Sustainability is such a trending word, generally with good intentions behind it. But sustainability is not a static state, instead it is a very fluid journey. When we consider sustainability in our life, and in our world, we would be remiss to assess this transformative lifestyle without considering important factors such as culture, systemic oppression, and privilege.
Sustainability just got much more interesting, didn’t it?
Merriam-Webster defines sustainability as:
1: capable of being sustained 2a: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged sustainable techniques sustainable agriculture b: of or relating to a lifestyle involving the use of sustainable methods sustainable society
Sustainability can be applied in all aspects of life. But in everyday media, the buzzword “sustainability” is typically used to refer to a sustainable lifestyle, that is, a lifestyle that works to sustain the environment of the earth and aim to work counter to our typical consumerist culture.
Sustainability of our life-giving earth, however, is not a concept or practice that started with hipsters or minimalist woke culture – it has always existed among indigenous, black, and people of color, who through their traditions, cultures, and spirituality, honored the earth in ways that we fail to replicate today with all of our modern ideas.
The journey of sustainability can not start until we honor its’ roots because, as you will see in my personal journey below, acting before being informed actually causes more damage.
A Fluid Journey
The majority of media, whether videos, blog posts, or photos, depict sustainability as a low to zero waste lifestyle with a minimalist mindset. Each of those concepts can unravel their own intricate argument, because low waste/zero waste lifestyles and minimalism are not always achievable for all people at the same level at all times.
A trending, but important, dialogue that is taking place right now is about the privilege of minimalism. Historically, minimalist aesthetics have coincided with wealth and being secure enough to be able to live with less. While I have yet to fully dive into that conversation and form my own opinions, it is always important to consider whether a movement is marginalizing a group of people.
Low waste is also something that is not accessible to all people, or may mean something different to various groups. In food deserts, there may not be the opportunity to seek food items in bulk or not wrapped in plastic. Financial restraints may make low waste look different to others, and in some lifestyles low waste may already be present, and seem silly to make a trendy goal.
Finally, sustainability is about more than only swapping out glass for plastic and having your own garden, it is about addressing the root systems that prevent our society and environment from being naturally sustainable.
My Personal Sustainability Journey
My personal sustainability journey may not be considered genuine by some. But my journey is reflective of where I am or was in my life at a particular moment and indicates the level of reflection and education that I have or had on the true definition of sustainability.
For the majority of my life, as a kid growing up, my sustainability was rooted in recycling as much as possible and to try not to waste food. Sustainability was not the buzzword it is now 20 years ago, and so I didn’t have much more of an awareness beyond this. Between high school and university, there were new sustainability items on the market, like a surge of reusable bags and reusable water bottles. Once again, I dabbled in both of these, feeling like it mattered (which it did) and that was about it.
Post college, so in the last 8 or so years of my life, I have had 3 substantial phases of my sustainability journey.
1.All or Nothing
Clever marketing mixed with my neurodivergent perfectionist personality meant that when I learned more about sustainability I was convinced that I had to either be 100% sustainable or forget it all together.
(Spoilers sweetie, you cannot be 100% sustainable.)
What this resulted in was a lot of action without research or education. I bought a lot of “eco-friendly items” that I was told “would make a difference.” Reusable straws, tote bags, bath products in recyclable packaging or without packaging, reusable cups, reusable storage bags, and the list goes on.
But, instead of finding myself feeling good about living a more sustainable life, I felt stressed from always having to assess everything that I was doing and I was making purchases beyond my means. Even with good things, if we don’t educate ourselves first, we can hurt ourselves in the long run.
During this period, which has been about the past 2-3 years of my life, I stopped a lot of the “sustainability efforts” that I was doing. I was burnt out. Trying to incorporate sustainable living into my everyday life was making my stress worse. And I did not have the financial resources to purchase the items that I thought I needed to. Some changes did stick, such as my bathing products and the switch to a menstrual cup and reusable pads, but after marrying my husband I realized I needed to just take a break.
3.Education and Moving Forward
Now, at 30 years old, I am slowly recommitting to my sustainability journey. By taking a break, I could see what things are important to me. I am also spending more time learning about a more holistic definition of sustainability, and diving into bigger questions such as the privilege of minimalism, environmental activism, and what sustainability is meant to look like in my life, and in the life of my family. A family that is built from different cultures, different challenges, and our own unique reality.
My sustainability journey never truly stopped, but it has become informed and intentional – and I have barely scratched the surface.
What had your sustainability journey looked like? What do you hope to learn as you move forward?