Sustainability Showdown: What is sustainability — and why does it matter?

Yasmin Davis/Daily Trojan

Sustainability — it’s everyone’s new favorite buzzword. Almost all of my Google searches begin with the word “sustainable” and end with items ranging from “tennis shoes” to “lunchbox.” And in the last three months alone, 24 of my Google searches began with the word.

This topic has become increasingly mainstream in the American collective conscience over the past decade. Many businesses today advertise their products as sustainable or environmentally conscious. Nike, one of the largest, most profitable sports brands in the world according to Forbes, has been moving toward sustainability efforts since 2015. Students across the nation are pushing university administrators to create more sustainable campuses and to become leaders on sustainability.

But as the term grows in popularity, it’s important to examine its meaning and origins.

Defined by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development in a commonly cited 1987 report, sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Simply put, sustainability is the notion that we behave in a way that is conscious of the limited resources our environment has to offer. It also has strong ties to the concept of climate change.

The United Nations describes climate change as “the defining issue of our time,” and doctors warned in a report published by The Lancet medical journal that climate change is “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

Climate change is defined by the UN as changes to the atmosphere caused by human activity. In an article by NASA, 97 percent of published climate scientists agree that the current drastic changes to our climate is “extremely likely” to be caused by human activities.

Americans are beginning to recognize the direct impact climate change can have on their lives, especially for those living in coastal areas. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, about 60 percent of Americans say climate change is at least somewhat affecting their local community. People living on the coasts are more likely to say they are affected by climate change because of rising sea levels, which can endanger coastal communities already vulnerable to storm surges and flooding.

According to an October 2018 report by the International Panel on Climate Change, there are just 12 years left to cut global emissions and limit the devastating effects of global warming. This report laid out that there is just over a decade to bring about tangible change, shocking many people into action.

Climate change is already affecting parts of the world in dramatic ways. More intense climate patterns increasingly lead to more devastating weather. Bigger hurricanes. More intense droughts. More aggressive wildfires. All of these natural disasters are already happening and have a very profound impact on lives everywhere.

AccuWeather predicts that the total economic losses from the historic 2018 California wildfires will amount to $400 billion, “making it the most expensive natural disaster in the history of the United States.” The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has already spent a record $1 billion fighting the 2018 wildfires.

It’s undeniable that climate change is a very real threat already impacting people across the globe, including everyone here in Los Angeles.

Sustainability and climate change go hand in hand — sustainability is seen as a way to curb the planet’s exponential warming. The concept is critical in moving toward a healthier planet and viable future for the coming generations.

That’s the sustainability element of this column. The “showdown?” It’ll illustrate the best practices for leading a sustainable life.

Once you begin the foray into being a more environmentally aware person, you will quickly realize everyone is faced with daily choices on how to lead the most eco-friendly lifestyle — and that requires a nuanced analysis.

This column will explore such decisions and hopefully determine what the most sustainable option actually is. Glasses or contacts? Drive 30 minutes to the brick and mortar store or have your purchases delivered? Shoes that were sustainably sourced but shipped from France or fast-fashion sneakers from the store down the street? Cremation or burial? Stay tuned to find out.

Katherine Wiles is a senior writing about environmentalism and sustainability. Her column, “Sustainability Showdown,” runs every other Wednesday.