Should I just swim?

Guest post by Ragnheiður Björk Halldórsdóttir (pictured above)

More and more people are becoming aware of the environmental effects that individuals cause in their daily lives. For many people, seeing unsorted trash thrown away tugs at their heartstrings. Others find it completely incomprehensible why plastic straws are still being made, let alone two in one drink. Still others are foregoing the use of private cars, energy wastage, water wastage, food waste, disposable packs, little-used clothing, and are ashamed to forget reusable bags at home when they go to the grocery store. There is then an unmistakable rise in people’s shock at the high carbon dioxide emissions that an individual causes by sitting on a plane. This is the so-called “flight-shame” or “flugviskubit” in Icelandic, a concept that has its roots in Sweden.

According to the dictionary, “flight-shame” can roughly be defined as a guilty conscience that passengers receive from air travel due to its negative environmental impact [1]. As a result of this guilty conscience, the number of passengers in the first quarter of 2019 decreased by 378,000 in Sweden compared to 2018 [2]. Although the beginnings of this guilt have also begun to plague many Icelanders, such a spread has not yet taken place there. This is probably explained by the fact that many of us Icelanders cannot imagine the fate of never being able to leave our beloved country for a vacation with few other alternatives to flights. Certainly, the number of flights we take can be reduced by extending our travel abroad or traveling more domestically. In addition, the carbon emissions from these flights can be compensated by planting trees, for example, through companies such as Kolviðar [3]. It has even become easier to know the exact equivalent of these emissions in a number of trees thanks to an Icelandic doctoral student in computer science in Sweden who set up a calculator [4] for such accounts [5].

However, these are not the only possible solutions. A company by the name of ZeroAvia has now announced the sale of smaller 10-20 seater hydrogen powered aircraft starting in 2022 [6]. They are expected to have zero atmospheric emissions, as well as having lower operating and maintenance costs than the current fleet [7]. To date, these aircraft only have a range of 500 miles or about 800 kilometres, but it must be noted that about half of the emissions due to aircraft are caused by flights within just 1000 miles. Therefore, a solution like this provides an opportunity to reduce flight emissions by up to half. The use of such solutions, as well as the reduction in air travel and carbon balance of the flights that are flown, offers a good opportunity to reduce the impact of aircraft emissions in the future.

Swimming across the Atlantic Ocean is therefore probably not the most optimal solution whenever we want to go on a holiday as ideas for solutions to the carbon problem are not in short supply. In order to make sure that future generations will have the opportunity to live under decent conditions, it is important that we think further than tomorrow. We are responsible for our decisions, for being open to innovations such as hydrogen powered aircraft, but also for welcoming traditional green solutions like planting trees.

Translated from Icelandic and originally published on: https://romur.is/a-eg-tha-bara-ad-synda/?fbclid=IwAR2kBK0X15HEsdv64qet-U9ZegsHwTOrY2lOF_Az73n5__sGjzbMrNh3FZ8

Endnotes
[1] https://ordabokin.is/ord/flugviskubit/
[2] https://www.aftonbladet.se/news/a/kJ02rL/trenden-har-vant-flygresanden-minsk
[3] https://kolvidur.is/um-okkur/
[4] https://mpg.is/ffco.html?fbclid=IwAR1zqufLD1iV6yGluGaDS6OAASVIsHgO1tunRKFzw-XEhUPE4KQwjt1cdvE
[5] https://www.visir.is/g/2019190639959
[6] https://www.systemiq.earth/news-1/2019/8/12/emission-free-air-travel-gets-real-systemiq-backs-zeroavia
[7] https://www.zeroavia.com/

Let’s talk about sustainable fashion!

Featuring a tank top I’ve had for almost 10 years!

Recently, as I’ve tried to move towards making my life more sustainable, I’ve become increasingly interested in sustainable fashion. This past weekend I went to a vintage ‘by the kilo’ clothing sale, which was really fun! Although it was not the cheapest, at 40 euros per kilo, I did come home with a couple fun finds.

