How do we create a culture around sustainability?

Last week, I traveled to Washington, DC for a conference with a group of coworkers. It was a fantastic learning and networking opportunity, and I’m glad it took me out of Boston because traveling always gives me fresh perspectives in the area of sustainability.

I noticed the paper straws in restaurants (DC’s plastic straw ban kicked in on Jan 1), admired the Anacostia and Potomac rivers from my airplane window (which have been undergoing major restoration projects), and swooned over the Metro system and the crazy array of alternative transportations all over the city: bike shares, e-bikes, scooters, e-scooters, hover boards…

On the other hand, being at a conference with 3000+ people, I also keenly felt how much farther we have to go. It was pretty heartbreaking to see the amount of coffee and water cups thrown away during a 3-day event; the conference agenda was a textbook-sized binder, and there was no organizer effort to recycle them or take back our badge holders for reuse. Despite offering compostable plates and water cups, there were no composting stations. Even several of my coworkers commented on the boxed lunch, which included a plastic-wrapped sandwich, a plastic-wrapped cookie, a plastic bottled water, potato chips in plastic packaging, and plastic utensils wrapped in more plastic – which no one used – because nobody needs utensils to eat a sandwich!

It struck me just how small and insignificant my individual efforts are, in light of the actions that could be taken by conference organizers, private businesses, and other institutional players. But more importantly, it struck me how crucial it is on us to let them know that we care, that they should care, and that collectively we can make a huge impact without necessarily increasing costs or compromising on convenience and quality.

Conference agenda, badge & so, so many coffee cups.

How much do I matter when it comes to environmental sustainability? This is a question I grapple with almost everyday. With a major consumption problem in the developed world, the developing world behaving more and more like the developed, and the speed of growth never slowing down – it can feel so daunting, even impossible, for any one person to take the sustainability challenge head on.

But it turns out, our actions do matter. A lot. RARE, an international conservation organization, identified 30 solutions that rely on individual behaviors – like eating a plant-rich diet, using more public transit, choosing rooftop solar panels – things that together have the potential to reduce about a third of the projected cumulative emissions from 2020 to 2050. A THIRD!

And it’s not just the numbers, the aggregate quantity of waste, pollution, and emissions we reduce, that matter. Our actions can change culture too. As Brett Jenks, the President and CEO of RARE, told Fergal Byrne on the Sustainability Agenda podcast,

“Why does it seem abnormal, or part of some liberal progressive agenda, to do what’s right for people, for the economy long term, and for nature? Why is that weird? Because it hasn’t been normalized…I liken this one to the changes in our social norms, for example, around same-sex marriage in some countries in just the last 20 years…there is no reason why we can’t envision and facilitate the same kind of societal evolution that has taken place around women suffrage, civil rights, human rights, slavery, same-sex marriage. Why can’t we do the same thing in one generation around nature and around climate change?”

This interview spoke so much to me, because I do sometimes feel like a crazy person bringing my compostables home from work, see the strange looks from people when I pull out my own utensils in restaurants, and hear the slight judgement about “rabbit food” that my vegan friends eat.

So how do we go about changing the culture around sustainability?

I say let’s all start somewhere, anywhere, with one small action: choosing a veggie burger over a hamburger next time you dine out, leaving an extra tote bag in your purse for that unexpected grocery run, pausing for a second to assess want vs. need before making a purchase, trying a car-free Saturday, etc etc etc.

I, for one, want to reorient myself to focus on some of these “small battles” without losing sight of the big picture:

  • practice saying “no straws please” without feeling self-conscious, while nudging restaurants to adopt “straws upon request” policies;
  • purchase carbon offsets without feeling too guilty about flying, while sending my dollars to mass transit systems;
  • cut the amount of food waste from my own fridge, while supporting better food labeling law, public education campaigns, and institutional food recovery efforts; so on and so forth…

After all, as Jenks said so perfectly: “voting matters. Policies at the end of day are what codify social change. [But] you can’t get most policies in place without having a constituency behind those changes…so if we want change, it’s incumbent upon us to help move the population as part of the process of moving politicians.”