As people worldwide awaken to the state of the planet, the practice of embracing a sustainable lifestyle keeps growing. With a range of aspects to practicing green living that draws fewer resources and helps protect the earth, we ask, “what is sustainable living?”
On an individual level, people increasingly pay attention to various ways to reduce their carbon footprint. We witness communities and nations create blueprints to establish net-zero living and maintain sustainable development on a broader level. Opportunities include creating less waste, choosing sustainable clothing, and prioritizing renewable energy sources, amongst other practices.
All of these efforts gear towards curbing the effects of climate change to create liveable earth for future generations. Although the terms “sustainable living,” “green living,” and “sustainable lifestyle” are popular, many people are still unsure exactly what it all entails.
This article will answer your question, “what is sustainable living?” as well as show why it’s essential to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle. If you’ve been unsure of how to get started, you’ll understand how to switch to a more sustainable way of living.
More than a buzzword, sustainable living is a philosophy that seeks to reduce human impact on the environment. Sustainable living considers positive changes that individuals and societies can make to curb their environmental impacts.
The purpose of this is to curb the effects of global warming climate change and make the earth liveable for generations to come. Gone are the days when sustainability was the preserve of big corporations and governments.
Today, a sustainable life also points towards ways individuals and families can reduce their environmental impact. It has many moving parts, one of which is choosing natural and renewable resources. As a result, sustainable or ecological living avoids depleting the earth’s natural resources.
Sometimes people view sustainable living as a lifestyle reserved for a particular group. However, there are many small ways to live a more sustainable life. Transitioning to more sustainable living simply entails evaluating your lifestyle choices and their impact on the world.
While we may not directly impact some of these things, the choices often impact production flow. So, for instance, less overconsumption can translate to reduced carbon emissions. Then, this reduces not only your environmental footprint but also, with collective effort, that of nations as well.
To ensure we don’t deplete the earth’s resources, we need new and conscious ways of living. This, essentially, is where sustainable living comes in.
According to the United Nations Environmental Protection Programme (UNEP), the world’s population may hit 10 billion by 2050. Naturally, more people means more needs and more consumption.
The world’s population growth highlights the need for environmental sustainability. It also indicates the role each of us plays in the grand scheme. As a result, this growth calls for prioritizing sustainable practices.
With more demand for basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter, natural resources, especially finite ones like fossil fuels, might be at risk. Apart from basic needs, people also have lifestyle demands that contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. Toxic gases like carbon dioxide and methane gas affect humans, animals, and Earth’s health.
Today, globally, we emit around 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. This number represents an increase of over 40% from 35 million tonnes in 19904. Primary sources of these emissions include electricity and heat5, agriculture, transportation, forestry, and manufacturing.
As humans, there’s no denying that we need to satisfy our basic needs. However, sustainability and sustainable living pose a question: “can we satisfy these needs without depleting the earth’s natural resources?”.
With studies, innovation, and applications, we’ve found that the answer is “yes.” Although industries and manufacturers have significant roles, individuals can also practice sustainable living.
We can examine our lifestyle choices. When we practice sustainable living, we create new ways to protect the earth and live better. Our choices flow into creating a better and healthier life for the earth’s population. Collectively, we can conserve energy, make sustainable food choices, reduce food waste, and generally make healthier choices.
There are many examples of sustainable practices you can incorporate into your life. For example, you can shop locally, choose biodegradable materials, pick seasonal foods, grow your own food and choose sustainable fashion.
We’ll examine practical ways you can live sustainably further down. Right now, you might be wondering where this sustainability consciousness originated from, especially in modern times.
When we examine life on earth, it’s clear that our survival depends on the natural environment. We rely on nature’s resources to support our survival, whether directly or indirectly. We rely heavily on nature, from local and seasonal foods to fuels, plants, and natural light.
Although most people don’t deliberately choose to affect the planet negatively, our choices remain crucial. We rely heavily on how our manufacturing systems operate and dictate the emissions of greenhouse gases, landfill waste, and the like. If we want to create harmony between humans and nature, we must pursue sustainable living.
Today, we’re seeing innovative changes to maintain this harmony. We have electric cars, sustainable public transportation, and systems to reduce waste. The way some nations produce electricity is changing, and we can experience a rise in recycled materials.
Many manufacturers are also paying attention to how they extract, produce and distribute. All of this targets protecting resources and curbing greenhouse gases.
Before these innovations, there had been a growing consciousness in our relationship with the earth. There had been concerns about the depletion of environmental resources for not just present generations but also future ones. Tracing history, it can be difficult to specify when sustainable living initially became a movement.
For decades, indigenous communities have been living in ways that prioritize living harmoniously with nature. However, we can better understand the rise of the modern sustainable movement. Certain events changed the way we think about living.
The industrial revolution brought about various advancements in our world. This period was significant in human history, from factories to cities, transportation, and everything in between.
However, this also came with adverse effects on the environment. Industries were burning fossil fuels for energy, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the mass production of goods contributed to pollution.
Manufacturing processes led to an increase in production, which fuelled consumerism. The food system that emerged during this time maximized production and reduced cost. A sustainability movement began to develop out of concern for the environmental effects of these processes.
