Environmentally Sustainable

What is environmental sustainability?

environment
Image Courtsey Antoine Beauvillian

The goal of environmental sustainability is to find harmony between the environment—including its ecosystems and all species—and humankind.

There are different stages on the journey to this grand goal: first, to do less harm; second, to do no harm; and finally, to do good. The majority of companies remain stuck at the “do less harm” phase. Fewer move on to do no harm, and fewer still reach the point of causing positive environmental impact. This needs to change.

Concern for the environment started as early as the mid-1900s. Environmental movements and concern for environmental sustainability has grown significantly since, largely because the consequences have become more visible. In China, for example, air pollution is already affecting daily life.

By far, the most pressing concern is global warming and climate change. In April 2016, we made environmental history when 194 countries signed the Paris Agreement, the most ambitious global agreement against climate change ever.

Still, there is much to be done on the path to environmental sustainability, and you too can play a role.

The Biggest Environmental Issues & Why They Are Important

1. Global Warming & Climate Change

Global warming is the most pressing environmental sustainability issue in the global debate. The world temperature is rising at the most unprecedented rate in scientific history. Most scientists believe it’s caused by overwhelming amounts of greenhouses gases (GHG) in the atmosphere.

Why It’s Important

Global warming is unsettling because modern day science has no models to predict how it will affect our environment and the species it supports…including us! We simply don’t know what’s going to happen. We can already see melting polar ice caps and rising ocean levels, which disrupt marine life and slowly flood islands and coastal cities.

What can you do about it?

Look for these certifications to support products and companies that are working towards reducing or eliminating carbon emissions:

  • The National Carbon Offset Standard is an initiative by the Australian government to provide guidance on genuine voluntary offset. It sets minimum requirements for calculating, auditing, and offsetting the carbon footprint of an organisation or product to achieve carbon neutrality and environmental sustainability.
  • The CarbonFree® Certified label aims to increase the awareness of product emissions and recognise companies that are compensating for their carbon footprint and addressing environmental sustainability.
  • NoCO2 is a label that certifies the business is 100% carbon neutral and has completely removed its climate change impacts.

2. Deforestation

forest
Image Courtsey Kirill Nechmonya

Forests cover about 30 percent of the earth and play an important role in environmental sustainability.

They convert carbon to oxygen and provide homes to people and countless species. Over the last 50 years, forests have been cleared at alarming rates to make way for illegal logging operations, cattle farming, palm oil production, and fuelwood harvesting.

Why It’s Important

The loss of forests upsets the balance between carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere. This elevates the climate change problem and leaves people and a number of species homeless.

What can you do about it?

Look for these certifications to support products and companies that are working towards the protection and responsible use of the world’s forests:

  • The Australian Forest Certification Scheme label assures timber or wood-based products are derived from sources that have been independently, third-party certified from sustainably managed forests.
  • The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal guarantees a product comes from a farm or forest operation that meets comprehensive standards to protect the environment and promote the rights and well-being of workers, their families, and communities.

3. Resource Use

cotton
Image Courtsey Janko Ferlic

We live on a finite planet with a limited number of resources. Renewable resources can be regenerated, while non-renewables cannot. We have two big problems with resource use.

First, our economy and transport system depend too heavily on nonrenewable fossil fuels. Eventually, fuel stocks will run out and cripple the systems that rely on them. Burning fossil fuels also contributes to GHG emissions, which worsens global warming.

Second, we use renewable resources much faster than the earth can regenerate them. Following the status quo, available resources will eventually reach dangerously low levels.

Why It’s Important 

We want to continue making the products and services we need for happy, fulfilling lives. Responsible resource use is critical to ensuring we have what we and future generations need. It’s also important to reduce—even eliminate—our dependence on nonrenewable resources.

What can you do about it?

Look for these certifications to support products and companies that are working towards more responsible resource use:

  • The BMP Certified Cotton label guarantees the branded textile product you buy is made of Australian cotton grown under Best Management Practices by growers who care for our environment.
  • The Global GreenTag Certified label rates products according to product synergy, greenhouse emissions, human health and eco-toxicity, life cycle assessment, biodiversity and resource consumption, and corporate social responsibility.

