What does ‘sustainable’ even mean?

It’s rare that a term becomes such a key part of common lexicon in such a short space of time as sustainability. The term itself is derived from the Latin ‘sustinere‘, meaning ‘to maintain’, ‘to hold’ or ‘to support’. The word can now be found used widely in policy, commerce and economics, usually in a way that pertains strictly to environmental sustainability

It’s become widely used in the last 30 years in spite of (or perhaps because of) its multitude of potential definitions. For example, this catch-all term can be found explaining why you should buy a new dress, why a city council should build new properties or why a brand’s coffee is better than other coffees. But what does it actually mean?

Around 30 years ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development published Our Common Future, charting a path for development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is essentially our current definition of environmental sustainability. However, the term has since come under fire for lacking any unified, definitive or quantifiable meaning – basically, it means nothing.

There is no doubt that the fashion industry requires movement in a direction that manages its demands on the environment without compromising what’s available for future generations. No one would argue that the fashion industry, responsible for 10% of global emissions, doesn’t require more investment in ‘sustainability’, but without any quantifiable definition of the term, what does this look like?

Various other terms within many industries are verified using third-party certifications and accreditations, meaning that a brand or business has to prove it is doing something to be able to use the term. The Soil Association, for example, is a UK-based charity that regularly reviews manufacturing processes throughout the supply chain to ensure a business is producing organic products. You cannot use the term ‘organic’ without being certified. The Global Organic Textile Exchange (GOTS), does the same for textiles, showing the buyer that the products throughout the supply chain have been verified by an external body as organic.

One issue with sustainability within the fashion industry is that almost all accreditations are voluntary. Rather than having regulatory standards, similar to those within the food industry and mandatory energy labels on EU white goods, accreditations are seen as ‘optional extras’, often used as a marketing tool rather than a baseline standard.

Because of this erosion of state power, brands and organisations within the fashion industry looking to become more ‘sustainable’ are left in a state of ‘choice paralysis’; there are a multitude of private-sector accreditations which all claim to provide certification of ‘sustainability’ in marginally different ways. And of course, because they’re private sector, all claim to be slightly better than their variants, yet none are government regulated. This isn’t to say they don’t all provide some benefit – many do in considerable ways – it’s just that the whole industry is open to confusion and lack of regulation, to the point that the consumer has a very hard time understanding what they’re buying into. 

Various voluntary initiatives available to the textiles industry – but by no means all of them

So what can we do?

With WOVN’s 2020 consumer report showing an 84% increase in the use of terms such as sustainable, ethical, Fair Trade and eco-friendly and an increased desire to shop from brands seen as ‘sustainable’, it’s important now, more than ever, to understand what this term really means. As brands cotton on to this fact, there’s an increasingly opaque arms-race to appear more sustainable, where being truly environmentally conscious is almost secondary to appearing as such.

There have been calls to incorporate ‘Carbon Labelling‘ on clothing, but of course being sustainable isn’t about simply releasing as little carbon as possible (in the same way that the health of a food item isn’t about being as low calorie as possible), but also things like wastewater reduction, ceasing the use of harmful chemicals, improving labour standards, using renewable materials, reducing waste textiles and so much more. While innovative, labelling like this would only solve a proportion of the problem, and potentially just become another method of greenwashing.

Accreditations will play an important role in the fashion industry’s road towards becoming more in balance with the environment, but there are serious changes that need to happen, including regulation of the regulators. Consolidating numerous similar accreditations into larger, stronger and more rigorous ones would be a powerful first step. 

Secondly, as a globalised industry, fashion requires international regulation. The majority of the textile industry has outsourced its negative environmental and social impacts to the Global South, affecting the people and habitats that can least afford to protect themselves, all the while making masses of money for the corporations residing in the Global North. This inequality simultaneously exacerbates the issues and hides them from view of the consumer. This means that it’s hard to know how what you’re buying is impacting the people who made the clothes, for better or worse. Because of this, we need international regulations throughout the supply chain, protecting both the environment in the world’s most biodiverse areas and those most affected by the industry’s indiscretions. 

