Sustainable Living – What on EARTH does it all mean and why does it matter?

Sustainable living is a term we hear lots of lately, but what does it really mean, how does it work, it is really that important, and what (if anything) should we be doing about it?

Sustainable living - what does it mean?

Wikipedia’s definition of sustainability is ‘avoiding the depletion of natural resources to maintain ecological balance allowing the Earth’s biosphere (worldwide sum of all ecosystems) and human civilization to co-exist’.

Simply put…

Sustainability is making sure we look after our planet if we want to survive! 

How does it work?

The concept of sustainability consists of three pillars: economics, environment, and society, represented below in the Venn diagram. All three parts are connected by their sub-circles and in the centre of it all is true sustainability. Changing one part of the system has a direct effect on all other parts of the system. The three pillars depend on each other and cannot exist without each other.

Image Credit Penn State University


Kate Raworth in her book ‘Doughnut Economics’ explains it well:

“Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.”

Is sustainability really that important?

ABSOLUTELY YES!!!! Sustainability is arguably one of the most important things in the world right now that everyone needs to know about, and act on.

If you have not already watched the incredible Sir David Attenborough’s 2020 documentary ‘A Life on our Planet’ you must watch it now. You can view the trailer in the link here:

Sir David describes how “The living world is a unique and spectacular marvel and yet the way we humans live on earth is sending it into decline.” In his words “Human beings have overrun the world. We are replacing the wild with the tame.” This film is his “witness statement & vision for the future. The story of how we came to make this our greatest mistake and how if we all act NOW we can yet put it right.” Sir David shows us how our planet is headed for disaster, really soon, telling us “We need to learn how to work with nature rather than against it.” He tells us how we can put things right.

There are at least three letters from leading people in the scientific community about the growing threat to sustainability and ways to eliminate the threat.

The first letter, in 1992, scientists wrote the first World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity which starts: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.” About 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists including most of the Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences signed it. The letter highlights severe damage to atmosphere, oceans, ecosystems, soil productivity, and its limited capacity to provide for us. It warns humanity that life on earth as we know it can become impossible, and if humanity wants to prevent the damage, some steps need to be taken: better use of resources, abandon of fossil fuels, stabilization of human population, elimination of poverty and more.

In 2017, the scientists wrote a Second warning to humanity. In this warning, the scientists mention some positive trends like slowing deforestation, but despite this, they claim that except ozone depletion, none of the problems mentioned in the first warning received an adequate response. The scientists called to reduce the use of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources and to stabilize the population. It was signed by 15,364 scientists from 184 countries, making it the letter with the most scientist signatures in history.

In November 2019, more than 11,000 scientists from 153 countries published a third warning letter in which they detail serious threats to sustainability from climate change if big changes in policies do not happen. The scientists declared we have a “climate emergency” and called to stop overconsumption, move away from fossil fuels, eat less meat, stabilize the population, and more.

The evidence that our planet is in grave danger is all around us. In 2020 Coronavirus changed our world forever. Also in 2020 the World Wildlife Foundation published a report stating that “biodiversity is being destroyed at a rate unprecedented in human history, and that habitat destruction and wildlife trade contributed to the Coronavirus disease.

How much more evidence do we need to convince everyone that we are in one of the biggest crises of the planet’s history. As Sir David Attenborough explains, the human race is facing extinction if we do not act and make changes to the way we live now. What we all do now, collectively and as individuals, will determine the future of the generations we leave behind, and the future of our planet.

Living more sustainably starts with ONE person making small changes…That person is YOU!…The time is NOW!…

What should we be doing to live more sustainably?

There are lots of different strategies, actions and lifestyle tweaks that together make up a much more sustainable way of living.  

Here are some practical ways to live a more sustainable life & do your bit to help save the planet:


Sustainable Living - 13 ways to live a more sustainable life:

1) Minimise waste - reduce, reuse, recycle:

When we buy a product, we also buy any waste associated with the product. We are all responsible for waste, it starts with us and ends with us. New Zealanders throw away more rubbish per person than in most other developed countries. About 93% of the raw materials used by humans get thrown away during manufacture and then 80% of the stuff we buy is thrown away after one use.

The first step in minimising waste is only buying the products you need. Avoid excessive packaging and recycle everything that you can. Consider what you buy…paper, glass and aluminium are best. If plastic is the only option, choose types 1, 2 and 4 as they are the most common and cost effective to recycle and represent 84% of all plastics that are recycled in New Zealand.

Separate your household rubbish into things that can be reused before you throw anything out to be collected. A lot of your kitchen waste can be used in your vegetable garden and many household items, furniture, electrical appliances, or old clothes can be rebuilt, reused, or recycled. If you do not need something that is still useful donate it to a local charity.