Thrift shopping challenges

Though I love the idea of buying all of my clothes second-hand, in reality I still encounter a number of challenges when trying to create a sustainable wardrobe. These include:

  • Finding professional looking second-hand pieces that I can wear to work
    • While I love loose, hippie thrifted style for my weekend looks, office wear generally has to be well fitting and shouldn’t look too old…
  • Finding pants that actually fit
    • Related to point one, it’s easier to do loose, mom-jean or tomboyish styles, but finding pants that actually fit well is hard, especially at flea markets where you often can’t try them on
  • Basics like tank tops and underwear, and (usually) shoes
    • As far as I can tell these are things that you always have to buy new… But hopefully from sustainable / conscious brands if you can afford it
    • Although I did get one pair of black high heeled boots secondhand that I love and still wear

Sustainability wins

  • I am pretty good at taking care of the clothes that I do have and wearing them for a long time (Except for that one merino wool sweater that I shrunk in the washing machine… Oops! RIP)
  • I have to admit, I used to be a total fiend for fast fashion, but now I try to avoid or minimise my fast fashion purchases as much as possible
  • I have drastically cut back my shopping in general. When I was younger, I liked to buy a new top at least every month, so that I always had something new to wear, since I was going out all the time. When I went on an extended backpacking trip, I started to develop more minimalist ways, and when I became a masters student my budget certainly didn’t allow me to go shopping. This meant for a couple years, I hardly bought any new clothes, except for what I really, really needed. I preferred to spend my money (and time!) on other activities
  • Now that I’m back to working full time, I do like to look nice when I’m at the office, but I’m also much more conscious about what I buy and what I wear, and the impact that it has. I’m no longer ignorant about the huge impact that the (fast)
  • fashion industry has, and I want to minimise my contribution to that

Moving forward, I hope to be even better about being a minimalist, investing in fewer, higher quality pieces (ideally secondhand!) and being really conscious about everything that I buy.

Have you considered the impact your fashion choices have on the environment?

Looking for more inspiration on sustainable fashion? Check out myethicaledit.com , about living an ethical and sustainable lifestyle, written by a fellow Canadian blogger here in Munich!

How would a steady-state economy work?

The steady state economy is an idea that I became interested in a few years ago. What some might describe as a fringe economic movement, others might term an environmentally-responsible solution to the current unsustainable, runaway-growth mentality.

The steady-state economy proposes an alternative to an economy that seeks to expand and grow each quarter.

The idea is that – in developed, usually western, economies – many of us already have everything that we need. And if we already have everything we need, does it make sense to constantly extract more, produce more, spend more and strain the planet with more people and more things? Can the economy really grow every year, forever? At some point, should we not consider a transition to a stationary, or steady-state economy?

We live on a planet with limited resources.

Why is it a bad thing when consumer spending goes down? Why are people encouraged to go out and spend money to ‘stimulate the economy’? Encouraging the mindless consumption of cheap ‘Made in China’ goods is not good for the planet. Consider the energy that it took and pollution that it caused to create these goods, to ship them, to put them in stores… For what? So that we can buy more things that we don’t need, let them pile up in our houses and closets… and eventually donate them or send them to landfill?

What about the idea of minimalism? Of not expanding the economy, but redistributing the immense wealth that already exists? What about the billionaires who have so much wealth that they wouldn’t even notice if half of it disappeared? What about the plastic piling up in the oceans? Are we really better served by increased consumer spending?

A steady state economy is an economy of stable or mildly fluctuating size (1). An economy can reach a steady state after a period of growth, or after downsizing. A sustainable, steady state economy entails a stabilised population and stable per capita consumption. That’s not to mean that there’s no change – fluctuations may occur in the short term – but that long-term a stable equilibrium will emerge. Birth rates will approximately equal death rates, and production rates will equal depreciation rates.

With a stable population and a high quality of life for most or all citizens, a steady state economy is a more logical ambition, versus the constant expansion sought by the neoclassical macroeconomic policies. The steady state economy is also the predominant policy goal of ecological economics.

