5 common misconceptions about sustainability

When it comes to the subject of climate change, sustainability is a word that gets talked about a lot. We all need to be sustainable, products need to be sustainable and businesses need to be sustainable. But what does that actually mean? During the past few years of learning about sustainability, I have seen a lot of misconceptions and myths surrounding it. In this post, I will counter 5 common misconceptions and explain why I believe they are wrong and what sustainability is about instead.

A couple of "sustainable" products - a bamboo toothbrush, a bamboo dish brush, a bar soap, a bath bomb, and a wooden square bowl with salt - on a white marble background.
Tara Winstead on Pexels

You need to buy new products

One of the biggest misconceptions is that in order to be sustainable, you need to buy a lot of new products. There are so many sustainable brands out there selling sustainable products – it can be easy to feel like in order to be sustainable, you have to purchase from these brands. You have to buy new glass and stainless steel containers, bamboo toothbrushes, bar soaps, sneakers made from recycled plastic… the endless advertisements online never stop.

But the truth is that we can’t buy our way to sustainability. Overconsumption is one of the biggest drivers of climate change. One of the best ways to live a more sustainable lifestyle is not buying sustainable products, it’s buying less and using what you already have: eco-minimalism.

Being sustainable is expensive

Another related myth is that being sustainable is expensive. Apart from the idea that we have to buy new products, a lot of people also associate sustainability with driving an electric car, solar panels on your roof, and going to expensive zero waste grocery stores.

But again, this is not the case at all. Everyone can live more sustainably, regardless of income or circumstances. Many ways to be more sustainable or eco-friendly actually save money or are even completely free. I already mentioned eco-minimalism, but also think about things like shopping secondhand, airdrying your clothes rather than using a dryer, re-using and re-purposing things instead of throwing them away, growing your own herbs, eating less meat, et cetera. And then there are also things that don’t make a difference for your wallet but a huge difference for the planet, like switching to green energy or a bank that invests in sustainable initiatives instead of oil companies.

Of course, not everyone is going to be able to do all of these things. Even when things don’t take money, they might still take time and energy – which not everyone has freely available. So being more sustainable is going go look different for everyone, and that’s okay.

It is solely about being “zero waste” or not using plastic

One of the most visible group of sustainability activists on the internet are people who are living a so-called “zero waste” lifestyle. In this movement there is a big focus on packaging of products, and creating as little trash as possible – often mostly using as little plastic as possible. This may give the impression that living sustainably is all about avoiding plastic.

However, even though excess waste and unnecessary plastic is definitely an issue, it is just one of the many climate issues. In many cases, flexible plastic packaging is even better than its alternatives when it comes to the total impact on the environment. The main issue with plastic packaging is that there is a limit on how many times it can be recycled, and a lot of it doesn’t get recycled – but the end of life of a product is only 5% of its total impact. Changing single-use plastic to glass, paper or aluminum is not always the solution, because although these materials are more likely to get recycled, the total impact of creating and shipping products packaged in these materials is often higher.

So although of course it is a good thing to be mindful of packaging and to opt for reusable products rather than single-use products when possible, simply avoiding plastic is not going to save the planet. On top of that, being able to avoid plastic and shop from “zero waste” stores is a privilege to begin with. What we really need is better systems for handling waste and recycling, not a plastic ban.

A lot of plastic bottles on the ground with some bushes or trees in the background.
Mali Maeder on Pexels

Sustainability is just another buzzword

Another idea I have seen is that sustainability is just the newest marketing word, that it means nothing, or that it is only about individual responsibility – and so it is useless to strive towards being “sustainable”. But I strongly disagree here. It is true that a lot of brands do use sustainability as an empty marketing word, and you can’t just trust every brand that says it is sustainable to truly be that. But as I’ve discussed earlier, you can’t buy your way to sustainability anyway. So just because it is sometimes used as a way to sell things or to move the conversation to individual action only, it doesn’t mean it is just another buzzword.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines sustainability as “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time” and “the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time”. Essentially, what sustainability really means is creating a way of living that can be maintained and sustained by the earth. When you think of it like that, the only way that we can maintain life on earth is through sustainable practices.

So true sustainability should go hand in hand with system change. The system we live in right now is not sustainable, because it is literally destroying the earth. Although there are many more frameworks we can use to understand climate issues and climate activism, such as climate justice, I think there is definitely still a place for sustainability as well. We just need to keep a focus on what it actually means.

There is nothing I can truly do

Lastly, I very often see people claiming that there is nothing that we can truly do as individuals to fight climate change. And I get where these people are coming from. The majority of climate change is caused by a handful of corporations, not by individuals – and often it doesn’t seem like our individual actions actually matter.

But I don’t believe that is a reason to give up or to not do anything. In the global north specifically, our lifestyles are part of the problem. The way we live is not sustainable. In order to change the system, the way we live and especially the way we consume needs to change too. And even though as a single individual you might not have that much power, if a lot of people come together it does have an impact.

And of course, in addition to changing our lifestyle, there are many more ways to take action. We can vote, sign petitions, maybe even get involved in activism or local politics if that is something that fits you. But even changing the way we live can be a form of activism. Just talking about it and doing what we can might create a ripple effect and inspire the people around you to take action as well. In my personal life, there are definitely a lot more people caring about climate change than just a couple of years ago.

It is easy to despair in the current political climate, but if we all believe we cannot change things anyway so we might as well just give up, nothing will change. The reality is that in order to save the planet, we need to do every single thing that we can. Every single thing we can save matters. So I definitely believe all of us have a responsibility here. That might not look the same for everyone, as we cannot all do the same things. But everyone can do something, and that’s exactly what we need.


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