Here are some other ways you can minimise waste:

  • Refuse junk mail and advertising circulars at the mailbox by placing a small sticker that says: ‘No unaddressed mail/No junk mail’. These can be purchased from hardware stores or make your own.
  • Take reusable bags to shops, and resealable clean food containers to the supermarket for things like meat, chicken, and fish.
  • Buy items in bulk.
  • Identify new uses for packaging that you get regularly (see below) or recycle it if its unavoidable.
  • Buy a battery charger and use rechargeable batteries (NiMh preferred to NiCad)
  • Use washable nappies not disposables, if there is a baby at home.
Here is a great way to reuse plastic milk bottles: plant a herb garden.
Use recycled bottles to make bird feeders.

As you can see, recycling has many benefits such as:

  • Conserving natural resources like timber, water, and minerals.
  • Preventing pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials and by reducing waste.
  • Reducing costs associated with extracting, transporting, and processing minerals, thereby reducing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change.
  • Saving valuable landfill space.
  • Helping others – one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. 


Recycling fun facts:


Manufacturing plastics from recycled materials saves 70% of the energy required to make virgin plastic product from fossil fuels.



Recycling one tonne of paper saves approximately 25,000 litres of water!



Five 2-litre recycled PET bottles produce enough fiberfill to make a ski jacket.

Producing 20 new aluminium cans from recycled material uses the same amount of energy as making just one can from raw materials.


2) Make informed choices & buy sustainable products whenever you can:

Make a change to your purchasing practices by choosing sustainable goods and services, and supporting brands that promote sustainability and, most importantly, back it up. Question how a brand can be sustainable if their products are contained in plastic. The world is choking with plastic pollution and it has to stop! Read more about this in my blog ‘The Truth About Plastic”.  If a company sends products to you in plastic wrapping or plastic courier packs is that sustainable? I think NOT! There are plenty of sustainable, environmentally friendly options available, it all comes down to cost, and whether that company values profit over sustainability. 

Choose sustainable skincare products packaged in glass or aluminium, not plastic.

Gather information and make an informed purchase. Before you buy something, make sure you really need it, e.g. avoid food waste by using up what you already have and checking your fridge before you buy more food. Read website information and ingredients on product labels and make sure the item was made with sustainable methods. Was it made in a sustainable way? Does the product support the environment? Has thought gone into sustainable low-waste packaging? Always choose paper, glass, or aluminium packaging over plastic. Ultimately, be more conscious of what you are buying and what effect it will have on the planet.

3) Grow fruit and vegetables in your own garden:

The fruit and vegetables you purchase from a supermarket go through a process where they are grown, transported, and stored before they reach the shop shelves. The food is not always grown through sustainable methods and is often sprayed with chemicals to deter insects and disease. You can help reduce your carbon footprint and reduce negative environmental impacts by growing your own food in your backyard. Planting vegetables in your garden has many benefits. You can grow your own produce without using any chemicals or pesticides, compost your kitchen waste to use as fertilizer, enjoy freshly grown vegetables from your own backyard, and teach your children or grandchildren how to live a more sustainable, healthy life.

4) Eat less meat:

Image credit Boston University

The livestock sector consumes a significant amount of natural resources and contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. Trees play an important role in keeping CO2 emissions under control. Millions of square kilometers of forests have been cleared worldwide for grazing pastures, removing the “natural carbon sinks”. CO2 levels inevitably rise and climate change worsens.

Research clearly shows that a high dietary intake of red meat and processed meat increases the risk of obesity, cancer and heart disease.

You can reduce your impact on the planet, as well as improving your health, simply by consuming fewer meat products.  Try giving up one meal a week, it all makes a difference! 

5) Avoid products with palm oil:

Palm oil is used extensively in the cosmetic and food industries and the global demand for it continues to rise with consumption exceeding 70 million metric tons annually. Palm oil has been, and continues to be, a major driver of deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests, causing mass destruction to the habitats of already endangered species, and contributing to climate change by releasing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The haze from Indonesian forest fires, many deliberately set to clear land for oil palms, caused at least 12,000 premature deaths in 2015 alone. Human rights abuses, such as child labour and forced evictions, have been well documented. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, palm oil companies have sometimes bulldozed entire indigenous villages, leaving their residents homeless and reliant on government handouts.

Orangutans in Borneo where rainforest has been cleared for palm oil plantations. ULET IFANSASTI/GETTY IMAGES

Ironically palm is the most efficient oil on the planet to produce. Only 25% of the land and water are required to produce 1L of palm oil, versus 1L of coconut oil. Sustainable palm production is the best way forward, but it is a complex challenge. It is currently impossible to separate sustainable from unsustainable palm and the existing standards don’t ban deforestation or the immensely problematic development of palm plantations. In 2019, The Times reported that major suppliers of “sustainable” palm oil to Britain’s biggest supermarkets and food brands were linked to devastating rainforest fires.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is working to unite those operating in the industry by developing criteria for companies who want to be considered as sustainable palm users with a certification to prove it. This is a process with a long way to go before it can be proven to be sustainable. Unfortunately, in the meantime, the industry is still destroying the lives of people, animals and the environment. 