Contrary to popular belief, the steady state economy is not even actually a new idea. Various economists have long considered the transition from a growing to a stable economy, famously including John Stuart Mill, and Adam Smith in his work, The Wealth of Nations (see more on the history of the idea here).

Our economic system isn’t going to change over night, if at all, but critical reflection is an important component of it. There is benefit in initiating the conversation to consider new systems, rather than accepting the current one as a given. Capitalist economic expansion has certainly provided us with numerous benefits thus far, but consideration is warranted, as to whether this system ought to persist indefinitely into the future.

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Personal Journey: June Update

I have to admit. I have been a terrible sustainability ambassador recently. I’ve had a few small wins, but many more losses.

I am ashamed to say that today I had takeaway udon noodle soup. Out of a styrofoam container. STYROFOAM!

I kept the plastic bag that it came in to reuse… and I used my own chopsticks… And to be fair, the place was take-away only, there was nowhere to sit in the restaurant. Normally I would bring my own bowl, but today it was at home in my dishwasher.

It is just unbelievably hard sometimes to be zero waste, when you are unprepared for example, or in certain social situations. I was recently in a five hour client meeting, in which we were served plastic bottled water out of tiny plastic, disposable cups. At first I abstained, as had my reusable water bottle with me. But when I finished my water, there was no break in the meeting to refill my bottle… And I was thirsty… (Not to mention that the tap water in Barcelona tastes atrocious.)

So I succumbed; I took a disposable plastic cup and drank their plastic bottled water from it. How to avoid such a situation? I may have even already committed a faux-pas by initially declining the client’s water and drinking from my own banged up and bright orange stainless steel water bottle.

Perhaps the lifestyle of a management consultant is just incompatible with slow, zero waste living. I was also constrained into grabbing a salad in a takeaway plastic bowl to eat in the taxi on the way to the airport – there just wasn’t time for a sit down meal, and it’s not really realistic either that I carry my own bowl and utensils everywhere I go on a business trip. Where would I wash them? In my hotel room bathroom? With hand soap? That just doesn’t seem feasible.

(I tried bringing my reusable coffee cup on a previous business trip, but it ended up leaking, was difficult to clean, and generally caused more headaches than it helped.)

No solutions here yet, other than considering a potential career change 😀

Have you also struggled to be sustainable while travelling? Let me know if so!

Waste, packaging and pollution: Whose problem is it?

When it comes to responsibility for waste, packaging and pollution, we need to shift the burden away from consumers and regular citizens. When we often can’t even get the average person to recycle or compost, it’s clear that we need to enact change at the governmental level.

When the only way for someone to get some plastic-free greens and vegetables is to wake up early on a Saturday, and take the bus to their local farmers market, with their own reusables containers in tow, it’s clear that we have a problem.

We need to make circular, sustainable systems the norm, not something that requires an exorbitant amount of effort from the regular person who has more pressing things to worry about.

Therefore, we need change to come from above. From the companies, and the governments regulating their actions. Some may say that this will make us uncompetitive, to enact broad regulations prohibiting packaging or forcing companies to retain control over their products. It might make goods more expensive, again placing a burden on the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

However, I think it’s also important to consider the flip side of this argument. Rather than thinking of what we might lose from these policies, we ought to think of what we have to gain. To be a leader in sustainability and environmental issues. To keep more plastic and trash out of our natural environment. To improve our health by not drinking or consuming all of the microplastics that are currently being released into our waterways and ingested by beings lower on the food chain.

There’s a lot to lose. But I think there’s even more to gain. We need to step up and convince corporations and our governments that these are issues that we care about and start implementing changes sooner rather than later. Because though individual actions may help, they can’t solve these issues on their own. Whose problem is it? It’s all of ours.

Can the subscription and sharing economies decrease consumerism?

“Click here to subscribe and own less stuff!”

Not a tagline you usually see. But is it true that the increasingly popular subscription and sharing economy business models could help reduce consumption and excess consumerism?

As more products are treated as services, many people are finding they don’t need to own as many things, but can instead pay for the right to use what they need. We see this across a number of domains, including music streaming, car and bicycle sharing, tools, or even designer handbags. What people are willing to pay for is not a product in and of itself, but for a solution to their problem.