In the meantime, companies must be more transparent about their supply chains, allowing the consumer to make their own decisions about what is ‘sustainable’ and what is not. After all, no brand is going to be perfect in all regards, certainly not while industry accreditations are such a minefield. It should be possible for the consumer to decide what matters most to them, and be able to accurately measure up brands to this standard. It is important that this doesn’t automatically disadvantage those choosing to become more transparent; while transparency may highlight areas requiring improvement, brands that choose to avoid transparency for fear of what it may show up should be penalised beyond those showing up less favourable elements within their supply chain. This is important because transparency is the first step towards accountability. Brands that doesn’t show the former will never have the latter.

Consumers, while requesting greater transparency and action from the worst offenders, should also realise that no amount of sustainable production will counteract buying clothes we don’t need. Buying less overall, buying secondhand, fixing what we already have and finding new homes for clothes we no longer wear will always be better than shopping, even from ‘sustainable’ brands. 

Further up the chain there should be incentives and clear direction for brands wanting to do better. This direction should be passed on to suppliers, with brands using their purchasing power to push suppliers to be better, and workers using unions to effect chain from the ground up. Large brands and conglomerates especially have huge amounts of power to effect change, and it’s time they were forced to do so. 

Over over 300,000 tonnes of clothing ends up in landfill in the UK each year – no matter how sustainable the brand, this can never be environmentally friendly.

TL;DR

  • There are many steps available to brands looking to become more sustainable, in whichever way they choose to interpret the term.
  • However, without quantifying what sustainability actually means, it’s going to be difficult for the fashion industry to ever reach the goal of being ‘more sustainable’ in any meaningful way.
  • Currently there is a mishmash of private-sector accreditations and certifications all with overlapping goals being regulated with varying degrees of success. Without unifying these standards and consolidating the accreditations that exist, it will be hard for consumers to be able to assess which brands are truly sustainable vs which are using accreditations as a facade.
  • As the fashion industry is a global one, it requires global regulatory bodies, which currently don’t exist. Currently it is beneficial for brands to outsource their labour and environmental harm to the Global South, which doesn’t have the resources to protect itself. International regulation could limit this harm.
  • In the meantime, brands should improve transparency of their supply chains to allow consumers to choose who they want to buy from. Brands should be congratulated for improving transparency, although not at the expense of action which is the obvious end goal (H&M is one of the most transparent brands but also one of fashion’s biggest polluters – transparency can’t come at the expense of action).
  • Consumers have the power to request greater transparency from brands, and also to stop buying from the biggest polluters. Shopping small businesses is a great place to start, but we should only buy what we really need. No amount of sustainability will make up for purchasing a wardrobe of clothes you never wear.
  • Large brands have huge amounts of purchasing power and are in a strong position to effect change. It’s about time they did so.

If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to read more, there is a great report on palm oil, fishing and textiles, all of which suffer the same lack of unified regulation – you can read it here. If you regularly read and enjoy my articles, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog.

10 Veganuary myth-busters

January 1st has marked the start of Veganuary since 2014, when the non-profit of the same name started encouraging people to try a plant-based diet each January. During the 2020 campaign, more than 400,000 people signed up to the Veganuary pledge, while more than 600 brands, restaurants, and supermarkets promoted the campaign, and over 1200 new vegan products and menus launching in the UK alone.

In 2019, a scientific report released by over 100 scientists shared that plant-based diets can help fight climate change, showing that the West’s high consumption of meat and dairy is directly fuelling global warming. Diets high in meat and dairy are on average significantly more warming than diets without red meat, diets with no meat at all, and vegan diets. Food production is responsible for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming, with meat and other animal products being responsible for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, despite providing only a fifth of the calories we eat and drink. So for someone looking to reduce their carbon footprint, choosing a more plant-based diet is a great place to start.