Over time, there were various levels of concern. There were conservation challenges, the realization of the harmful effects of chemicals, and concerns about consumption patterns9.
Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a lot of conversation about conservation. A notable period was in 1892 when John Muir (the father of national parks) co-established the Sierra Club. Since then, this organization has pledged to champion environmental conservation.
In 1949, the United Nations held the first conservation conference. Environmental experts from all over the world came together with a common goal in mind. This goal was to establish ways to conserve natural resources like energy, wildlife, land, and water.
From then, governments established various Acts in response to environmental challenges. One such was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.
A year after, in 1970, the world had its first Earth Day celebration. In this same year, the United States government created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This agency drives research and education in the environmental field.
In 1972, the United Nations held a conference on the human environment. This was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE). The purpose of the meeting was to address environmental and sustainable development subjects. This conference created a link between the protection of the environment and sustainable development.
Later, in 1987, the United Nations published a report titled “Our Common Future.” It introduced and explored the concept of sustainable development. More than that, the report sought to encourage nations to work together to achieve this.
We began to see a rise in green businesses in 1993. This brought about companies and organizations creating brands with an environmental focus. It also showed a commitment, on the business side, to planet-friendly practices within the local economy.
By 2015, the United Nations General Assembly published the Sustainable Development Goals. The goals highlight blueprints for the world to achieve a better and more sustainable future. Many countries contributed to their creation alongside the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
Today, many environmentalists cite Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Sprint (view on Amazon), as a notable gearing for today’s sustainable living movement. The book highlighted the harmful effects of pesticides and fertilizers.
The contents also challenged marketing claims from businesses that were unchecked. As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, various environmentalists are springing up. Everyone plays a role, from Bea Johnson, who popularised the zero-waste lifestyle movement, to young people like Gretha Thunberg.
To properly understand the importance of change, we need to understand what’s happening in our world. Human impact is quickly changing the state of our planet, and it’s up to us to fix these issues.
If we want to create a zero-energy balance, curb the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and create a habitable world for generations to come, we need to take action. Below are some sustainability facts that can motivate and drive action.
Read more: 39 Sustainability Facts and Statistics
Read more: 33 Food Waste Facts and Statistics
Read more: 37 Fast Fashion Facts and Statistics
Read more: 39 Renewable Energy Facts and Statistics
Read more: 35 Circular Economy Facts and Statistics
There’s no denying that actions like reducing household food waste are important. Zero-waste practices are also crucial lifestyle changes. However, these numbers show that zero-waste is just the beginning.
We need to consider a holistic view of sustainable living. Essentially, we need to practice reaching a zero energy balance. What this means is that we’ll need to return to the earth what we take from it. To ensure we view sustainable living and sustainability holistically, let’s consider the sustainability pillars.
Environmental sustainability is at the core of what we’re discussing. However, we also need to address the other pillars of sustainability. These are moving parts to ensure a sustainable and healthier world.
Primarily, the corporate world uses these pillars to create more sustainable business choices. So, when switching to sustainable living, we can reflect on the roles in upholding each pillar.
As the name suggests, this pillar is concerned with environmental impacts and environmental protection.
This promotes fairness and respect for people’s rights. Here, consumers can pay attention to practices like Fair Trade before patronizing businesses.
Here, companies pay attention to responsibly using resources. This pillar also checks that despite making profits, the other pillars are not adversely impacted.
These pillars overlap and affect one another as we embrace sustainable living on small and large scales.
From the facts and statistics we’ve presented above, you can get a clear idea of the importance of sustainability.
When you choose recycled materials, reduce waste, eat less meat, switch to a vegan or plant-based diet, say no to single-use items and embrace renewable energy, you make a commitment. All these and many more practices that protect nature’s resources reduce our impact on the planet. However, let’s examine further why sustainable living is crucial now more than ever.
We’re dependent on nature for our survival. As a result, the adverse effects and footprints we leave come back full circle to affect us and societies. Since we only have one earth that we depend on, it’s crucial that we preserve it. Our planet can produce a certain amount of finite resources. If we continue with overproduction and overconsumption patterns, we’ll affect generations to come.
Due to economic growth, one of the biggest problems we face is unsustainable production. The more we over-consume resources and demand for excess goods, we affect the state of our planet. Exploitation of resources, unsustainable production practices, and lack of regard for life on earth put us at risk. To create changes for a better life on earth, we need all hands on deck.
Apart from the role governments and responsible businesses are now playing, individuals can also participate. When we add up even the most minor changes we make, they make a difference through collective effort. By employing sustainable living practices, we say yes to a better tomorrow.
There are many areas of our lives where we can introduce sustainable practices. You can cultivate many of these daily - whether within the home or when on the go. You, too, can be a changemaker with sustainable choices, from zero-waste swaps to cut-down consumption and several areas in between.
To gauge quite what impact our daily lifestyle has, check out the World Wildlife Fund environmental footprint calculator. Or read on to find practices embracing sustainable living.
One of the very first steps you can take on your sustainable living journey is acquiring knowledge. This article seeks to play a role in familiarizing you with the basics of sustainable living.
