Sustainability - Why it's becoming increasingly important and what you can do for a fair and healthy world

Laura Piana
Personal skills

The term sustainability has become more and more popular lately - no wonder, since Greta Thunberg's first major appearance at the UN Climate Summit 2019, many people and companies have become aware of how important it is for individuals to take action for a healthy environment and to encourage good coexistence and equality among all people. Fundamental ecological problems such as resource scarcity, drinking water shortages, pollution and environmental disasters and global warming have become more important in recent years. Hunger and poverty are also on the rise, while biodiversity has been declining in recent years. Only through conscious action can we stop or at least slow down this process. Fortunately, this is why sustainability now plays a major role in many areas of life - in shopping, food, transport, the home, the office and work.

Definition: What does sustainability mean?

The term sustainability was first defined in 1987 as "sustainable development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." There are now very many definitions of sustainability, but they all boil down to the same thing: Sustainable business means using available resources responsibly and mindfully.

As early as the 17th century, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, a Saxon chief miner, investigated human consumption patterns. He noted that even then people were exploiting the environment. At the beginning of the 18th century, there was a shortage of timber in the forestry industry. In this context, Carlowitz used the term sustainability for the first time, describing that only as many trees should be chopped down as would grow back within a foreseeable period of time after a planned reforestation. This deliberate and limited deforestation means that there will still be enough wood available for future generations. This story illustrates the goal of sustainability: It is about creating a stable balance between the economy and nature.

Two central models of sustainability -
The "sustainability triangle" and the "three pillars of sustainability"


Today, sustainability is presented as an overall concept consisting of three components. These three components are represented in various models - for example, in the sustainability triangle or using the three pillars of sustainability. In both models, three components form the basis and interact with each other.

Under the point "Environment" one understands climate and resource protection or also the protection of biodiversity, the ecological cultivation of food or the sustainable feeding of animals.

Social sustainability is about justice, that is, the social equality of all people in terms of rights and self-determination. It is also concerned with fighting poverty and ensuring prosperity for all.

The economic aspect includes, for example, the purchase of regional products and the provision and use of sustainable materials.

Ideally, sustainability should exist at all three levels. All three aspects should be considered in as balanced a manner as possible and compromises should be made only where necessary.

Sustainability in everyday life

Try to consider all three areas of sustainability - social, environmental and economic - in your everyday life. Enclosed you will find a few examples of how you can succeed:

Eat consciously and sustainably

A sustainable diet is not only good for the environment, but also for your health. When shopping, make sure to buy organic or fair trade products. Wherever possible, use products that are grown locally and do not have to be transported halfway around the world before they are sold in our supermarkets - such as cabbage and root vegetables instead of parsnip and avocado, beans instead of soy or flaxseed instead of chia. Consume as little meat as possible - you don't have to maintain a vegan diet, but a conscious approach to meat makes sense. Because: For a single kilo of beef, 28 kilogamss of CO² are emitted - from production until it lands on our plate. Buy yogurt and milk in recyclable glass bottles rather than plastic bottles.


Make your vacations and travels sustainable and conscious

While tourism can bring some prosperity to a country's inhabitants, it can also have serious consequences for people and the environment. Additional waste, higher water consumption, a restriction of normal life - all this can have a negative impact. Therefore, it is best to make sure that you protect the environment during your travels and also support the local population. Explore your country instead of going on a long-distance trip, travel by bus and train instead of flying, buy local products and choose hotels that follow the concept of sustainable or "soft" tourism. Show appreciation with your actions - towards nature and the inhabitants of your vacation region.

Choose sustainably produced clothing

Child labor, developing country labor - there are many questionable conditions in the fashion industry. In addition, the cultivation of cotton costs a lot of water. If you can, invest a little more money in high-quality, fairly produced fashion - and reduce your fashion consumption in general.

Give sustainable gifts

It is also advisable to give meaningful and sustainable gifts for birthdays and Christmas. How about a reusable coffee mug, for example? Or the most precious of all gifts - time?

Invest in sustainable ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds), stocks or mutual funds

When investing, make sure that your money doesn't support companies that have an agenda that you find difficult to get along with. Because: Many ETFs receive stocks that come from arms, tobacco and petroleum companies. This does not necessarily correspond to a sustainable mindset.


Reduce your plastic consumption

Within the last ten years, more plastic has been produced than in the entire last century. Think about it - how often do you encounter plastic in your everyday life? While brushing your teeth, while cooking, or while shopping? Ninety percent of all the trash that pollutes the oceans and is found on garbage islands in the middle of the sea is plastic. There is also evidence that plastic may be harmful to your health. So you're not only doing something good for the environment, but also for your health when you reduce your plastic consumption. This is how that might look: Go shopping with a cloth bag, buy fruits and vegetables loose and not wrapped in plastic bags, choose wood or bamboo materials for your householdrather than plastic.

Stay informed about ways you can do something good for the environment and your fellow men

There are many ways to get involved for the environment, a sustainable economy and society - for example, by getting involved socially, learning more about sustainability and looking for new, eco-friendly alternatives for everyday life. Find your way and just look for what you enjoy and what you can do well. Use your professional position to bring sustainable innovations to others. The first step is often the hardest - but it's worth it.

Sustainability in the office

We spend a great many hours of our lives at work. We also cause a lot of emissions at our workplace: An average office consumes around 30 kilograms of CO2 per square meter every year. So try to save energy in the office, too - because generating energy is the biggest driver of emissions in Germany. You can do this, for example, by reducing digital data. CO2 emissions produced by our digital consumption are comparable to those produced by global air traffic. So it's not right just to talk about flight shame, but also about "digital shame:" The production of digital end devices alone costs quite a bit in emissions. Billions of data centers send and store gigantic amounts of data every second, which costs quite a bit of electricity. In addition, the servers need to be cooled. A single search engine query produces up to ten grams of CO2... With 20 queries, that's about the amount of electricity an energy-saving lamp needs to burn for an hour! If you consider that humanity Googles about 3.5 billion times every day, it adds up to quite a bit. What can you do to reduce these emissions?