When looking across the board, almost all plant-based foods have lower GHG emissions than almost all animal products

Health-wise, vegan diets are richer in many nutrients due to the increased plant matter, and those who choose a plant-based diet (vegetarian or vegan) are less likely to suffer from heart disease. There are lots of other health benefits of veganism too, but also plenty of things to consider, so read on if you’re thinking of going vegan, whether for one month, one year or the rest of your life!

1. Don’t forget supplements

If you’re planning on only being vegan for a month, and already eat a diet heavy in plant-based foods, the chances are you’d be really unlucky to become deficient in anything (unless you already were to start with). However, if you’re looking to become more plant-based over the long-term, it’s important to understand what supplements you need, such as B12, which is recommended for all vegans. Check out this blog post for all the recommended supplements.

2. Consider not doing veganuary….

… But instead moving to a more plant based diet over the course of a few months. It’s not as ‘exciting’ or ‘glamorous’ as a difficult challenge, but it’s my belief that slow change is usually more sustainable and beneficial than immediate change. Unless you ate a diet heavy in plant-matter prior to switching, you may suffer gut issues (thanks to the high-fibre content of most vegan diets), and slowly cutting out various animal products gives you time to reintroduce new foods and meals to your repertoire, reducing the shock to both your body and your culinary skills!

3. It’s not about cutting things out

Many people I know who have struggle with a plant-based diet are those who have seen veganism as a way to cut out half their diet (myself included, when I first tried it aged 15). Cue sluggishness, grumpiness and constant hunger. It’s true that veganism likely isn’t for everyone, but you can avoid the above ailments by introducing, rather than just cutting out, foods. Meat serves as the protein source in many meals, so this must be replaced by a number of other substitutes, such as pulses and/or meat substitutes. There are lots out there, so experiment! Find what works for you, and most of all, make sure you’re eating enough – plants are high in fibre and low in calories, so you’ll likely need to eat more volume to get enough calories from your diet. Don’t let yourself go hungry.

4. Vegan does not necessarily mean healthy

It’s perfectly possible to eat a vegan diet and gain weight. It’s also perfectly possible to eat a vegan diet and end up considerably less healthy than before, because veganism does not equate to health. Nowadays especially, it’s so easy to get confectionary and desserts that are vegan – and despite the fact that they’re vegan, a cake is still a cake. As with any diet, becoming plant-based requires thought, planning and attention to nutrient density of foods. By all means eat the cake, just don’t fool yourself into believing it’s healthy just because it’s vegan.

5. Soy won’t give you moobs/breast cancer

Another concern about turning vegan is that 50% of your diet will be soy, and soy gives you breast cancer. Except it won’t, and it doesn’t. Soy is a common ingredient in a lot of meat substitutes, plant-based milk and foods such as tofu and tempeh. However, it’s not as prevalent in most vegan diets as you might think, and has no link to breast cancer or ‘feminising’ effects on men. There is a lot to be said for varying your diet and mixing up your sources of protein, but in terms of health, soy is a complete protein, low in fat, relatively cheap and pretty damn good for you. Unless you’re allergic, you don’t need to avoid it.

The other concern about soy is that it leads to deforestation. While this is true of some soy products (deforestation linked to soy products is responsible for 29% of Brazil’s GHG emissions), it is worth remembering that around 75% of global soy production is actually fed to livestock – in far greater quantities than we consume it. If you want to reduce your contribution to soy deforestation, ironically going vegan could be a pretty effective way to do so. And, of course, vary up your protein sources so you’re not eating it for every meal.