The common denominator is that many people are choosing to own fewer things, and electing to pay for use on an as-needed basis.

Whether a shift to this business model alone will be enough to curb consumerism remains to be seen, but I see the change as a positive one regardless. In general, there seems to be a trend towards buying solution and experiences, not things. When people no longer feel the need to accumulate shelves full of music albums, a garage full of seldom-used tools or a closet full of designer clothes and handbags, we may find ourselves producing and consuming less stuff.

There are some cases where that mentality will certainly be harder to change. For some people, buying their first car is a right of passage, and likewise owning an expensive car may be a status symbol that some are unwilling to give up.

There are also some couple counter-arguments against the ability of the sharing economy to slow consumption. Some argue that those using these services may be a different segment than those who might opt to buy these objects in the first place. For example, the rental of designer handbags opens up the market to those who would not have purchased one in the first place, and some people who take Ubers might have walked, had the option not been available. These scenarios demonstrate how the sharing economy has the potential to increases the size of the market as a whole, thus increasing consumption.

Nonetheless, I see reason to be optimistic about the new opportunities created by the sharing and subscription economies. The shift away from direct product/object ownership can be seen as positive, supporting the more efficient use of resources, and hopefully providing additional benefits in terms of impact on the environment and the planet.

Why recycling is not enough

Growing up I was always taught to believe that recycling was the right thing to do, that it was a solution to the problem of generating waste.

When we recycle something, we tend to feel good about ourselves. We’re doing the right thing, we’re saving the planet, right?

Unfortunately the truth is that it’s not as simple as that. Due to contamination, the size of the pieces or lack of suitability, only about 20% all waste put in recycling bins actually ends up being recycled.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, and as many of you may be aware, China has recently stopped accepting the rest of the world’s plastic recycling, leading to huge issues with recycling piling up in other areas where we have nothing cost-effective to do with it.

Because of this, and a host of other reasons (including the massive amount of single use plastic currently being produced and ending up in our oceans, lakes and rivers, and then in 95% of our tap and drinking water, and the fact that even when recycled, there is only a limited number of times something can be recycled), we can’t just feel like by recycling we are doing our part. Before recycling should come 1) Eliminating – turning down single use plastic items like straws or utensils, 2) Reducing the use of plastic items 3) Reusing – reusing plastic bags or other plastic items multiple times and finally, when all other options are exhausted, then 4) Recycling.

In the end, recycling is not the golden solution that many of us were taught when we were kids. Not all materials have significant value in their recycled form, many are made of multiple material types (making them hard or impossible to recycle), some can only be recycled a limited number of times (recycled plastic gets downgraded each time, until it is no longer usable) and it takes significant energy and cost to transport, process and recycle materials.

While it can be depressing to realise that an action you felt good about is actually not as helpful as you thought, it’s important not to despair. Education is the first step, and there are indeed many small things you can do that will make a positive difference, including reducing, occasionally going without, educating others, and making your voice heard to corporations and your local governmental representatives.

Low impact living: Why bother?

A question that many people pose when it comes to doing small, good actions for the environment is – why bother? If it’s not convenient for me, why should I do it? My actions aren’t going to make a difference, I’m just one person.

Or another common objection, “How are you be eco-friendly if you still take flights/use a cell phone made of parts with a large negative impact/ etc.?”

I think there are three important points to make here.

The first, which I think is most relevant to me, is the idea of living in alignment with your values. As I have embraced the concept of mindfulness more in recent years, I’ve tried to become more conscious, aware and mindful of all of my choices, and the impact that they have. For me, this also meant thinking more about the waste that I produce, and trying to minimise it wherever possible. This has also meant trying to buy more of my clothes secondhand, to purchase things with less packaging, and to eliminate meat from my diet. Am I perfect? Far from it. I still buy some clothes new, I still occasionally eat fish, and I sometimes still slip up and end up having to use single-use plastic. I do what’s feasible and practical for me at this point in my life, keeping in mind the impact that my actions have, and minimising it where I can.

