Does A Sustainable First World Exist?

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This article was published in The Beam #9 — Subscribe now for more on the topic.

By Frances Pinero

Sustainable citizens face a quandary. We can’t ‘buy’ ourselves into sustainability. Replacing plastic with bamboo, diesel with electric, it all sounds fabulous, but the carbon footprint calculator results are blunt and we’d still need multiple Earths to suit our eco-lifestyles.

In a world where consumption and population are increasing, we face a full-on crisis. More people around the globe are headed towards a First World lifestyle, but the West has modeled a version of it that has outgrown the ecosystem that sustains it. What can we, everyday citizens, do to help turn the tide?

Illustration by Rozalina Burkova

Grassroots conscious consumption

We are all consumers, that much we have in common. Everyday activism is spreading, and changes aimed to reduce our global impact are taking root, like regenerative agriculture, wearing slow fashion, and the war on plastic pollution. Movements of individuals are taking it upon themselves to be conscious consumers in many forms, from the #flyless to the #zerowaste niches.

Let’s not miss the point though, for it’s not about subscribing to a labelled lifestyle, then giving up after a few frustrating weeks of failures; rather it’s about making small changes that are possible within each individual’s realm. Sustainable habits look different for each person. Whether it’s choosing a veggie burger over beef, cycling instead of driving a commute, the idea is that if we can get millions of people adopting these habits imperfectly, rather than a handful of people doing it perfectly, then we might be onto something.

Admittedly, the irony in these conscious consumer lifestyles is that they have a low influence on consumer markets. Since conscious consumption is supposedly aimed towards minimizing and prioritizing buying the stuff needed, not wanted, one could argue that by buying less, conscious consumers are voting less with their dollars. Casting fewer ‘votes’ makes the planet-concerned consumer a minority, and the mainstream masses win out. But not all hope is lost, because even if they don’t know it, mainstream consumers are changing as well.

The buyer evolves & brands take a stand

The rise of the belief-driven buyer is here. Shoppers want to support companies that can do more than the individual. They want directness, transparency, and products that don’t come out of the Rube Goldberg machine. It feels good, and it’s why more and more, they support the local artisan, buy slow food, and dial ‘0’ for the real person at the end of a customer service call.

The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study shows that two-thirds of consumers choose brands based on its stand on societal issues, and they’re quick to switch or boycott as well. The study also showed belief-driven behavior is dominant in China and India, a hugely important finding given that the Western population will be the minority by 2100, and Asia and Africa will become the majority at 80%, and 20% for the West.

With patience and faith fading away from ineffectual politicians, buyers are pushing brands to be better and affirm their values by taking a stance. Companies don’t have to promise to save the world, but they need stewardship embedded into the business model. Done right, it can build trust bonds with loyal customers who are looking for a change.

With shoppers ripe for belief-driven buying, it’s time to go mainstream, and quickly. For now, sustainable products and services tend to come from smaller brands, but big corporations are looking for a makeover. So when the birth of Loop Alliance Inc. was announced during the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, sustainability ears perked up.

Loop revives the old milkman concept of delivering products to your door, this time in reusable packaging, while taking back empty ones to be washed and refilled for another delivery. They’ll offer an in-store pick-up option as well. Impressively, they’ve signed-on 25 blue-chip companies, like Proctor & Gamble, Nestle, and Unilever, to get off the starting blocks.

Loop understands that customers want to be greener, but not at the expense of convenience, cost, and cool factor. For the first time ever, top sellers like Pantene shampoo and Dove deodorant will be packaged in steel containers instead of single-use plastics and delivered free under a packaging deposit scheme.

“If customers become sensitive towards the footprint of the product packaging, perhaps they’ll start to question the footprint of the product inside.” — Frances Pinero

Whereas products are typically designed for the dump, or at best recycled, the responsibility has been on the consumer to take care of it. Loop is essentially taking on ‘extended product responsibility’ and reducing waste by collecting, transporting, recycling, and responsibly disposing of products and materials at the end of their life. It’s a micro circular economy, if you will.

An encouraging finding in their early consumer testing was that once consumers grew accustomed to the reusable packaging, they started getting ‘allergic’ to disposability. This is an incredible step towards evolving the sustainable customer. If customers become sensitive towards the footprint of the product packaging, perhaps they’ll start to question the footprint of the product inside.

Will they question their choices when they realize that the stainless steel pack of single-use Clorox cleaning wipes are woven with plastic and will take 500+ years to degrade? More importantly, can these thoughtful ripple effects go beyond our stuff, and into how we vote, eat, travel, and so forth? These chain of events are a tall order, but we’re in a need of revolutionary change, and reflecting our lifestyles in the mirror has never been more humbling.

“Our economic system is one based on infinite growth, which by logic seems impossible in a finite ecosystem.” — Frances Pinero

Sustainable living is a journey, like peeling the layers of an onion. With each layer a new ‘aha’ moment arises, and another layer awaits to be pulled back. As we learn more about what it takes to produce all of our stuff, we start to realize that there’s more than one elephant in the room. Working our way backwards, we start to break apart the supply chain, from the exploitation of human laborers and animals to the resource extraction. Full sustainability involves all parties, Mother Earth and all her inhabitants.

Dare we question growth?

While we can’t help but try and shop our way to progress, no matter how much greener we consume, there is a fundamental question lurking in the dark. Our economic system is one based on infinite growth, which by logic seems impossible in a finite ecosystem. It is not an option to ignore the physical limits to growth and resource extraction. True sustainability means forming a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth. This means taking only what we need, rather than as much as we want. Thus we have no choice but to redefine what it means to live a First World lifestyle.

Financial success has come with a price tag, but this narrow definition of success cannot define humankind and be our downfall, we can’t let it. Today’s version of success would mean to destroy our planet. So let us define it in a new form. Firstly, we must succeed in paying back our debt to Mother Earth and re-balance our ecosystem.

And for the long game, place prime value on clean air and water, healthy soil, and respect for all living beings as our highest form of currency. Spanning generations want it, and as millennials come of age, we can’t ignore that they are many, composed of activists, humanitarians, and researchers.

They’re boldly telling the establishment that the Rube Goldberg machine won’t cut it anymore, and asking political and financial leaders to make outlandish changes. Change, I’m afraid, is sometimes about losing power and making space for others.

Frances Pinero is an American Latina living in Belgium and is keeping busy raising 3 little citizens of the world. Her career as a cardiac device engineer gave her a first-hand view of how most of the First World diseases are preventable, but the systems in place are not interested in addressing the root causes. She’s now devoted to spreading the news about how to save our planet and our health.

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The Beam Magazine is an independent climate solutions and climate action magazine. It tells about the most exciting solutions, makes a concrete contribution to eliminating climate injustices and preserving this planet for all of us in its diversity and beauty. Our cross-country team of editors works with a network of 150 local journalists in 50 countries talking to change makers and communities. THE BEAM is published in Berlin and distributed in nearly 1,000 publicly accessible locations, to companies, organizations and individuals in 40 countries across the world powered by FairPlanet.

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