2020 will be a year for the record books, not just because of an unprecedented global pandemic, but also as a result of its record-breaking climate catastrophes.
Researchers just announced that global average temperatures last year were tied for the hottest on record. Meanwhile, the year broke records for disasters including drought, wildfires, and hurricanes—a reality that will only get worse, given the fact that the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the highest it’s been in human history.
In response, many individuals, groups, and nations—including those in the Paris Climate Agreement—have committed to reducing carbon emissions. But the sad truth is that climate change is still accelerating rapidly, in part because of unsustainable business and governmental practices around the world.
Now more than ever, it is imperative that we all work toward a more sustainable planet. This is true for individuals, as well as communities, schools, non-profits, and, yes, large corporations. Even businesses and nations that are solely focused on economic growth must recognize that the ongoing success of business itself hinges on Earth’s resources, including fresh water, clean air, farmable land, and robust biodiversity. With that in mind, let’s explore the topic of economic sustainability, as well as some economic sustainability examples that can help inspire change.
What Is Economic Sustainability?
Economic sustainability refers to practices that support the long-term economic development of a company or nation while also protecting environmental, social, and cultural elements. Today, economic sustainability is a goal that very few organizations achieve, despite a fairly universal understanding of what types of business practices (e.g., burning of fossil fuels, creating food waste, leveraging harmful manufacturing methods) contribute to climate change.
Barriers to Economic Sustainability
When it comes to environmental harm, the global business community is one of the worst offenders. By not prioritizing economic sustainability, businesses around the world continue to have an enormous negative impact on the environment.
In most cases, the products that are the cheapest to manufacture and purchase have the worst economic impact. (Think fast fashion and single-use plastic.) Why? As Harvard Business Review pointed out a decade ago, “Higher cost to the planet does not translate to higher prices for customers. Of course, this is because businesses are rarely obliged to pay for the full toll their operations take on the world.”
Another barrier to economic sustainability is the expectation, from both businesses and nations, that economic growth will flow naturally from population growth. After all, if more consumers exist on Earth, more people will buy products. The problem with this premise, as the Post Carbon Institute explains, is “a bigger economy uses more stuff than a smaller one, and we happen to live on a finite planet. So, an end to growth is inevitable.”
Economic Sustainability Examples
Thankfully, a variety of economic sustainability examples are taking hold around the world. In some cases, businesses and governmental agencies are improving their sustainability practices to reduce their carbon footprint. Meanwhile, enterprising companies are manufacturing products or technology that actually benefit the planet in some way. Some have even embraced tenets of economic sustainability at the expense of some degree of growth.
Although globally, we still have a long way to go to achieve true economic sustainability, these examples of economic sustainability can help inspire change in businesses of all sizes and among individuals.
One of the most exciting examples is emerging technology that can extract water from the air. Several companies have developed or are working on these types of innovations. For example, Zero Mass Water’s system, which is powered by solar panels, captures air with a fan, filters out dust and pollutants, and separates out the water. It has been installed in more than 40 countries.
These types of systems are economic sustainability in action: a compelling, innovative product offers economic benefits to the manufacturer while also providing enormous environmental benefits, such as reliable access to safe water (which 2.2 billion people lack worldwide) and reduced use of plastic.
Growth of Recycling
Recycling is still one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Today, a variety of companies have made a business out of recycling or its counterparts: upcycling, downcycling, e-cycling, and precycling. These include local recycling centers, websites like Ebay, vintage and pre-owned clothing shops, and apps such as LetGo.
In this vein, some communities have committed to economic sustainability. For example, Kamikatsu, Japan, started working toward a zero-waste goal more than 20 years ago. Today, residents can separate their household waste into an incredible 45 categories. They compost food waste, reuse as many things as possible, and wash things like plastic bags and bottles so they can easily be recycled.
Although unanticipated challenges have kept Kamikatsu from achieving zero waste, they recycled 81% of their waste in 2016. Considering the national average in Japan is just 20%, this is a significant achievement and a model for any community that hopes to reduce its landfill waste.
Micro-farming, also known as urban farming, is farming on residential or commercial property of less than five acres. Micro-farming is a relatively easy way for a community to improve the food security of its residents and boost local economic growth while benefiting the environment.
Each micro-farm offers benefits such as reduced carbon emissions (because food doesn’t have to be transported), less use of pesticides and herbicides, and better public health. When a micro-farm replaces a grass yard, the farmer also ensures he or she is using less water and providing an enticing area for pollinating insects.
Micro-farming organizations have popped around the globe in the last several years. One example is Fleet Farming in Orlando, an organization that encourages homeowners to transform their lawn space into “edible landscapes” to make healthy, affordable food more convenient and to educate the community about sustainable food growth. The group offers professional landscape consultation and installation, then uses part of those profits for community outreach and education.
Solar Energy Expansion for Low-Income Families
California’s Solar Initiative (CSI) is a state-run program that gives low-income families the opportunity to add solar panels to their homes, with the goals of decreasing overall energy usage, helping families enjoy lower energy bills, and reducing the cost of solar energy.
CSI has been a huge success. The program’s original goal was to install 1,940 megawatts of solar capacity at customer sites. As of the end of 2019, it had surpassed 9,600 megawatts of capacity, with solar panels installed at more than 1 million customer locations throughout the state.
Sustainable Fish Farming
Overfishing is wreaking havoc on our oceans, and today nearly one-third of the world’s fisheries are on the brink of collapse. Many see fish farming as a solution to overfishing, but this approach has its own problems—for example, fish farmers have to continue fishing in the oceans to feed farmed fish, and farmed fish tend to be significantly less healthy than ocean fish.
The good news is that fish farming techniques are gradually improving, which is allowing fish farmers to pivot toward a more economically sustainable approach. For example, one new farming technique involves treating fish waste and then using it as high-quality fertilizer, and filtering and reusing wastewater. Another involves farming kelp, scallops, mussels, and oysters in addition to fish, and rotating pens to create a healthier, more natural growing environment.
Although these techniques typically require greater investment of time and money, the health of the farmed fish is greatly improved and the overall environmental impact is significantly reduced.
Economic Sustainability in Action
These economic sustainability examples are proof that some organizations truly do care about the health and future of our environment. There are still very important and difficult questions related to the “energy returned on energy invested” of these, and similar, examples—but they are a step in the right direction.
Today, businesses must no longer rely on exponential population growth and harmful environmental practices to deliver ongoing economic growth; this mindset is already wreaking havoc on our planet. We need to embrace a new way of doing business—one that prioritizes the health of the environment and people—to ever stand a chance of achieving environmental sustainability.
At Population Media Center (PMC), we understand the role of economic sustainability in protecting our environment, and we know that population is part of the broader solution to combat climate change. Our work has economic sustainability at its heart, as we work to empower women and girls and address key issues such as biodiversity and habitat conservation, biodiversity mainstreaming, forest management, water conservation, farming practices, and climate change adaptation.