Responsibility as Standard?

The personal sustainability challenge identified in my previous blog surrounds minimising my own environmental and social footprint despite the demands of a busy lifestyle. The busier I am the less sustainable I seem to become as I lean towards the fastest, most convenient and comfortable lifestyle choice with less consideration for its broader impact.

But this is no excuse. If every busy person delays responsible living until ‘once things have calmed down’ the cumulative and unnecessary negative impact would be immense. I have since challenged myself to consciously note areas for possible lifestyle improvements. While not exhaustive, the top three sustainability issues for me – which perfectly correlate with a hectic lifestyle – are as follows:

  • Transport choices : avoiding the convenience of cars/taxis and using public transport wherever possible.
  • Reducing consumption: It can seem a lot quicker to substitute a faulty appliance or torn garment with a brand new replacement than to fix or mend the existing item.
  • Shopping responsibly : whether this be for food, clothes, furniture, tourism or other goods, taking the time to identify and support retailers that embrace a responsible business model.

Since challenging myself to improve my own sustainability ‘score’, I’ve found that with a little effort the first two bullet points are relatively easy to improve and in some cases have even saved time despite expectations. These depend upon personal decisions which I have the ability and power to control (particularly given that public transport where I live is pretty good).

The third bullet point, however, I have found much trickier since it feels beyond my immediate control and requires a great deal of time and commitment to research. It transpires that shopping responsibly is extremely difficult to achieve when mainstream retailers in the UK, on the whole, don’t seem to register or publicly acknowledge their impact on the environment and broader society. If you dig deep, there appear to be niche stores on the margins that are geared towards attracting the growing tide of responsible consumers, but that’s where it ends. In the case of clothing, for example, niche retailers tend to be either highly expensive designers (a la Stella McCartney) or small, quirky outlets with a hippy vibe – neither of which are suitable for my, more mainstream, needs.

Should it be quite so difficult to find responsible retailers which operate profitably and which mitigate their negative impacts on the planet and society ? I’m not expecting high street businesses to invest in the latest efficiency and/or renewable technology, nor to become pioneers of a new, circular economy…all I ask is that at their core they recognise and abide by a basic moral code which takes into account broad societal considerations. Clearly, as evidenced by Volkswagen, BP, Rana Plaza, the horse-meat scandal…the list goes on….consumers can’t assume responsible behaviour as standard.

For example, I want to know that : steps have been taken to reduce emissions where possible ; ingredients are clearly and honestly labelled ; produce/material has been sourced from local and sustainable suppliers; appropriate standards (human rights and other) are adopted throughout the supply chain ; waste has been reduced and efficiency enhanced at every opportunity ; minimal (and recyclable) packaging used. Measures such as these aren’t demanding anything out of the ordinary but should be common practice for all companies regardless of; where they sit in the supply chain; the current legislative climate or whether they negatively impact profits.

Once businesses (and their supply chains) have reached the milestone of ensuring responsible operations throughout,  I then ask that they broadcast it far and wide (and fairly !) so that shoppers like me know which companies to support. In the meantime, its up to policy makers and other stakeholders, such as, investors and consumers to use their power to engage with companies and pressure them to fully embrace sustainable and responsible business practices as standard. The irony is that companies will likely find such a shift beneficial to their profit margins. This is afterall, where the growth in consumer preference is heading not least since millennials are far more aware of their environmental and societal impact than older generations.

Next step is to dig deeper into the leads that I’ve found so far to identify which of the responsible retailers out there can cater for the mainstream responsible consumer. Ethicalconsumer.org appears to be a good starting point – this rightly identifies companies such as M&S, Co-op, John Lewis as mainstream leaders (but still with considerable room for improvement). Able & Cole (seasonal and organic produce…albeit expensive !), Prêt a Manger and Patagonia are examples of smaller businesses that can be proud of their business models… but from here I find myself scraping the barrel and with limited time to keep digging. As my search continues, any suggestions would be much appreciated…

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A Sustainability Paradox

Following on from the theme of personal sustainability as it relates to achieving a sustainable work/life balance in a material, success-driven and fast-paced Western world, the focus of my blog will now shift to personal sustainability as it relates to the environment and world around us.

