A-Z of Sustainability; from Natural Solutions to Transitions

A-Z of Sustainability; from Natural Solutions to Transitions

N is for natural solutions

Natural solutions aim to redesign problems in our current culture, as inspired by the natural processes that have allowed life to flourish for millions of years. Nature is a great teacher, from biomimicry to working with natural cycles in the earth, and using natural solutions aim to put restoring nature as a key solution to many problems we humans face in the midst of the Anthropocene. A great example of this is in flood management.

Floods are intrinsically linked to the water cycle, something most of us learn about in school, from rain to rivers and seas, to evaporating into clouds and then raining down again.

Human activity has altered and obstructed this natural water cycle: deforestation has increased the rate and volume of water running off of land and into rivers; urbanisation has reduced water filtration into soils and constrained the shapes and sizes of river channels; industrial agriculture has resulted in the draining of floodplains and compacted soils; and climate change is leading towards more extreme weather events, including much wetter weather in the UK. It is no wonder, then, that flood risk in downstream and coastal areas is high, and rising.

To-date, the mainstream solutions to flooding have focused on building physical infrastructures, such as dams, flood walls, and levees, to prevent water flooding human settlements.

But, what if instead of continuing to disrupt the natural cycles that led to excess flooding in the first place, we worked to restore them as part of our flood management strategies?

Rather than protecting ourselves from floods through more concrete barriers and river dredging - which only displaces excess water until the water cycle brings floods around again - natural flood management sees re-vegetation, changing agricultural practices, and the renewal of natural flood areas upstream as the sustainable solution to flooding.

These strategies not only reduce flood risk by increasing infiltration and slowing water runoff, but also provide a whole host of other benefits, such as creating new habitats, preventing soil erosion, and increasing natural carbon uptake. Not to mention that natural solutions, such as planting trees along at-risk river banks, are likely to be much cheaper than the construction and maintenance of physical walls, dams and constant river dredging. After all, trees absorb and store water far better than concrete ever will.

Read Rewilding Britain’s report on natural solutions to flood risk to learn more!
N is also for… nature deficit disorder

O is for offsets

Offseting is the theory that for the carbon emitted by one process, carbon can be drawn down elsewhere by a different process to make the whole overall carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative, for example Brewdog planting trees and restoring peatland to neutralize their company-wide emissions. Offsets can be controversial, but they remain vital to get to net zero emissions for processes that are difficult to make intrinsically carbon-neutral, and to help balance and account for wealth-gap disparities in carbon emissions.

There are several different systems for offsetting carbon, from carbon credits and UN carbon trading schemes, to corporate / personal offset schemes like Ecologi. Offsets typically involve a calculated payment to carbon-negative initiatives like planting trees or carbon capture technologies, in order to balance the carbon books. How to quantify what counts as an ‘offset’, for example investing in biofuels instead of fossil fuels, is a point of ongoing research and controversy.

Offsets can also be controversial if they fall into greenwashing, such as by justifying unnecessary emissions, or masking practices that are environmentally damaging in other ways under the umbrella of carbon emissions.

Ultimately though, offsetting carbon is a much-needed way to fund green initiatives that otherwise struggle to find a role in neo-liberal economics. In a perfectly sustainable world, offsets would not be needed as all processes are either carbon neutral or carbon negative. In the meantime, paying £5 a month can offset your personal carbon consumption, but it should never be taken as a substitute to transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle by buying secondhand, limiting waste, and pushing for activism so corporations, governments and countries follow suit.

P is for permaculture

Permaculture is a design philosophy of sustainability that is rooted in working with nature. It uses natural systems to redesign problems in our current culture, to become a permanently sustainable way of living, inspired by the natural processes that have allowed life to flourish for millions of years.

The word comes from the idea “permanent agriculture”, which was coined in the late 1970s as an initial response to the beginnings of industrial agriculture which was already seen to be endangering biodiversity, destroying soil quality and polluting water sources (see M on monocultures for more on this!). Permaculture practices use a cross-section of techniques such as regenerative agriculture, agroforestry, natural solutions (see N!), and community resilience to create an agriculture that restores the land, sequesters CO2 and avoids toxic runoff from pesticides excess nitrogen from fertilizers.

