Let’s be honest, sustainability is neither fair nor cheap. But it’s the right path to follow!

Not easy, not always fun, but simply a must!

Last week I gave a talk about barriers to and enablers of the adoption of sustainability commitments by actors involved in global supply chains. One of the barriers I mentioned was the fact that adopting more sustainable practices could result in an increase in operational costs and thus put the competitiveness of the supply chains at risk. Different mechanisms can be used to tackle this kind of barrier. For example, stronger actors such as financial institutions or large retailers can grant monetary, sales-volume or marketing incentives to more vulnerable actors such as producers.

For individuals, becoming more sustainable can also have a cost. Here are a couple of examples.

Firstly, people who cycle to work every day save money on petrol and exercise their body. However, cycling also has its drawbacks:

  • When you cycle behind cars, you inhale exhaust fumes, which have been shown to have major adverse effects on the heart, lungs and brain (Salvi, Patki, Liu, & Salim, 2017; Sydbom et al., 2001). If you don’t cover your mouth and nose, you put your health at risk.
  • Cycling to work implies living relatively close to work, which implies renting or buying more expensive homes that also tend to be less spacious.
  • Cycling is much more dangerous than driving a car.
  • Cycling to work can have an economic cost too. If you’re ill, it’s more likely that you’ll stay at home and take a day off. By contrast, if you drive, it’s easier to get to the office. With modern contracts, the number of people who don’t get paid when they’re ill is increasing rapidly.
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/bike-blog/2015/oct/07/avoiding-pollution-on-bike-we-test-cycling-anti-pollution-masks-respro-totobobo-biologic

Secondly, I’ve been trying to reduce the number of flights I take in a year and I’ve discovered that this isn’t as straightforward as you might think. A couple of years ago I moved to the UK to gain a global perspective on sustainability challenges and I now fly home two or three times a year. Even though I compensate for this by not having holidays which involve long-haul flights (previously I would take 2 flights of over 10 hours, but I now take 6 flights of under 2 hours, a reduction of almost 50%), I would like to reduce the time I spend in the air by 100%. However, when I compare the cost of flying home with alternative means of transport, I find that the financial cost is usually at least four times as high and that the cost in terms of time is at least three times as high. In other words, as well as being much more expensive, it would mean I would have a shorter holiday!

These two examples illustrate the internal conflicts I find myself wresting with, especially when I feel that I either am or would be unfairly penalised for doing the right thing. I’m not going to lie. One needs to be aware that adopting a more sustainable lifestyle isn’t easy and isn’t always fun. However, it’s simply a must. Sustainability is everyone’s responsibility, whether at the individual, communal, national or global level. It’s when only a few people are committed to it that it becomes unfair.

At the personal level you can’t avoid asking yourself why you’re doing things that make your life more difficult and more expensive. Since taking the decision to invest my time and energy in sustainability, I‘ve seen my income fall by around 40 %, and at the same time my outgoings have increased as I’ve made new investments. Although you can tell yourself that you’re experiencing short-term pain for long-term gain, the feeling that you’re going backwards economically isn’t very nice. However, when you really believe that you’re on the right track, you keep the faith and keep on going for it.

Now for the exciting part of the story. As I mentioned in my last post, this summer I viewed some plots of land and talked with my friends and family about my MSt Sustainability Challenge.

In the first few days of visiting plots of farmland and forest I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for. Then I got talking to a farmer called Sergio and he shared some of his knowledge with me. He explained in great detail how tree plantations need to be managed and he also told me about some worrying experiences:

  •  “In just a few hours the heatwave in July almost killed all my trees. I could see with my own eyes how they were collapsing.”
  • “During the worst hours I stayed in the irrigation control room regulating water flows and doing whatever was needed to keep them alive.”
  • “As you can see, the shells of these walnuts are completely toasted.” (They were black, literally burned.)
  • “We’ve never seen anything even remotely similar before.”
  • “Due to the lack of bees, I didn’t have many cherries, and because I’m not selling cherries this year, I need to sell the almonds sooner and at a lower price than when I store them for a few months.”

Sergio lives in a very dry and resilient region of Aragon (Spain). In this area people are used to dealing with extreme conditions, but not with abnormal extreme conditions. He is 34 and has invested tens of thousands of euros in heavy machinery and irrigation systems. It really choked me to see how vulnerable farmers can be when facing climate change and pollination decline, regardless of their experience and equipment.

On the last day of my trip I met up with my ex-colleague Albert. After I’d told him my plans, he took me completely by surprise when he told me that he had inherited some land and would be happy to develop a joint project. This is a picture of the land on which we are going to start planting trees on 1 January 2020:

Teruel, Spain

After doing some research we’ve decided to grow holm oaks and produce truffles. As both of us are engineers, we aim to design some innovative systems to manage the plantation and maximize the growth of trees, which will in turn maximize CO2 capture.

I’m looking forward to keeping you posted on our progress. We’ve already made some in terms of engagement as I’ve received expressions of interest from other people who have inherited land. Some of them are going to come and help us plant our trees in January in order to learn how to do it so that they can then plant their own!