One might conclude that my own sustainability ‘score’ must be pretty high given that, when not attending to a range of other daily responsibilities (like a full time job), I’m studying for a part-time masters in Sustainability Leadership. However, the reality is that my score has actually nose-dived since starting this course and I’m interested in understanding the reason for this paradox and what the possible solutions might be.

Since starting the course my life has undoubtedly become A LOT busier. Not only has it been trickier to find a sustainable balance between work, masters, exercise, socialising, family time etc, I’ve also become increasingly aware of my worsening environmental (and social) footprint. As I continually seek to save time in my busy schedule, I’ve allowed myself to overlook my environmental and social conscience on the basis that it’s too time consuming to address. As far as I’m concerned, living sustainably takes time and this is time I currently don’t have.

I initially responded to this dilemma by telling myself that ‘it’s ok, it’s only a two year course and the sustainability benefits of the course should ultimately far outweigh two years of neglecting my own environmental (and other) footprint.’ But my sustainability conscience has become increasingly dissatisfied with this rationale. My life might well feel incredibly busy, but so are the lives of many others. If we all find excuses to delay our sustainability responsibilities imagine the overall impact on the planet and society, which may have been avoided.

So… I now challenge myself to find time efficient and convenient solutions that will enable me to reduce my own environmental and social footprint whilst equipping other busy people with the tools to follow suit. I seek to research, try and test a range of different ideas and measures aswell as identify the sustainable and responsible companies that can help me fulfill my mission: to maximise personal sustainability despite limited free time.

A Mindful Discovery

Following my previous blog on Buddhism & Balance, I wonder whether there is anything that we in the West can learn from Buddhists in order to maximise our personal well being and sustainability ?

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that has its roots in Buddhism and has been practiced in the East for thousands of years. While mindfulness is considered by some to be at the core of Buddhist meditation, Williams 2011 describes how ‘it’s essence, being about attention and awareness, is universal’. Recently, mindfulness has become increasingly fashionable in the West as more and more people seek to benefit from the positive impact it can have on health and happiness. It even featured at Davos 2015 where a packed panel of elites extolled the competitive advantage that mindfulness meditation offers. I’ve done a little research to find out more…

What exactly is mindfulness ? A dictionary definition describes it as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.’ To summarise my findings, being ‘mindful’ is about taking one’s mind of automatic pilot in order to observe and accept the present moment in a non-judgmental way. By raising awareness of one’s senses, thoughts and breath through mindfulness meditation, we learn to stay in the present so that we are better prepared to deal with frantic and stressful situations when they arise.

Why has mindfulness become so popular in the West ? The short answer is that the benefits are reportedly immense. Williams 2011 describes how regular meditators are happer and more contented than average leading to a longer and healthier life. The Economist 2013 goes so far as to say that in an age of complexity, the Buddhist ethic is what’s keeping capitalism going. Blue chip and Fortune 500 companies such as Apple, General Mills and Goldman Sachs recognise the commercial benefits of mindfulness, such as ; creativity, open mindedness and remaining calm in pressured situations and are offering free mindfulness meditation training classes to employees. It’s no wonder the practice has been hailed by hedge fund manager Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates as the ‘secret to his success’.

How are you supposed to practice mindfulness? Most commentators argue that for maximum impact mindfulness meditation should be practiced everyday. Some propose 40 minutes while others say that anything is better than nothing but ideally 20 minutes a day should create a lasting impact. While mindfulness meditation classes will likely cost you, there are some freely available meditations online eg www.franticworld.com.

Having researched mindfulness meditation and it’s numerous benefits, it strikes me as somewhat alarming and contradictory that so many corporations are using the practice for commercial gain. I sincerely doubt Buddhists had material gain in mind when they developed this form of meditation thousands of years ago and so I question the ability of mindfulness to achieve true personal sustainability when driven by commercial interests. Thoughts are welcome…

Buddhism & Balance

‘Simplicity’ was recognised by Anastasiya Goers (in my previous blog) to be an essential habit for ‘balanced living’ and it’s a concept I’ve become more familiar with following a recent holiday in Thailand. I had never been to a Buddhist country before this trip and my knowledge of the religion was largely confined to the stereotyped and somewhat cheesy portrayal of Julia Roberts’ quest for enlightenment in an Indian ashram in the 2010 film ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Keen to learn more – and with time to spare – I took to visiting temples, speaking to local Thai people and reading up a little.

