Triple Bottom Line: We must take a nuanced approach to sustainability

This is a graphic design of the word “opinion” in a speech bubble. The background is purple and there are various shapes surrounding the speech bubble.

Sustainable. Eco-friendly. Recycled. Ethical. Environmentalism is trending, and there are more “green” products and options available than ever before. It’s easy to use a metal straw for your iced coffee and pat yourself on the back for your choice, but it is far more difficult to stop and ask yourself: What do these words really mean, and what is their impact? Does the “sustainable packaging” label mean that no carbon dioxide emissions were released in the processing of this product? What does it mean when a vegan diet is described as “cruelty-free” — and is it really? I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an exhausting, confusing and often disappointing rabbit hole to go down.

More often than not, these enticing, aesthetic labels are feel-good buzzwords designed to make you pick up a product and buy it, but not necessarily a concrete guarantee of anything. A combination of media influence, hearsay and strategic marketing can entice the casual nature-lover to invest in many things that aren’t any better for the Earth than their alternatives. Most shampoos are still shampoos — a primarily plastic bottle filled with a mixture of chemicals and toxic sulfates — no matter what kind of earthy, inventive packaging they are disguised in. 

As an environmental studies student and avid nature lover, I’ve done my fair share of digging into the world of false environmental advertising. There’s no getting around it; nearly everything we use is in some way harmful to the planet. This week, for instance, I learned that my “nontoxic” surf wax is petroleum-based and non-biodegradable.

We toss our plastic containers into the recycling bin, but any sort of waste accidentally thrown in with it will contaminate the entire batch; often it’s all just thrown away, anyways. The list goes on and on, and it’s admittedly and extremely depressing. However, it’s essential to understand how the world works and that even recycled, re-used, repurposed items can still have just as many negative environmental implications.

As the human population continues to grow, more products and services are manufactured to keep up with rising demand while little thought goes into how they alter our environments. I’m in no position to preach — it’s difficult to go grocery shopping and pass up Trader Joe’s plastic-packaged mango slices. However, it’s important to adapt a learning attitude and while I try to alter my behavior and make eco-friendly choices when I can, sometimes it’s just too expensive and inconvenient to do so when the alternative is so readily available.

Many social enterprises, nonprofits and government agencies focus on the concept of a triple bottom line: people, planet and profits. This loose set of guidelines is meant to measure an organization’s activity and impact on the world, prioritizing customers and stakeholders, their environmental impact and running a successful business with all things equal. While the idea is simple enough, defining a metric by which to measure these impacts is much more complex.

Every organization, corporation and human has its own definition of what positive change consists of. The same holds true for the concept of sustainability itself. Sustainability has become a sort of overarching umbrella term used to refer to anything created or designed with a positive (or minimal) environmental impact in mind. 

All this is not to say that environmentalism is a sham — it’s just extremely difficult to strike a balance between what’s best for the earth and our resources and what’s best for society. Historical trends suggest that many societal decisions are based partially on the concept of utilitarianism — weighing the pros and cons and choosing an option that is best for the greatest number of people. In many instances, this concept goes directly against everything environmentalism stands for. 

For example, at this moment in time, it would be practically impossible to power the entire United States using a renewable power source. To convert to primarily solar power, the U.S. would have to completely alter the way we use and store electricity, affecting the daily lives of hundreds of millions of people. From partitioning open spaces to integrate enormous photovoltaic grids to making solar electricity as easily installable and affordable as traditional fuel sources, the conversion process offers the potential for many new jobs, but improvements are still needed to reach a level of reliable efficiency.

I’m throwing all kinds of depressing information at you, and for what purpose? How can we fix these seemingly unfixable things? Serious improvement may seem far-fetched, but the possibility does exist. 

Part of the problem is that not all environmental issues are purely environmental — the triple bottom line is a tightly interwoven web, with each constituent element drastically influencing the others. There’s no denying that the amount of work we need to do to mitigate our rapidly changing landscapes and climate is staggering, and in some cases, utterly impossible. However, scientists and activists are not the only ones who play a role. 

You don’t have to be a fully-fledged eco-warrior or live off the grid to be a conscientious consumer (full disclosure — I am neither). Take accountability for your actions, consider where goods came from and where they’re going and read words like ‘sustainable’ with a critical eye.

Achieving progress in any area can be slow-going. Finding effective, feasible and long-term solutions to environmental issues in our society requires careful consideration from many different angles and the compromise of a variety of factors. 

It is important to remember that big changes often result from a litany of smaller changes. No, a single metal straw isn’t going to save the world (I have many more thoughts on metal straws, but I’ll save that for another day), but it’s a single step toward building good habits, resourcefulness and awareness that will snowball into a larger environmental impact.

Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues and sustainability. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line”, runs every other Thursday.