4. Waste

corks
Image Courtsey Oscar Söderlund

There are different types of waste material:

  1. Waste that can be reused and recycled into new or similar materials like glass or fabric
  2. Waste that can biodegrade and naturally return to the ecosystem like food waste
  3. Waste that is not biodegradable or easily recycled like plastics

Our waste problem is strongly connected to resource use. There are two major underlying issues:

First, we don’t have separate solutions for the different types of waste. Everything is lumped into one big pile and is delivered to a landfill or incinerator. Both of these options forever remove precious resources that could have been reused, recycled, or returned to the ecosystem.

Yes, recycling operations exist in many developed countries. Yet, many materials that could be recycled go unrecycled because of cost or difficulty. There’s room from improvement on a worldwide scale.

Secondly, we use way too much of the third type of waste, making landfills and incinerators necessary. Think about how much plastic you throw away each day. It’s unsettling!

Why It’s Important

Landfills and incinerators are short-term solutions and not reasonable in the long-term. Some waste still litters the ground, leaks into groundwater, and pollutes the oceans. We prefer to live in a pristine environment unspoiled by trash. Don’t you?

We need new product innovations and ways of consumption that eliminate the modern concept of waste altogether.

What can you do about it?

Look for these certifications to support products and companies that are working towards more responsible resource use and the reduction or elimination of waste:

  • Cradle to Cradle Certified is a 5-level certification program that looks at a product through five quality categories—material health, material reutilisation, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

5. Plastic Pollution in Our Oceans 

ocean
Image Courtsey Mara Page

Oceans cover about 70 percent of the planet. They are a food source for over 1 billion people, and they form the foundation of the planetary water cycle that produces rain and snow. Sadly, they are becoming more and more polluted with plastic.

Why It’s Important

In 2012, scientists determined that there were 269,000 metric tons and 5.25 trillion particles of plastic in our oceans. This endangers more than 600 species from ingestion or entanglement. For instance, seabirds starve to death with their bellies full of plastic. Even worse, toxic plastic chemicals leach out, affecting marine life and working its way up to our plates. Sushi, anyone?

Plastics are part of our everyday lives in ways you may not even realise. There’s a good chance that your exfoliating cream or wash contains microbeads—a tiny plastic. Luckily, pioneering cities are taking a stand and banning things like plastic bottles and bags, and organisations like the 5 Gyres Institute are working to ban microbeads.

What can you do about it?

  • Support products that use the least (or no) plastic.
  • Stop buying products containing microbeads.

Take Action: How to Help the Environment When You Shop

sunflowers
Image Courtsey Rowan Chestnut

Feeling a bit overwhelmed or even depressed? We understand. Environmental sustainability is a big and complex issue, but there’s hope! You still have the power to make change happen.

There is something simple YOU can do every day to help out…

You can buy products and services with strong commitments to a healthier environment. Your purchase is your vote. As we support companies and products that have strong eco-friendly values and practices, more companies will get on board.

We’ve put together a small list of questions you can use to make more eco-friendly purchases:

  • Does the company or product have certified eco-friendly manufacturing processes? Look for certifications.
  • Does the product have to travel very far to get to you? Transporting goods long distances racks up carbon emissions. Buying local is always better.
  • Does the product manufacturer offset carbon emissions? Look for certifications.
  • Can the packaging be reused or recycled? Choose glass or cardboard over plastic.
  • Can you eliminate the packaging all together? Some really innovative companies like Wales-based Splosh are using new biodegradable packaging materials to completely eliminate waste.
  • Are the ingredients sustainably sourced? This is relevant for products using palm oil, cotton, coffee, and chocolate, for example.
  • Does it create unavoidable waste that must go to a landfill or incinerator? When available, choose products that can be easily reused, recycled, or returned safely to the ecosystem.

For more information on ecolabels, please visit the Ecolabel Index.