation on this claim it can be used literally on everything without the need to back it with real actions. Truly circular brands, will provide you not only with claims but also with the required infrastructure and tools to access these circular services.
If you want to learn more about how we are trying to build the first circular community, join us on #NOTanotherMARKERPLACE.