6. Being vegan does not make you the perfect environmentalist

On average, the emissions released by a vegan diet are considerably less than those from an omnivorous diet or vegetarian diet. This is because almost all animal products result in greater emissions than almost all plant-based products, no matter where they’re from. However, some products, namely coffee, chocolate and beer, have differing impacts relating to how they’re farmed (e.g. is the cocoa and coffee grown on deforested land?). In addition, foods such as almonds and avocados are particularly water intensive, contributing to drought in the areas they are grown. However, neither avocados nor almonds are a direct substitute for meat, and vegans and meat-eaters alike are both likely to eat all of the above products – so this isn’t just a vegan issue.

Even environmentally questionable products such as almond milk fare better environmentally when compared to cows milk, so if being eco-friendly is high on your agenda, you’re still better off moving to a more plant-based diet, whilst keeping in mind that not all vegan products are necessarily good for the environment. Bear in mind that eating local and seasonal has numerous benefits and that while very beneficial, going vegan does not magically make you the perfect environmentalist.

On this note, your environmentalism should not end at changing your diet. Veganism has been co-opted as an extremely white movement, but plant-based diets have existed for centuries in other communities, long before making it to the white mainstream. Don’t let your vegan morals end at Joe and the Juice juices and quinoa – follow BIPOC creators and educators on Instagram and understand how the vegan movement currently benefits white people, often at the expense of its historical originators.

A graph showing the comparison between animal products and plant-based products, showing that how your food is grown can vastly alter its environmental impact

7. Consider why

Going plant-based is a great thing to do for so many reasons, but for some people, it can be exactly the wrong thing to do. For example, if you struggle with restrictive behaviours when it comes to eating, suddenly switching to a vegan diet can be triggering and lead to unhealthy behaviours. If you’re concerned, speak to a dietician before trying anything new. As mentioned above, eating a vegan diet shouldn’t be about restriction – it should be about expanding your diet to incorporate a whole range of delicious plant-based foods.

8. Look at other areas of your life

Scientists have said that going vegan is the single biggest thing an individual can do to reduce their environmental footprint. However, there are numerous other ways you can also benefit the environment, from consuming fewer goods overall (e.g. not buying new clothes every week), flying considerably less and moving to an ethical bank. Going plant-based was my ‘gateway drug’ to considering my other actions and their impact – and I’m still learning new things every day! Check out my vlog on some of the best ways to reduce your overall environmental impact.

9. You won’t get weak and weedy

One of the biggest concerns about veganism (at least among the fitness community) is that it doesn’t allow for ‘gains’ and fitness progress. This couldn’t be further from the truth – a vegan diet can certainly be sufficient and even beneficial for athletes – but it is something that you should consider when making the switch. When I turned plant-based I expected either massive gains at the gym or to lose all my strength and endurance over time. In reality, not much changed at all, and the diet provided enough of everything to take me through 2 boxing fights, a marathon, 2 ultra marathons and all my workouts in between. So long as you eat enough calories, ensure you eat a wide variety of foods and supplement what’s lacking, you may see fitness benefits, or at worst, just stay the same as you were before.

This guy was vegan!

10. Remember, everyone takes their time

Once you’ve made the huge step to becoming plant-based, it can be frustrating to watch others choose not to do the same. When you’ve educated yourself on the myriad benefits and made the effort to switch, it’s easy to get up on your high-horse and judge others who haven’t done the same. Getting angry at people, however, rarely leads to positive, long-lasting change – think back to the number of times someone suggested that you try vegetarianism or veganism. It’s likely you didn’t suddenly change your way of life and immediately turn vegan, so why would you expect the same from someone else? People have their own reasons for living the way they do, and trying to force someone into your way of thinking can have the reverse effect you want it to. By all means educate if someone enquires, but I find living my best life and leading by example is enough.

I feel great eating a plant-based diet. I love it for so many reasons, but that’s because I’ve planned it, researched extensively, listened to my body and learnt over the years. It’s undoubtedly the right thing for me. I’m still learning everyday and wouldn’t dream of considering the way I do things the ‘best way possible’; everyone is unique, everyone moves at their own pace and what works for you won’t necessarily work for someone else.