Since then, permaculture has expanded to define itself by three defining principles: earth care, people care and fair share. This manifests in social and community-based cultural solutions such as permaculture villages (where living in tandem with nature is the founding principle of community life, from food production to waste management), but permaculture principles also exist in urban initiatives like community gardens, minimizing waste and expanding use lifecycles (see L!). Supporting permaculture comes in the form supporting local regenerative farms and produce where possible (Birchwood and The Tree are great local sources for this in St Andrews), as well as integrating its principles into your everyday life as far as possible.

Permaculture is ultimately about recognising the ecosystems human society is part of, and transforming current profiteering motives that destroy soils, deforest and cause biodiversity extinctions (see B!), into a relationship with nature than restores and maintains at the same time as we fight to balance our climate. Great documentaries on the importance of permaculture principles include The Need to Grow, Unbroken Ground and Kiss The Ground!

P can also be for… planetary boundaries, precautionary principle

Q is for quality

Quality is key when it comes to sustainable fashion habits. Reducing our clothes consumption is important for sustainability; but what of it when the clothes we do buy only last a couple of months? For those that have the privilege of choice, assessing the quality of any potential clothing purchase should be a priority. This will help reduce clothing waste and the need to buy new clothing - which, as we know, is highly polluting and resource-intensive. Here are a few questions you can ask to check the quality of clothes you intend to buy:

  • What is it made of? Some materials (typically natural fibres) are much more durable than others. Make sure you think about the quality of the material in terms of care as well as wear: will it wash well, without shrinking, stretching or fading?
  • How well is it made? The stitching should be smooth and straight, with no loose threads and buttons or other decor sewed on firmly.
  • Is it practical? As in, is it fit for purpose? If you’re out to buy a raincoat, check the tag to see whether it is truly waterproof, or merely water resistant. And whilst it’s nice to have running shoes that look nice, it’s worth checking whether they have good grip and ankle support too!
  • How does it feel? The item should feel comfortable enough to wear again and again. At the end of the day, quality is for you to judge, and your personal satisfaction is non-negotiable.

Remember, the price tag or brand isn’t always a reflection of the durability or performance of an item of clothing. It’s worth checking the reviews from other consumers, or learning from past experience: if an item you bought before wasn’t quite up to scratch, consider buying from a different supplier next time. In general, buy less, buy better, and where price tags are a barrier, look for sustainable secondhand sources such as DePop, charity shops and learn a couple good sewing skills!

We should also keep in mind that sustainability in the fashion industry is multifaceted, and includes everything from the way that materials are sourced and produced, to the working conditions and wages of the people that make clothes. Therefore, quality in itself does not guarantee environmental and social responsibility, but is certainly one of the many dimensions we should consider when attempting to shop sustainably.

R is for renewable energy

Renewable energy is one of the figureheads of the sustainable movement: replace coal with wind or solar, and visibly and easily reduce CO2 emissions. It is also a sector that has seen the most growth and tangible action over the past decade. Costs of solar have fallen 84% since 2010, with a respective 49% and 56% for onshore and offshore wind, with solar and wind accounting for 67% of new global power capacity in 2019.

But there is more than stats and traditional top-down governance going on in the renewables sphere. Some communities have started building solar micro-grids as a ground-up solution to technology poverty. Activist organisations such as Greenpeace continue to work hard to prevent back-pedalling in the form of building new coal-power plants. Those with solar panels or who buy electricity from zero-carbon energy providers like OVO Energy or Octopus Energy have even seen potential to earn money by supplying renewables to the grid. For those looking to invest in electric vehicles, emergent Vehicle-to-Grid technology is another source of income: fill up your car with electricity when it’s cheap, sell it when it’s expensive, and profit from the difference. Meanwhile, new battery technologies are helping to solve storage problems with variable renewable power sources like solar and wind.