References

Salvi, A., Patki, G., Liu, H., & Salim, S. (2017). Psychological Impact of Vehicle Exhaust Exposure: Insights from an Animal Model. Scientific Reports, 7. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-08859-1

Sydbom, A., Blomberg, A., Parnia, S., Stenfors, N., Sandström, T., & Dahlén, S.-E. (2001). Health effects of diesel exhaust emissions. European Respiratory Journal, 17(4), 733–746.

3 thoughts on “Let’s be honest, sustainability is neither fair nor cheap. But it’s the right path to follow!

  1. Thank you for your post! Looks like you have found knowledgeable sparring partners and already gaining some important insights. I am so glad to hear that you already have a date for your first tree planting and, you know, if you need some more spare hands for tree planting in half a year, once we finish our dissertations, I would be more than happy to help. (Although this would mean some CO2 emissions from my flight).

    On this note, turning to the first half of your post, this is exactly what I have been thinking about recently. Suddenly I remembered my Italian literature lectures which I attended during my first degree. Back then it struck me then that artists, writers and poets of the early-to-mid 20th century were very much involved in the discussions about globalisation and potential proliferation of mass production. While such writers as Pirandello portrayed the loss of authenticity and identity through industrialisation and the rise of technology, other authors (unfortunately, I don’t recall their names) believed that supermarkets and mass production would enable equality. Lower prices would finally give more people access to consumer goods.

    And now, a century later, we still know that poverty has not been defeated. Indeed, we know that consumerism has exacerbated inequalities and that easier access to consumer goods reduces not only their price, but also their value in the eyes of consumers. More and more things are being wasted, because they have been deprived of the value of long production from quality ingredients, as well as hereditary value of passing things to your children, friends, neighbours.

    In my opinion, there is only one solution to the problem that you raise – the return to the true value of things. This would mean total price increase, but also disappearance of the dominant belief that consumer goods can somehow miraculously be produced for almost nothing. The issue is, however, that such a paradigm change will destroy the very foundation of capitalistic markets. Therefore, no one actually believes that this is possible. One solution could be drastic decrease in advertising to keep people away from the temptation to buy more than they need.

    These are just some thoughts that I have on a daily basis, while pondering how to save the world from the catastrophe 🙂 Not sure if helps though.

    Like

    1. Hi Pragmagreen,

      Thank you very much for reading the post and for your comment!

      First of all, I would like to thank you for your advice during one of our coaching sessions where you suggested me to start by testing on a smaller reforestation project to then assess its potential scalability. This was very helpful in my last decisions.

      It would be amazing if you came planting trees after the dissertation :). Don’t worry about the flight, I will suggest you good alternatives. We will use alternative means of transport too to travel from the UK.

      I completely agree with your view of the need of “returning to the true value of things”. Personally, I believe that end-consumers we have great power to drive the shift towards a more responsible and sustainable demand. At the individual level end-consumers we need to accept some short-term “drawbacks” in order to facilitate the transition. This transition requires effective communication/awareness campaigns that make clearer to people why they should accept making some “sacrifices”.

      However, honest and exemplary Leadership is essential. For instance, it is hard to accept by many people the fact that there are many scientists, working on climate change-related projects, who take several flights a year to attend conferences. I can understand how controversial this can be and that some people will decide not to change their habits until they see how the people who claim the change they change their habits first. But what are the consequences for scientists who don’t attend relevant conferences for them? Will the scientific system value their absence to these conferences in a positive way?

      This is just an example to represent the complexity of this kind of individual challenges, in many different circumstances and sector. We need an overall systemic change at many levels, not only at the economical level but also at the organisational level of sectors and societies.

      Thank you Pragmagreen for accompanying me in this journey 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Julie,
    it’s great to see the progress you’re making on your project and I’m really impressed to see your plans getting put into action!

    On the first part of your blog, I fully agree with you. I think many of us battle this constant internal struggle of knowing what we should be doing vs. the reduced convenience and added cost of the more sustainable solutions. I believe that in some areas, like cycling to work or taking public transport, this is a reasonable trade-off. In other areas, it’s a question of creating a new routine, such as remembering to bring your reusable bags for the supermarket shopping or your keepcup for take-out coffee. It’s the third category of sacrifices, the significantly higher costs and changes in lifestyle, such as not flying home to see your family, where I see the biggest conflict. I personally, have decided to pay the extra price for sustainably produced food where I have the option (although I’m still buying in the supermarket) and aim to offset the emissions of my flights. However, this is not even coming close to minimizing my personal footprint…

    I completely agree with Pragmagreen’s comment that in the long run, we should get back to paying the true price of goods, and I believe with the increase of certifications in the food sector for example, and discussions around carbon taxes happening in many countries at the moment we are moving in that direction. However, in my view, this brings us to a fundamental issue:

    While I can afford to pay a little more for certain goods, many people are already struggling to get by on their disposable income. If we charge them the true price for everything they consume, this will inevitably lead to certain groups of society to be excluded from traveling by plane, or eating meat, etc. How do we maintain social equity while implementing environmental measures?

    Like

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