While I can’t claim to be an expert on Buddhism, I welcomed my discovery of the direct link between Buddhism and the theme of personal sustainable development… Among his many teachings, Buddha taught his followers to find peace, freedom and simplicity in every moment to end despair, misery and conflict. Christina Feldman in ‘The Buddhist Path To Simplicity’ describes;

‘in pursuit of the “good life”, we have the possibility of more possessions, attainments and choices than ever before…endless stockpiles of “stuff” in itself becomes a source of anxiety and tension’.

Further, ‘Clearly the meaning of our lives cannot be defined by the accumulation of things and achievements. The meaning is defined by the quality of our presence in this world and in each moment’.

Excessive material consumption is considered by Buddhists to burden the spiritual journey towards peace, freedom, simplicity and ultimately, happiness. While an entirely foreign and outlandish concept to many consumer driven non-Buddhists in the West maybe, I can’t imagine Buddhists share our difficulty in achieving a sustainable work-life balance! We only need to cast our eyes over the 2012 Happy Planet Index to see the impact that this philosophy has on Buddhists’ well being…Thailand ranks 20th out of 150 countries which is a staggering 85 spots above the USA – the second largest economy in the world!

Combine the Buddhist philosophy towards material consumption with technological developments in efficiency and renewables and Hey Presto!…we may have just achieved the ultimate in sustainable development for the planet and its people.

An Ideal Balance

Continuing along the lines of my previous blog, I wonder if, in our modern, fast-paced Western culture, there is a way to successfully ‘eat well AND sleep well’… our hard-working, mass-consumer driven society may serve profit-hungry businesses and GDP focused governments, but, as previously explored, its not always best for society.

For too long, governments have used GDP as a way to gauge the health of the economy in addition to the ‘well being’ of its people, on the assumption that greater GDP leads to improved wealth for all, and therefore, enhanced well being. We know that there are serious issues with this assumption and even Simon Kuznels who invented the term GDP in 1934, explicitly recognised it’s limitations, such as, the measure of quantity not quality of growth and its inability to accurately measure; the sustainability of growth and, importantly, well being. 

The reality is that as GDP increases, inequality worsens and happiness (or well being) for all, rich and poor alike, decreases (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009). Interestingly, for the first time in 2014, the Office of National Statistics ‘ONS’ in the UK released a separate statistic from GDP to capture well being. A positive step in the right direction!

In the FT article ‘Enough is Enough of the Age of Consumption’ Robert and Edward Skidelsky discuss the three stages of economic development that economists envisaged until recently (capital accumulation –started by the industrial revolution – consumption and abundance). In 1930 economist John Keynes predicted that by now (2015) we would have entered the abundance stage working only a 15 hour week, and enjoying copious amounts of leisure time. 

No such luck! 

It transpires that Keynes (and others) got it wrong as they mildly underestimated the power of insatiability, improving product and advertising… and so, a far cry from the age of abundance (and a 15 hour work week!), we, the West remain serial consumers willing to work tirelessly to achieve our fix.

The challenge for many is to find a way to establish a sustainable, fulfilling, happy and healthy balance whilst still managing to succeed at work (and in my case, a part time masters too!). But what does a work-life balance actually entail? Is there really a way to work smarter in order to spend less time in the office (workplace) allowing more time for leisure?

I googled it and discovered the following tips (which seem to come in 5’s) for achieving the ultimate work-life balance. Just in time to add to the expanding list of New Year’s resolutions…Here’s to a healthy, happy and sustainable 2015!

5 Tips for Better Work-Life Balance 
by Jen Uscher

1) Build down-time into your schedule with family & friends
2) Drop activities that zap your time or energy
3) Re-think your errands – outsourcing chores
4) Making time for exercise
5) ‘A little relaxation goes a long way’

5 Essential Zen Habits for Balanced Living  
by Anastasiya Goers

1) Awareness & Mindfulness – living in the present moment
2) Looking after your body – exercise, eating healthily and resting
3) Creativity 
4) Patience – with everything
5) Simplicity – in everything

Eat Well or Sleep Well?

Unaccustomed as I am to writing blogs, here goes for my first attempt.