The renewables sphere is one of innovation and constant improvement, perhaps this is why it is so strongly related to sustainable transitions (see T!). Great places to learn and get involved are media channels like Fully Charged or specialist news outlets such as BNEF and of course IEA. If you can afford to invest in solar panels or electric vehicles, that’s a great way to promote renewables in your neighborhood. Affordable options include switching to a zero carbon energy provider, signing up to personal offset schemes such as Ecologi, and good old fashioned activism!

R can also be for… rewilding, reduce, reuse, recycle, responsibility

S is for second hand

Second hand is the concept of owning pre-used items, whether clothes, books, or bric-a-brac. By reusing items rather than disposing of them, you can increase a product’s lifespan and reduce the amount of landfill waste created, helping to contribute towards a circular economy (see C & L for more details!). Second hand acquisition can take the form of buying used items from charity shops, car-boot sales, or vintage outlets, or swapping or gifting garments between friends and family.

Buying second hand clothing has become particularly popular in the last few years as awareness has increased of the damage that fast-fashion inflicts on both the environment and workers within the industry. Manufacturing clothes requires a huge amount of water that ultimately contributes to industrial waste, and also requires potentially dangerous chemicals, which pollute the surrounding environment and harm workers. Many fast-fashion brands also utilise sweatshops, which inflict poor working conditions and exploitative pay for workers.

In light of these consequences, there is consumer demand for alternatives. Consumers have spending power which can help to define industry demand; if sales for new clothes are reduced, less new material is produced, resulting in less textile waste and exploitative effects on workers. Many businesses are focusing on sustainably produced clothing, which often use recycled materials rather than contributing to more waste and also provide fairer conditions for workers. Yet, these brands are often economically inaccessible for many. Buying or trading second hand is much cheaper and creates a community where people are able to see their pre-loved items being put to good use. Using charity shops is also an excellent way to reuse items and simultaneously donate to causes in need.

Second hand clothing also gives the consumer an opportunity to reimagine the potential of garments. Many people enjoy re-styling vintage fashions that they would not find in new stores or adapting garments to suit their needs and personality. Check out our blog post on thrift-flipping to find out how you can get creative and acquire a new addition to your wardrobe - all sustainably!

T is for Transition

Transition. (noun). The process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

Our efforts to realise sustainability – be it through the development of renewable energy (see R), designing circular economies (see C) or protecting and respecting nature (see B, K, or N) – are all part of a process of transition towards a different way of living and sustaining ourselves and future generations.

Transitioning to a sustainable world is more than an abstract concept: it is about real personal, community and global action. In fact, ‘Transition’ is the name given to a global network of over 1000 community-led initiatives that see local communities as an essential part of the solution to our global problems. The Transition movement began as an experiment in the small English town of Totnes in 2006. Through collaboration and skills-sharing (initiatives we also have here in St Andrews through our own Transition community), participants found ways to empower the community, reclaim the local economy and become increasingly self-sufficient in food and energy sources. In particular, Totnes became known for their local currency, the Totnes Pound, the use of which helped to keep money circulating in the local economy and shorten fossil-fuel intensive supply chains.

Transition communities aim to offer accessible, real change that work to make sustainability part of mainstream daily life, and therefore change global and unsustainable processes from the ground up. Transition in St Andrews works on key issues such as sustainable active transport with Bike Pool, local organic food growing and community gardens, reusing and recycling initiatives via StAndReuse, skillshares from beeswax wraps to seasonal jam-making!

Crucially, transitioning towards sustainability requires paying attention to and remedying issues of social injustice. Growing out of the Environmental Justice movement (see J), the principle of a “Just Transition” asserts that any changes towards sustainability must include and empower everyone equally. The world is not made equally unsustainable, nor will the transition to sustainability be equal without conscious effort: indigenous peoples, minority groups, lower economic classes and those caught in unsustainable practises (such as retraining coal workers in US Green New Deal proposed legislation) should all be included in transition efforts. Community-led initiatives, by their very nature of putting community first (like the Glasgow community gardens that aim to reduce food poverty), have the potential to ensure that the voices of those most impacted are heard.

T can also be for… thrifting

Sustainability is a concept and a growing reality that is always evolving,  which is why at ecoeats we want to promote and educate on sustainable practices, ideas and issues wherever we can. For more on our A-Z of sustainability, see below!