The point is, even if one person’s personal impact is small, I think the idea of living in line with what you believe in is worthwhile.

Secondly, and related to the first point is the ripple effect impact of one person’s actions. If through my choices I can inspire others to make small changes to their daily habits, together these small actions may add up to a larger impact.

There’s a saying, don’t doubt the power of a small group of committed people to change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. If everyone thinks that what they do personally doesn’t matter and is never going to make a difference, then of course things are never going to get any better.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the fact that while individual actions are a great starting point, and one that we have the greatest control over, what’s really going to make the difference is systemic changes, through policy and by corporations. The average person just does not have the bandwidth (money, time, willingness) to go to extreme lengths to be eco-friendly. Corporations and governments need to step up and take responsibility for making eco-friendly choices not only easy, but the default option – the only option. And one catalyst for getting them to do so will be more people making noise, caring about the issues and living those values in their own everyday lives.

Not to grow is not to wither

The men in suits
Think that things
Should grow
Forever.

The men up in the towers
And on the television screens
Speak of never-ending growth
And order “Keep on buying things!”

They tell us not to worry,
We all must do our part.
Wrapping up our presents
Ripped from mother nature’s heart.

The goods run down the factory line
Churning out production
Must meet this quarter’s targets,
Or face employee reduction

Machines pass bottles
From left to right,
Robots replacing bodies.

How could we
Have put up a fight,
When we’re brainwashed to believe
That growth’s a democratic right?

What will come of man,
Without work?
Just idle hands,
Will we go berserk?

Will we slowly scroll
Our way into oblivion?
Materialism ballooning
Across every meridian?

The owners of capital
Relax in their villas
People take to the streets,
Movements of guerillas

“How would you like
Your facts today?”
A polite inquiry.
“We serve them in many ways,”

“Will you take them scrambled?
With a side of white lies?
Will you take a gamble
On a full portion of facts?

Surely you couldn’t stomach that
Half a portion will do,
And don’t take them too fast
Take some time to chew

You might feel ill,
Facts these days,
Not so easy to swallow…

But what when we stop,
and we spit out their lies
When we take back our time
and open our eyes?

Reject their false desires
The wants they’ve created.
When we rediscover
What it means to be sated

When we recalculate need
And refuse to exceed it
Eschew the greed,
And decline to feed it

When will we realise
that not to grow
is not to wither,
To slow is not to die.

When we return to what’s basic,
What’s ours and what’s true
We’ll realise it’s not growth,
What we need is gratitude.

What is the circular economy?

The concept of the circular economy (CE) has rapidly gained popularity over the past few years, and is currently being promoted by the EU, several national governments and many businesses around the world. There are numerous definitions of the circular economy, but perhaps the simplest is that it’s a cradle-to-cradle approach – one that aims to close the loop and bring consciousness and ownership to the entire lifecycle of a product.

It’s about manufacturers taking responsibility for their product from production through to disposal, recycling or reuse. It’s the same kind of system that many countries use for bottle recycling, for example. Bottles are sold with a small deposit fee to incentivise consumers to to bring them back, they are then collected by a retailer, shipped back to the manufacturer, cleaned and reused.

Now imagine this idea being implemented everywhere, for all kinds of products. No longer would you be left wondering what to do with old electronics that don’t work anymore, debating if you should just throw them out or spend time and effort to look up where you can recycle them, and then making a special trip to a special electronics recycling location that’s probably out of your way.

Or with clothes – H&M is one retailer that is now collecting old textiles, whether they can be reused as clothes or not. In exchange, they offer customers a discount coupon for their next purchase. Similarly, some sustainable razor companies now have programs where you can safely send back your old blades instead of throwing them away.

In this way, the circular economy aims to minimise waste, make the most of resources and reduce externalities. It’s in contrast to the traditional linear economy, which operates along a one-way chain of resource extraction, production, and disposal – which the manufacturer isn’t responsible for.

Moving away from the linear model will help promote a more sustainable society, allow us to design waste out of the system, and slowly separate productive economic activity from the consumption of finite resources.