Until now, personal sustainable development is a phenomenon I’ve associated with reducing environmental impact. The ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’ mantra springs to mind or the dilemma that occurs each year, as Winter draws nearer, between cranking up the thermostat or reaching for yet another warm, woolly jumper.

However, my recent discovery of The Spirit Level (Wilkinson and Pickett 2009) and other related theories, such as, the ‘disease of the affluent’ indicate that for many of the very fortunate in the developed world, personal sustainable development ranges beyond the parameters of one’s individual relationship with the environment -critical though this is!

These theories point to the correlation between income inequality and health and social problems and highlight the negative impact that competition for status, amongst the statistically wealthy, can have on stress levels and general well being. So when considering the third goal of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals ‘SDG’: ‘to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’, it’s worth noting that social inequality is preventing both richest and poorest alike from achieving this.

While the plight of the affluent seems frivolous when compared with those less fortunate who perhaps struggle to put food on the table or to keep a roof over their heads, it would be unwise to dismiss the issue entirely given how rapidly mental (and other) health costs are rising in rich, developed nations. Despite this, I struggle to comprehend how those in society that seemingly have it all, can be meaningfully linked to growing levels of unhappiness and health issues.

As I try to understand the reasons for this peculiar phenomenon, I look to my own Western cultural values and comparatively privileged experiences to try to draw some clues. Perhaps unfairly, I find myself gravitating towards the 5 years I spent working for a large American investment bank in London. A beneficial experience though this was in many ways, the corporate culture embedded within everyday life at the bank certainly had its flaws.

I realised early on during my career at the bank that you either ‘eat well or sleep well’, it’s nigh on impossible to achieve both. In order to succeed and avoid being the next person to be unceremoniously booted-out in the fast-paced ‘hire and fire’ culture, you quickly learn to dedicate your entire life to the job. Long hours, little sleep, blackberry on hand at all times (including during holidays) are all part and parcel of ensuring that perceptions are strong enough to yield survival and, with any luck, good enough to generate a healthy bonus and possible promotion.

It was a highly competitive, exhausting, unhealthy and unsustainable existence, enjoyed by few but rigorously endorsed by all. Despite this, so many bankers continue to dedicate their lives to sustaining the unsustainable. Is it all about the money?

While I’m not suggesting that money alone drives employees of demanding corporations to succeed, in the consumer driven society in which we live today, it’s undoubtedly a dominating factor. The pressures that are felt by many in the West to work hard to achieve material prosperity is arguably what has come to define whether or not our lives are successful and, therefore, ‘happy’.

Similarly our intense focus on instant gratification and the need to fill each moment with the greatest level of productivity are closely linked to our collective obsession with material aspiration and gain. As one American colleague once said; ‘here in New York we all want our slice of the pie, and we want it as BIG as possible’.

The material obsession I describe is, of course, no accident. Governments in the West (and increasingly in Asia) are well aware that as a society we need to work hard and consume hard in order to ensure maximum GDP growth. Likewise the Western corporate sector is no stranger to the power of societal pressures in order to ensure that adults (and children alike) are manipulated, often through the media, into buying the latest fashions or technologies etc.

However, our consumer driven Western society is evidently damaging the environment and, despite what the glossy magazines might promise, is proving to be detrimental to general well-being and happiness. In short, ‘we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to make impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about’ (Tim Jackson).

A higher income is believed to lead to greater feelings of inadequacy and anxiety surrounding personal status and hierarchy. Kahneman and Deaton (2010) found that increasing personal income beyond the $75k per year threshold may result in better life satisfaction but people’s day-to-day emotional well-being doesn’t continue to improve.

Compounded with this is the unhappiness which can be caused by working so hard that we have less time to spend enjoying the important or ‘real’ things in life that have been linked to true happiness, such as, building relationships with family, friends and having time for exercise and sleep etc.

While there’s a great deal to celebrate about Western culture, ideals and values, when it comes to constructing a formula for true happiness and personal sustainable development, as a society we appear to be missing the mark. Perhaps the notion of ‘responsible capitalism’ could enable the world’s affluent to aspire for material growth in a balanced, equitable and sustainable way. As detailed by the Aldersgate Group, a sustainable economy could, among other things, reduce poverty, inequality and environmental footprint, and perhaps, even mitigate the negative impact of wealth on health!