Many ingredients listed on product labels (see below) are palm oil in disguise. Become familiar with these ingredients and try to avoid buying products that contain them. If your favourite products do contain these ingredients check with the company producing them that the palm oil they use is RSPO certified. If not, then find another brand that has made the effort to ensure that it is.

INGREDIENTS: Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Cetyl Alcohol, Cetostearyl Alcohol, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol

CONTAINS: Palm oil

6) Purchase energy efficient appliances:

Replace all your old home appliances with energy efficient ones, they will pay for themselves in the long run. Check the star rating and buy items with the highest star rating you can afford. Energy efficient appliances are better insulated and save energy, such as new water heaters, heat pumps, air conditioning, washing machines, dishwashers, etc.

7) Conserve energy:

Conserving energy helps reduce your power bill as well as promoting a more sustainable lifestyle. Insulating your house, installing double glazing, replacing old or faulty appliances and fittings, switching to LED light bulbs, and installing solar panels are all great ways to help conserve energy. Small things like remembering to turn off lights and air-conditioning when you leave the room, unplugging your appliances while not in use, and closing windows when heat or air conditioning is on, make a big difference long-term in saving energy, reducing environmental footprints, and reducing power bills.

Other ideas to reduce your power bill and conserve energy include:

  • Keep lids on pots and pans when cooking.
  • On hot summer days draw curtains or blinds to shade and cool the room instead of turning on a fan or air-conditioning.
  • Dry clothes outside on a clothesline or rack instead of in a dryer.
  • Close curtains at dusk in winter to keep the warmth in.
  • Ventilate bathroom and kitchen fans to outside the house.

8) Conserve water:

Although water covers 71% of the earth’s surface, less than 3.5% of water is fresh and salt-free with much of this being frozen in glaciers. This leaves only 1% of potential drinking water from streams, lakes, and underground reserves. Most of this ‘fresh’ water is inaccessible to people or has become too polluted for use without treatment. Very few NZ homes collect and store rainwater – more could do so.

Did you know that we only drink around 5% of the water we use? The other 95% goes down the drain from showers, taps, laundries and toilets, as well as use in gardens (BRANZ Auckland water use study, 2008).

There are many ways you can reduce your household water use and reduce pollution going into waterways:

  • Wash windows and car using a bucket and sponge, not a hose. Reduce stream pollution from detergents and debris, by washing your car on a lawn or gravel area, not on the road seal. Road drains are intended only for rain, not detergent, oils, paints, or other household waste.
  • Use half-flush button when flushing the toilet & ‘if its yellow, let it mellow’.
  • Wear your clothes until they are dirty, so you reduce your clothes washing.
  • Use cold water to wash your laundry instead of hot.
  • Turn off the tap when you clean your teeth.
  • Reduce your shower time to under 4 minutes.
  • Use a hand-held watering can to water garden beds instead of sprinklers, and let lawns stop growing in mid-summer – it is unnatural for grass to be bright green through the hottest months.
  • Use mulch on your garden to reduce the frequency of watering

9) Choose alternative transport modes:

Carpooling, cycling, walking, and/or using public transport more often will reduce your transportation costs as well as reducing carbon emissions from your car. If we all took an alternative transport option every now and then instead of driving our cars, it would have a positive impact on the air quality of our cities.

10) Plant a tree:

Planting more trees and plants has many environmental, economic, and social benefits. Trees improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, as well as giving us food and shade. Trees also combat greenhouse effects, reduce the pressure on heating and cooling therefore saving energy.

11) Support organisations dedicated to sustainability:

Find non-profit organizations in your area that promote sustainability and join these groups. There are also many organizations promoting sustainability and environmental awareness on the internet. You can easily get involved and help these organizations promote sustainability. Joining and helping a few sustainable organizations can go a long way in making a big difference in our local communities, society, and environment.


12) Shop local:

Support your local economy by buying from small local businesses rather than buying from large commercial stores. By buying locally you are helping hard working people like yourself to make a living and support their families, as well as casting a vote against a world practically choking on shipping emissions. If you buy online, make sure you support ethical, sustainable online stores.

13) Have your say:

Use your voice, either directly through raising awareness and standing up for change or indirectly through making sure what you spend your money on really counts.

The most important thing you can do is to vote for those challenging the status quo, making positive environmental and social change; demand better from our leaders in power and vote with your dollar by supporting those that are making a difference.

Whatever, or however, you choose to embrace sustainable living, you are making a difference. Keep learning about it and talking about it. Keep thinking of ways that you and your family can tackle this global crisis and make a difference. Big changes start with small steps…Keep walking the path towards more sustainable living, you can do it! We must do it…

Kia tū Ngātahi – let us stand together. 

This is our chance to make a difference!

The future of our planet really does depend 

on what each of us do TODAY.



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