Handle with care: Unpacking misconceptions on sustainability

Now that the world has found itself at the mercy of a climate crisis, the need has arisen for a middle ground—which, as agreed upon by 193 countries in the United Nations, was sustainable development. These days, sustainability is more commonly known through the proliferation of metal straws and Instagram-worthy eco-friendly packaging. However, this commercialized image of the movement barely scratches the surface.

Redefining sustainability

Sustainability isn’t just an underlying cultural practice that can be seen within local areas, rather it collates the efforts of many into living life to its fullest without harming the environment. Julie Balarbar, chair of the Marketing and Advertising Department, sees sustainability as a way to better the world for the future generations to come. “Some think it’s too difficult or too abstract. But if they can be shown how to make simple and baby steps, then each one can contribute.”

Sustainability, moreover, is not simply the act of purchasing reusable goods and products and calling it a day. Former DLSU environmental education professor Carmeleah Ang See says, “More often than not, the general public will see post-production waste…but we’re not looking at pre-production waste.” Similarly, Balarbar believes that from a marketing standpoint, companies should work toward more long term sustainability rather than fixating on short term decisions.

Deconstructing the illusions

While the popularization of sustainable living is something to be celebrated, commercial giants and fleeting trends have mercilessly exploited the movement. Brands have tried to use the heightened interest in sustainability to their advantage—in some ways less honest than others. “Some companies might be using it to sell products but are not really practicing sustainability,” Balarbar mentions. 

Ang See advises consumers to be aware of something called “greenwashing.” In the race to gain public attention and support, labels have not only made false promises regarding sustainable practices but also harmed the environment even further in the process. “For example, H&M has this program of collecting old clothes for recycling,” she adds, “but then one news [report] showed their clothes piles being burned.” 

Furthermore, it is no secret that living a zero-waste lifestyle entails investing in often-expensive sustainable products. Neither is it a surprise for the less fortunate to prioritize the price of their own survival instead of the environment’s. However, Ang See and Balarbar both believe that sustainability need not be the premium, high-cost, inaccessible way of life that it is right now. 

And in the Philippines, where we grapple with proper plastic waste disposal, the prevalence of single-use plastic is something to be regretted. Many paint the sachet economy as sustainability’s biggest adversary; however, Ang See contends that this is a problem of the corporations, not of the poor. While the tingi culture is a staple in Filipino life, it does not have to come hand-in-hand with the use of plastic sachets. “It should not be an argument against the less privileged, against the poor, because the sari-sari store has existed since the Spanish period,” she asserts.

Beyond the packaging issues

To lobby for sustainability means expanding its definition to include the pre-production factor into the equation—from chemical use in manufacturing to carbon emissions in transport and distribution. “Look at how the food got to you in the first place,” illustrates Ang See.

As she points out, to focus on post-production alone would only result in half-baked solutions to a heavily nuanced issue. “If you have the frame of mind where you look at the pre-consumption…then you make better decisions. You can address those hindrances [to sustainability] better,” she explains. 

The rallying call for sustainability has pushed brands to rise to the challenge of corporate responsibility. “The newer companies are embracing the sustainability framework as their business model, and old companies are changing their current practices to achieve sustainability goals,” she says, citing Adidas and IKEA as prime examples of brands that have integrated sustainability in their pre-production activities.

To make a commitment

Ultimately, for the country to be truly sustainable, sustainability needs to become a collective effort, lest Filipinos are left behind to suffer the brunt of climate change. Bearing this mind, Ang See directs the focus back to the government, the one body of influence that has the capacity to induce the cooperation of the entire country. “You need to look at what are the current laws and policies on sustainable development?…What is our government doing to mitigate climate change?” 

For genuine sustainable change to happen, it is necessary to veer away from a capitalist understanding of sustainability that places the burden on the individual consumer to save the world. Ang See stresses that “to really commit to living a sustainable lifestyle, you need a paradigm shift…It has to be a conscious decision to follow this way of life, rather than just follow it because it’s trending on social media…Without that, it’s not gonna happen.”

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