By studying the facts and statistics as well, you can better understand why a sustainable lifestyle is essential. As humans, we also tend to respond fast to studies and numbers. Beyond the statistics, learning about your impact can trigger necessary changes. This can also turn you into an environmental advocate.
Since food plays a crucial role in our lives, it’s only normal that we address this. Much of the waste we generate within the home is food-related—the food facts subsection above highlights that food waste is a major world problem.
This gives us room, as consumers, to check how we interact with food and explore how we can reduce food waste. One of the significant changes you can make is to grow your own food reducing the need for more environmentally expensive commercial food production. Of course, this is if you have the resources to do so.
Many communities also have initiatives like community gardens to support local consumption. If you can’t grow your food, consider supporting sustainable farming and local farmers' markets.
All of these support organic processes and reduce food miles and the footprint of transporting food items. To reduce food waste, consider practices like meal prepping. Use food scraps wisely by composting them.
Apart from household waste, the way we move around also contributes to our carbon footprint. In 2019, transportation contributed to 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions3.
Instead of constantly using individual vehicles, we can consider public transport systems. This doesn’t mean you have to give up your private transport modes completely. Thankfully, we’re now seeing the rise in electric cars in various parts of the world, which have less impact. Joining a car share provides another simple option to reduce the environmental impact of our vehicles.
If you’re not going too far from home, remember you can also consider walking or riding a bicycle. These are not only good for the planet but also for your health.
It’s no news that using fossil fuels has a high environmental impact. Fossil fuel sources such as natural gas, oil, and coal are non-renewable resources. Since the earth can’t replenish these resources in a short period, unsustainable extractions create an imbalance.
Furthermore, how we extract and burn these fuels contributes to toxic gases and climate change. To mitigate these effects, we can switch to energy from unlimited sources. For instance, you’ll find many homes and offices using sustainable energy from solar and wind.
Whereas more considerable improvements such as installing energy-efficient windows may prove a longer-term play, simply turning down the heating a notch is something most can action today.
One of the significant environmental nuisances we have is plastic. You’ve probably seen several videos online about making sustainable swaps. It’s time to say goodbye to single-use plastic bags, cups, and bottles. Instead, switch to products with long lifespans that you can reuse over and over again.
For instance, when you go shopping, why not take reusable shopping bags along? Consider the massive change we could make if everyone considered reusable shopping bags essential. You can also get functional and stylish reusable items like bottles, straws, Ziploc bags, and coffee tumblers.
A great way to get started with zero waste is to pick up a zero-waste starter kit complete with everything you need to make those important first steps towards a zero-waste lifestyle.
Amidst the moves to sustainable living, you’ll find a range of innovative products available that champion sustainability. When you opt for zero-waste products, each purchase results in less trash, and you’ll often also benefit from ethical production and organic manufacture.
A great way to start is to check if you have a zero-waste store near you to shop locally or online. You’ll find a range of products stocking their shelves in tune with more sustainable methods of living. Should you not have a local store, loads of options exist online for you to browse.
We’ve compiled zero waste guides featuring many of the best and most popular products a click away to help you get started:
Also, check out our guide to zero-waste gifts to kick-start a loved one's zero-waste journey. Or. for other family members, our guide to zero-waste pet products might be just what you’re looking for.
Contrary to popular belief, sustainable or eco-friendly fashion doesn’t automatically equal expensive. One of the greatest sustainable acts you can do is to wear what you already own.
Before you even consider going out to shop, do an audit of your clothes. Check for those you can upcycle, mend and wear for longer.
When in doubt, take inspiration from the zero-waste strategy of the 4 Rs. These are: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. After all, the zero-waste movement is an important aspect of sustainable living.
The idea is to refuse what you don’t need, reduce what you purchase, reuse what you have, recycle the recyclables that you can’t reuse, and rot, or compost, organic waste.
With the current state of our world, it’s vital for us to pay close attention to our lifestyle choices. We all play a role in driving real, sustainable change. The governments and big corporations have their roles to play.
However, consumers don’t remain powerless. Collectively, choosing sustainable practices, from green energy to reducing waste, can all leave a significant positive impact on our communities and the world. When you live a sustainable life, you contribute to a better, healthier, and safer world.
Ritchie, H. (2020, March 18). Food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions
Baldwin, S., Bindewald, G., Brown, A., Chen, C., Cheung, K., Clark, C., ... & Williams, B. (2015). Quadrennial technology review: An assessment of energy technologies and research Opportunities (p. 145). Technical Report.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2020). CO₂ and greenhouse gas emissions. Our world in data.
Lamb, W. F., Wiedmann, T., Pongratz, J., Andrew, R., Crippa, M., Olivier, J. G., ... & Minx, J. C. (2021). A review of trends and drivers of greenhouse gas emissions by sector from 1990 to 2018. Environmental research letters.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (n.d). Food loss and food waste
Circle Economy. (2020). The Circularity Gap Report 2020
|Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashions future. 2017.|
National Research Council. (2011). Sustainability and the US EPA (p. 16). National Academies Press.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.