Good luck with your Veganuary or the start of your plant-based way of living! I’d love to hear if you found this useful and if you have any pieces of advice of your own! Comment below and don’t forget to share this on Instagram! If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution to the running of my blog.

Microplastics – a macro problem?

Microplastics, as the name implies, are tiny particles of plastics, created either for commercial use (primary microplastics, e.g. for use in cosmetics), from the breakdown of larger plastics (secondary microplastics), measuring 5mm or less in diameter. Over the last few years, there has been a lot of light shone on the prevalence and environmental and health impacts of microplastics, from their presence in drinking water, to their ubiquity in the ocean.

Thankfully, plastic pollution has come to the forefront of public perception (WWF)

It has long been known that plastics never really break down – instead, they break up into ever smaller pieces, causing environmental damage at every stage of the process. Single use plastics are thought to be the foremost contributor to secondary microplastics, but many microplastics are created intentionally to be used in industry. Wastewater treatment cannot filter out all microplastics, so they end up everywhere – in our oceans, freshwater systems and even the air we breathe.

Understanding the leading causes and relative abundance of microplastic in our ecosystems is key to understanding the how this might affect us, our environment and how best to limit that damage. With the problems being multi-fold – impacting both the environment and out health – we need solutions sooner rather than later, before irreversible damage is done.

For a summary of this article, scroll to the bottom.

A fish fry entangled in microplastic – National Geographic

What are the major causes?

A 2017 study found microplastics in 81 per cent of tap water samples globally. In the past few years, in mountain ranges in the US and France, researchers even found microplastics in rain. They have recently been found in the Arctic, too, giving an indication of their ubiquity. So where are these microplastics coming from? Without knowing the key sources, it is impossible to begin to understand how to tackle the problem. Here are the two key ways microplastics get into the environment.

  • Runoff from land-based sources, such as agriculture, tyre wear on roads and landfills.
  • Wastewater overflow, including treated water, as treatments cannot always capture such small particles. The microplastics come from the washing of clothes (microfibres), cosmetic microbeads, flushed period products etc. Every time we wash our clothes in the washing machine, millions of microfibres are shed. It is estimated that one load of clothes in a washing machine releases about 700,000 fibres per wash. Washing machine filters are not currently able to filter out these microfibres, so they work their way into our water systems.

What are the environmental impacts?

Environmentalists will be no strangers to images of seabirds with plastics filling their stomach, but do microplastics cause the same harm? The science suggests that the environmental impacts can be severe and far-reaching, with microplastics being found in 47% of Fulmar guano samples (a good indicator of their presence in marine environments).

The potential issues are multifold. As plastics do not degrade, they accumulate both with ecosystems and up food chains. They can also absorb toxic chemicals and pathogens, providing another route of harm. Another issue is that for many organisms, ingested plastics can make them feel full, so they stop eating and eventually die of starvation.

“Microplastics have been found in a wide variety of species including zooplankton, mussels, oysters, shrimp, marine worms, fish, seals, and whales. Several of these species are of commercial importance. For example, a 2009 survey in the Clyde Sea found 83% of Norwegian lobster contained plastic, mainly in the form of fibres. Similarly, trawls in the English Channel found microplastics in 36.5% of fish caught” (DEFRA).

Further to their effect on animals, microplastics have the potential to carry around pathogens and invasive species. High levels of microplastics on beaches may even change the temperature of the sand, affecting animals such as turtles where offspring sex is temperature-determined.

Despite the complex science, a 2017 United Nations resolution discussed microplastics and the need for regulations to reduce this hazard to our ecosystems. The problem is so widespread it’s unlikely to not be seriously harmful over the years, and combined with the other pressures on our oceans, they need all the help they can get.

Are they causing us any harm?

There is a huge absence of science in this area, thanks in part due to the relative recency of interest in the subject, but also due to the difficulty of carrying out robust scientific studies on humans. It is estimated that the average person consumes up to 120,000 particles of microplastic each year, with that number increasing for those drinking mostly bottled water. However, whether or not this has had adverse effects in the decades we have been consuming them is not entirely clear.

