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Until we were set-upon by COVID-19, sustainability was a subject everyone was talking about in business and social spaces. Sustainability began life in environmental circles twenty or more years ago, quickly becoming a word or phrase that, similar to 'climate change action', was easy to say and difficult to achieve.
Fortunately, in many ways, this truth is changing. Whether the dialogue was sustainable development goals, CSR initiatives, circular economy or project sustainability, we now have a better understanding of what this word means. I used to equate sustainable development as a term to the South Africanism' we'll make a plan', which essentially means we have every intention of dealing with this, just not now.
I have the privilege of having a talented and insightful sister that works as the Sustainability Director for a large branding agency in London. She recently shared an invite to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation webinar that formed part of the London Design Festival programme on the Circular Economy. The discussion touched on a subject that was circling through my mind while the panel talked - sustainability as a privilege. You hear this often, and living in Botswana for the past decade, I understand that for the majority of the population (anywhere), sustainability is often at the very bottom of their list of priorities. And I understand why. There can be far more critical things to think about than separation of glass and plastic, and which recycling depot to take it to. Not that you may have many options if you do want to do this, but that is not the point. While regionally, recycling and reusing have long been a part of life from a necessity or practicality perspective, the processing technology is often not present.
But, while it is an activity for the privileged, thinking about sustainability or the outcomes from sustainability shouldn't be their preserve. In many ways, circumstances have dictated that we think sustainably for years and we didn't even know it. Due to mismanagement of water infrastructure, and desperately fumbled procurement processes meaning that our new power stations failed when switched on meant that we have had to be frugal with our water and power usage. And reusable solutions that have persisted have usually been driven by affordability and sensible choices to reuse the bag onions came in as a scrubbing cloth for the bath.
If you contrast this with the current understanding of carbon inequality worldwide, and historically, you think - why the hell should I?! For example, findings of a recent Oxfam report that confronts carbon inequality reveal that the wealthiest 10% of the world's population (about 630 million people) are responsible for 52% of all carbon emissions. In doing so, they very efficiently depleted the global carbon budget by almost a third (31%) in the same period.
While these are infuriating injustices, they cannot mean we give up and abandon hope. We can all do something. If sustainability can be seen as a privilege, I believe it is also a right. Whether or not it happens right now, we are all entitled to a quality of life and a future. The problem is that the term sustainability tends to sweep all possible actions into a category of privilege beyond the reach or interest of the everyday person. But participation in a sustainable future does not have to continue like this. I have recently started exploring the GIKI Zero platform GIKI = Get Informed Know your Impact. This tool was developed not by so-called tree huggers that talk about saving the planet in unrealistic terms, but by experts that understand the direct carbon and economic costs and implications of behavioural change and action. From my perspective, GIKI helps you know your footprint and identifies steps to help you reduce your impact. Specifically, it presents activities and challenges that we can all achieve. Interventions include a range of options such as don't buy any new clothes for three months, share your old baby clothes and toys, take your old clothes to a charity shop, don't use a tumble-dryer, and so on. The GIKI platform rates actions according to a series of factors, including how they will help you save money and time, which has a decent impact, how 'doable' they are, how they contribute to biodiversity, and fairness (Fair Trade). It checks-off steps you have done and the challenges you have completed and gently reminds you of the things you said you would try. The takeaway message here is that we can all do something, and these things, no matter how small, will contribute to the greater goal: less unsustainable consumption. While you can input exact data, and get super-nerdy about it, as default it provides general guidance on each of these issues.
This approach does not mean living like a climate warrior, which is excellent if you have the mindset and strength, but also it suggests a range of very manageable changes that we can all consider.
Something else GIKI shows us is that consumers should consider voting with their feet. While there are many priorities for us all to juggle, retailers and wholesalers need to be held to account. The fact that a supermarket will stock washing-up liquid next to refill packs that will reduce the amount of plastic going into landfill by x%, but the primary package is so heavily discounted that the refill makes no sense, is simply irresponsible. Discount the refill. It's not rocket science. If you are not going to do this, don't stock refills. Simple. No one will buy a refill if we carry on like this, and this is an easy, logical and cost-saving way of introducing waste reduction to the mass market. While I may struggle to do this as an individual, we need to start telling store managers and purchasing staff that this is unacceptable. If enough people do this, maybe they will start listening. Maybe.
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein