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a skyline of a city at night

Whether or not human society as a whole operates sustainably isn’t really a question — we know it’s unsustainable to the point of collapsing Earth’s natural systems and cycles.

As someone who is highly concerned with this fact, I spend a decent amount of time reading studies and articles related to sustainability and our environment.

One comment I often see floating around in these online places is the statement “there is no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism”. It’s a suggestion brimming with anti-capitalist sentiments, but it got me thinking: politics aside, is it possible to live sustainably in an unsustainable society?

According to Wikipedia, sustainable living is “a lifestyle that attempts to reduce an individual’s or society’s use of the Earth’s natural resources.”

The statement about ethical consumption stems from the idea that it’s impossible to spend your money in a way in which nobody gets exploited. Somewhere along the supply chain, exploitation directly or indirectly happens when workers aren’t paid fairly for their labor. This, the commenters argue, must be the case because profits wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

When we scrutinize sustainable living in a similar way, it’s easy to wonder whether or not the “sustainable” choices we make are really all that sustainable. After all, the economic systems we operate within are overwhelmingly unsustainable.

Even if the answer to this question is “yes”, does taking the time to live sustainably in an unsustainable society really make a difference aside from making us feel good about ourselves?

I often find myself asking this question when I come upon reports like this one, which spills the beans on the 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions. It found that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 — the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established — can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities.

How can I not question the true impact of my sustainable lifestyle when one of these companies basically cancels out my entire life’s efforts in less than an hour?

Does it really matter that I purchased a compostable toothbrush rather than a plastic one, or am I just ultimately feeding money into the unsustainable system upon which the “eco-conscious” companies rely on to function?

Some people feel that sustainable living is worth it anyway because it sets an example for the rest of society, while others feel that sustainable living is another corporation-driven front like Keep America Beautiful, meaning to shift responsibility away from corporations and onto consumers. If we’re talking about shifting blame here, though, isn’t focusing on corporations just a way for us to shift responsibility away from the governments which regulate them?

Regardless of its origins, the desire for “conscious consumption” has driven companies to take advantage of the trend and capitalize on revenue from marketing the eco-friendliness of their products. Some of these efforts are genuine, while others are blatant greenwashing.

This trend has influenced more than two-thirds of Americans, including myself, to consider sustainability when making a purchase and to be willing to pay more for sustainable products.

But this brings me back to my original question, does purchasing these “sustainable products” actually mean we’re living more sustainably? Is it even possible to live sustainably in an unsustainable society?

 

The Unsustainable Society

a car driving through the city at night

The United States relies on multiple economic sectors to function, mainly: transportation, electricity, industry, commercial & residential, and agriculture. Together, these systems keep our society running and also make up our 5 main categories for emissions. The 6th and smallest category, “land use and forestry”, is carbon-negative thanks to nature’s ability to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.

As a whole, the United States produced 4833.1 metric megatons of carbon in 2019 — second only behind China, which produced 53% more.

Aside from animal agriculture, the largest source of emissions in every economic sector is attributed to the burning of fossil fuels according to the EPA. But the United States’ ecological footprint doesn’t end there.

The United States is home to 8 of the top 50 companies listed in the report that found 100 companies responsible for 71% of the world’s emissions. These companies include Exxon, Chevron, and Peabody — the largest private-sector coal company in the world.

We also bury 139.6 million tons of waste annually and release another 0.11 million metric tonnes of waterborne plastic garbage into the ocean (not including the waste exported to China and Indonesia, the world’s leading ocean polluters).

All of this is regulated by the United States government, which is currently under the Trump Administration.

The Trump Administration has attempted to roll back the Clean Power Plan, sought to relax vehicle efficiency standards to such an extent that even vehicle manufacturers have objected, and announced plans to weaken regulations to limit HFC emissions and regulation of methane leaks from oil and gas production. A New York Times analysis, based on research from Harvard Law SchoolColumbia Law School, and other sources, counted more than 80 environmental rules and regulations on the way out under Mr. Trump.

The current administration is also in the process of leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, which aims at reducing emissions.

 

Typical Impacts of the Modern Consumer

lots of plastic trash

Americans generate more waste than any other nation in the world, officially with an average of 4.4 pounds of trash per person per day, with another study estimating the number closer to being 7.1 pounds.