As with many environmental issues, our exposure to microplastics is partially dependent on where we live. In the UK and other high-income countries, sewage treatments can effectively remove most microplastics from effluent, reducing the amount present in freshwater systems. In low and mid-income countries, however, only 33% of the population have sewer connections, meaning that for most of the population, water is poorly treated, leading to greater microplastic concentration in soils and water systems, and thus greater potential adverse health incomes.

For the most part in richer countries, drinking water is treated enough to prevent large quantities of microplastics working their way in. However, the smallest plastic particles can assimilate their way into our food, including seafood (primarily shellfish). While most plastics are inert (don’t readily react) and insoluble and therefore unlikely to be absorbed into our bodies, there are concerns about their absorption of toxic chemicals from the environment. However, with the relative paucity of scientific studies on the subject, there is not enough evidence to suggest a link between microplastics in drinking water and food and adverse health outcomes. This doesn’t mean that the link is not there, simply that more studies need to be done in this area.

What can we do?

  • Reduce littering and improve rubbish collection systems.
  • Move on from the idea that plastic is disposable. With the average single use cutlery being used for just 3 minutes, yet taking hundreds of years to break down (not disappear), this will never be a sustainable attitude.
  • Install and optimise wastewater treatments which reduce the amount of plastic pollution in waterways, and thus the amount being consumed in drinking water too. While the UK has extremely effective treatment facilities, this isn’t the case everywhere.
  • Limit the introduction of new plastic sources into the environment. A lot of microplastic pollution comes from single-use plastics in one form or another, so by reducing the amount of plastic we consume, we can reduce the amount that eventually ends up in our ecosystems.
  • Improve plastic recycling systems and use them. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that has been produced (2018), 6.3 billion metric tons has become plastic waste, and 91% of this has not been recycled. By reducing the amount of plastic sent to landfill we can reduce the amount of plastic breakdown there is globally. This includes dealing with our own plastic problem, and not shipping it elsewhere (just another form of environmental racism)
  • Introduce global bans where possible on unnecessary use of microbeads (already done in the UK), for example in cosmetics, while recognising that this is only a small part of the issue.
  • Improve sustainable plastic alternatives. While current ‘bioplastic’ alternatives are not always less harmful than conventional plastics, existing technologies have the potential to decrease the prevalence of harmful plastics in our ecosystems. It is vital to ensure that replacements to conventional plastic is not more damaging than the plastic itself.
  • Introduce the widespread use of filtration bags when washing synthetic clothes (e.g. Guppyfriend washing bags).
  • Encourage brands to take responsibility for their plastic pollution at all stages of industry, from banning microbeads, to having consumers report litter (e.g. via the Plastic Patrol app).

TL;DR

Microplastics are everywhere, from rain to our drinking water, to the Arctic to the Mariana Trench.

Microplastics can break down into nano plastics, even smaller microscopic particles that can have differing impacts in lots of different ways.

There is not enough evidence to suggest that microplastics lead to negative health outcomes in people, but more research needs to be done in this area. Health impacts are likely to vary between countries depending on their treatment systems.

Improving sewage and water-treatment systems in LEDCs will likely have far-reaching positive effects, far beyond simply reducing microplastic exposure, and should be a priority where possible.

The real issues with microplastics lie in their effect on the environment, as they have been shown to be harmful to animal life at every stage of their degradation.

As with all environmental issues, behavioural change is all well and good, but what is really needed is system change that holds corporations accountable for their disastrous impact on the environment.

While the impacts are not fully understood, the ubiquity and prevalence of microplastics will likely already be causing issues to the environment and potentially our health too. We need more research to see where and how.

Thanks to Hattie for helping me research this huge topic! For more sustainability content, go and follow her on Instagram.