  • Switch off the light during the day

  • Turn off the camera during large virtual meetings

  • Save files to the shared server instead of sending emails with larger attachments

  • Avoid unnecessary search queries; enter link directly

  • Clean up mailbox regularly

  • Switch off laptop or computer after work

  • Store as little as necessary in the cloud

  • Activate an ad blocker

Avoid - reduce - compensate

The rule of three "avoid - reduce - compensate" applies both in the office and in everyday life at home. Ideally, you should completely avoid environmentally harmful offers or providers where the working conditions for the employees are rather poor. Still, there are cases where you can't completely avoid such offers. Then it is a matter of reducing the purchase of such offers or the use of such services - in other words, only resorting to them in exceptional cases. The last component in this rule of three takes effect when it is not possible to avoid or reduce environmentally harmful offers. It relates to CO² emissions: Financial offsetting involves making compensatory payments that are specifically invested in emission-reducing projects in developing and newly industrializing countries. This should then help to reduce emissions of climate-damaging gases. In addition, such payments also improve the quality of life of the local population. However, offsetting should really only be the emergency solution - it's not nearly enough to offset CO² emissions to really have a positive, sustainable impact on the earth and its people.


The UN sustainable development goals

In September 2015, during the 70th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, all 193 members adopted an "Agenda 2030." The seventeen sustainability goals contained therein include the three dimensions of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) and are also referred to as the five P's:

  • People, e.g., reduce poverty and hunger; achieve gender equality.

  • Planet, e.g., implement climate change mitigation measures; protect life underwater.

  • Prosperity, e.g., reduce inequalities, promote affordable and clean energy.

  • Peace, e.g., promote peace, justice, and strong institutions.

  • Partnership, e.g., cultivate partnerships to achieve common goals.

With this agenda, the UN has agreed to meet these goals by 2030. The 2030 Agenda emphasizes that sustainability is the shared responsibility of all countries and many different actors - including politics, business, science and society in general, i.e. every single person.

Sustainability in the company

Many companies are now making a voluntary contribution to sustainable development over and above the necessary, legally prescribed measures, and are implementing this, sometimes with more, sometimes with less publicity. This voluntary contribution is also described as CSR. This abbreviation stands for Corporate Social Responsibility. CSR is therefore an attempt to implement sustainability in the company. Some companies now even employ their own CSR managers, who address the issue of sustainability, develop concrete measures to this end, communicate the issue to employees and customers, and come up with a strategy for achieving the company's sustainability goals long term.

A sustainable company should take responsibility: for people, for nature and also for future generations. When companies fulfill this responsibility, other interest groups - employees, customers and the market - also take notice. And that's more important than ever these days: Consumers now want to be more ecologically and socially aware than in the past. Around 50 percent of them make sure that suppliers act in a socially and ecologically conscious manner when making purchases. A sustainable corporate orientation is therefore inextricably linked to a company's competitiveness. Studies (e.g., by Pérez, Fernández-Salinero, and Topa, 2018) also show that sustainable companies are significantly more successful economically than unsustainable ones. This is due to several factors: A sustainable focus can generate long-term employee enthusiasm for the company and its mission, and also offers greater opportunities to attract young talent to the company.


What is the benefit of sustainability?

You may be thinking to yourself as you read this blog post: "Why should I care about the environment and limit myself when millions of other people are not doing just that?" That's a good question. A recent report by Oxfam Germany found that the richest 1% of the world's population emitted more than twice as much CO2 as the entire poorer half of the population between 1990 and 2015 (Oxfam, 2023). This really raises the question of why one should act sustainably oneself, while other people quickly dare to take a flight from Milan to Paris in their helicopter for shopping or eating out, or support child labor in India. Fortunately, there are also more motivating findings: The behavior of each individual has a fundamental impact on the climate and the environment. According to the Competence Center for Sustainable Consumption: Much of the carbon footprint of individuals can be reduced - and make a difference - through conscious consumption. And there are other positive developments: More and more people are thinking about what they consume and when: A Europe-wide YouGov survey from 2021, for example, found that 77% of respondents in Italy are concerned about sustainability and that these thoughts also have an influence on their eating and shopping habits. In France, the figure is 67%, and in Germany and Spain 60% each (statista, 2023). So if you're trying to live more sustainably, you're not alone anymore; you're in the majority! And for those who are not yet convinced: Being mindful of the environment is simply "the right thing to do" - with all the knowledge we have, it is simply imperative and correct to live sustainably. This is regardless of what others do and whether or not you can save the world with your behavior alone.

And thanks to positive psychology, we know something else: Sustainable development and the associated renunciation of consumption can certainly have positive effects on the individual quality of life - because: We do not become happy through consumption and material goods, but through stable social relationships. Thus, possessions and income are not the most important things in and of themselves, but according to studies, they are significant primarily because these financial resources can be used to support others (Buttlar, Latz & Walther, 2017). And that brings us back to social sustainability: After all, at the end of the day, we are concerned with justice - ensuring a good quality of life for all. Solidarity with others and consideration for our environment are therefore not contradictory to individual quality of life, but can even contribute to it.

In the end, what the British polar explorer and environmentalist Robert Swan once said is true: "The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it."

If you want to learn more about training sustainability, we recommend our e⁠-⁠training "Sustainability in business - working socially, economically and ecologically."

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