American citizens are also responsible for, on average, 21.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year according to the University of Michigan (2014). That adds up to roughly 7 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted annually.

To put this statistic in perspective, China’s coal emits 7.519 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Simply put, the emissions from the United States population are on-par with those of the largest industrial polluter in the world.

Why are emission levels so high for the average American?

Daily decisions greatly impact our individual emission levels. In the United States, the average American American eats 9.7 ounces of meat per day. That number positions us as the world’s top consumer of meat, with the average American eating 97 kg (214.lbs) of meat per year.

As it turns out, greenhouse gas emissions from agribusiness are an even bigger problem than fossil fuels, and red meat is particularly to blame. Red meat consumes 11 times more water and produces 5 times more emissions than its poultry counterparts. To get a single pound of beef, it takes over 5,000 gallons of waterAs the number one consumer of freshwater in the world, animal agriculture is drastically increasing the problem of water scarcity.

Although meat is the worst problem, it’s not the only one.

Fortunately, like most other unsustainable behaviors, consumption of meat is a decision. The understanding that we can consciously avoid unsustainable behaviors and make habits out of environmentally positive behaviors instead is the basis of sustainable living.

 

The Difference Sustainable Living Makes

woman holding flowers

It’s hard to estimate exactly how much the average “sustainable lifestyle” reduces waste and emissions because there isn’t really an average sustainable lifestyle. There are dozens of things you can do to live sustainably, and depending on which combination you choose, you can reduce your carbon footprint dramatically.

(If you’re interested in seeing how some of the following changes will influence your personal yearly emissions, try playing around with a carbon footprint calculator.)

As I mentioned earlier, the single most significant thing anybody can do to lower their carbon footprint is to cut animal products out of their diet. If you were to switch to a plant-based/vegan diet, you’d reduce your carbon footprint by nearly 3,000 pounds of emissions per year.

Other general strategies for reducing your carbon footprint include avoiding fast fashion, driving less, flying less, performing an energy audit at home, and gardening to offset some remaining emissions.

There are also person-specific changes that can be made.

For example, did you know that the global internet uses more electricity than the whole of the United Kingdom? When I did an audit of my carbon footprint earlier this year, I realized that running eco ally was significantly increasing my personal emissions. In response, I decided to switch my web hosting to Green Geeks, a 300% sustainable service that transformed my blog into being virtually carbon-negative.

Customized changes like switching web hosting or choosing to fly coach rather than business class can make significant differences that carbon footprint calculators often don’t account for.

In addition to reducing individual carbon footprints, we can also reduce (or nearly eliminate) the waste we’re responsible for.

I mentioned earlier in this article that the average American generates roughly 4.4lbs — 7.1lbs of trash per day. This number predominantly includes food wastes, market wastes, yard wastes, plastic containers, and product packaging materials. Activities such as recycling, composting, cooking at home, refusing plastic packaging, and living a minimalistic lifestyle are all strategies people can use to get as close to “zero waste” as possible.

It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much of the population is living sustainably, however, it’s easy to see the influence that environmental awareness has had on our society. Today, nearly 70 percent of Americans feel that sustainability is at least “somewhat important” to them when making a purchase.

If the rising trends in sustainability-driven purchasing, veganism, and “zero waste” continue to rise as quickly as they have been the last few years, we will undoubtedly see a measurable reduction in per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in America.

Considering that our current stats for per-capita emissions are on par with those of China’s coal emissions, I’d say that’s pretty significant.

 

Conclusion

Is “sustainable living” possible in an unsustainable society? In my opinion, yes.

Although our purchases feed up into the larger unsustainable system, individual choices not only reduce carbon emissions per capita but also pressure industries to innovate towards sustainability.

Does sustainable living make a difference? Absolutely.

But sustainable living alone won’t accomplish much in the grand scheme of things. To see real and lasting change, people must also participate in activism to pressure governments to regulate unsustainable industries.

To learn more about environmental activism, check out this article: The Introvert’s Guide to Environmental Activism.

Let me know what you think about sustainable living and corporate responsibility in the comments below! 🙂

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Deanna Pratt

Founder at eco ally
Eco/social entrepreneur, writer, and activist. Founder of Sunbird (sunbird.digital) and Eco Ally (ecoally.co). I love cats, anime, and environmental justice.
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