Sustainable lifestyle is based on the idea of sustainable development. The concept of sustainable development is defined by The Brundtland Commission of The United Nations (Our Common Future, 1988) as development which satisfies the needs of today without depriving future generations of the possibility to satisfy theirs. The concept is contradictory from the point of view of both development and of satisfying the needs of today and tomorrow (Salmenkivi, 2007). It is, for example, unclear who decides the needs of others. Sustainable development relates to the idea of doing away with poverty through economic growth, as, according to Our Common Future (1988) in most cases only additional revenue can be redistributed. There is, thus, tension between the idea of a sustainable future and economic growth. An increasingly small number of people will possess most of the world’s wealth, and economic growth may end up not benefiting those who own very little. However, the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of reducing extreme poverty by 50 % was met 5 years before the deadline, and it looks like absolute poverty is diminishing. Instead of sustainable development, the terms sustainability, sustainable future, or sustainable living are used more commonly. They also appear in The National Core Curriculum for Basic Education.
The idea behind inventions for circular economy is to provide children and teenagers with means to build sustainable models and procedures. A sustainable future cannot be built by only consuming sustainable products – it requires us to take a critical look at our values and actions and the ability to alter our behaviour. This takes us back to the question How can we decrease our natural resource consumption without having to give up what is important to us? It is not up to the individual to define what is important; it also relates to political decision making. The European Union has committed to the common values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law. Freedom, for example, refers to the free movement of people, property, services, and money within the European Union. We might ask, if freedom also means that people should be able to take an affordable flight to spend a weekend abroad somewhere in Europe. How to plan and execute a vacation without flying could be a topic for a circular economy invention project. An even more interesting topic could be to look into how to make people consider their relationship with flying and even get them to dislike and avoid it. Smoking has, within a very short period of time, lost its appeal as a symbol of youthful rebellion and adulthood and is now associated with low levels of education and income.
Historically, the royalty has provided an ideal for what has been considered elegant and desirable, and the nobility and the bourgeoisie have copied this. The court set itself apart from lower nobility with decisions and sophisticated actions, and when the nobility had caught up with them, they had to come up with something new. Pierre Bourdieu has used the concept of distinction to analyse people’s interests and their connection to social class. He claims that people’s decisions and actions are dependent on subconscious principles acquired in a social environment. In La Distinction (Bourdieu, 1984), he makes a distinction between cultural and economic capital that divides social groups. Taste is a central distinctive factor in this division. According to Bourdieu, the “taste” of the ruling class dominates the tastes of other social classes. If an individual member does not approve of the taste of the ruling class, he takes a social risk of facing public condemnation or of being considered crude, tasteless, or vulgar. Although Bourdieu’s theory relies on a questionnaire investigating consumption habits in France in the 1960s, it may help analyse why it is so difficult to alter certain habits burdening the environment. Individuals cannot be expected to take full responsibility for furthering a sustainable lifestyle by their decisions only. Legislation plays an important part in building a sustainable lifestyle. Smoking in public spaces, for example, was banned quite rapidly and the general opinion on smoke-free restaurants today is very positive.
Terrorist attacks on airplanes have played an important part in diminishing the exclusivity of air travel. Flying today involves placing our liquids in bags, taking off our coats and shoes, showing security officers the insides of our suitcases, and standing in endless queues to get to our plane. On the plane, the space for our luggage is limited and snacks – even paid ones – are scarce. Digitalisation and the reversal of certain air traffic regulations have lowered the prices of air travel dramatically. Similarly, what used to be a luxurious way of travelling has been reduced to a mere compulsory step between leaving one’s house and reaching the destination. Perhaps in the future, slow travel will be considered a luxury? Some people experiencing anxiety over climate change have decided to cut down on air travel in their spare time but still continue flying for business. In the future, would it be viable for large companies to opt for a business trip on a night train instead of an airplane? From the point of view of carbon dioxide emissions, for example, air traffic constitutes a small portion of the overall burden on the environment caused by travel. Another interesting question relates to private cars and how to decrease their usage. Owning a private car is strongly associated with the notion of freedom. The stereotypical car advertisement depicts a single car on an otherwise empty road in a spacious landscape as the sun sets behind a mountain or the sea. However, in real life most journeys made with cars are short trips in heavy traffic. Additionally, owning a car involves regular maintenance and repairs. Despite being a relatively bad investment, many still decide to buy a car, or even two.
Food is a major area of consumption, and unlike travelling, one cannot simply stop eating. Food is also a way for people to set themselves apart from others, and new food trends enabling this are constantly arising. A common concern seems to be whether a vegetarian manages to consume enough protein. However, it does not seem to be entirely appropriate to question if a meat eater might be consuming too much protein. Humans are not able to endlessly make use of protein, and the nitrogen found in protein places a burden on water bodies, as it cannot fully be removed from sewage. The fact is that every other Finn consumes more meat than stated in the national recommendations. The meat industry representatives put it slightly differently when saying that the average meat consumption of Finns is in line with the national recommendations. Avoiding meat and other animal products is one way to promote a sustainable lifestyle. At the same time, people seem to be reluctant to receive advice in this area. Food is a deeply personal topic, and other people’s eating habits different from those of one’s own may give rise to negative emotions, such as guilt, inferiority feelings, aversion, or even anger.
Housing is another factor posing challenges to sustainable living. It is by no means insignificant what sort of decisions people make regarding their living arrangements. The majority of the climate effects of housing in Finland is due to heating. Choosing the type of heating to use in one’s home might not relate to an individual person’s values, but choosing the type of housing and its location do. Some value a spacious living arrangement over a central location. Others prefer to live where all services are nearby and the commute to work is short, and place less value on the reputation of the area. Are these values informed decisions made after a critical evaluation of different facts, or opinions acquired subconsciously within one’s own social group?
Consumption choices – especially clothes – reflect the values relating to a sustainable future. The industrial revolution started with fabric production, and industrial production quickly lowered the prices of clothes. The industrial revolution is said to have democratised consumption, as clothes used to be expensive and very few could afford to buy them in good quality. The textile industry is one of the biggest industries placing a burden on the climate. Nowadays, clothes tend to be almost single-use, and not even their price guarantees that they will last multiple washes. Expensive brand items are sometimes produced in the same factories and using the same fabrics as cheaper clothes. Clothes are manufactured under subcontract, and it is difficult for the consumer to know the working conditions of the factories or the environmental effects of producing the cotton used in the clothes.
Electronics are very affordable. Cheap devices rarely last long and are often irreparable. Televisions and washing machines used to be described as consumer durables, and if a television broke, an electrician was called to change whatever part needed to be changed. Broken washing machines would also be repaired. Today’s electronics are less fixable, and often repairing a broken device costs more than buying a new one. A prime example is the mobile phone. The glass covering the screen of a phone cracks easily, but if that happens, the phone itself is often still functioning. However, many phones are manufactured in such a way that it is not possible to separate the glass from the screen itself, thus making it very expensive to repair a simple crack in the glass. It seems like phones are not even designed to be repairable, as it is more profitable for the manufacturer to design a phone with a limited lifespan. Finland produces 20 kg of electronic waste per person every year. Exporting electronic waste outside of Finland is prohibited, but some of it still ends up in African landfills. Valuable metals are separated from the waste using rudimentary and hazardous methods. Would it be possible in the future for the European Union to regulate the production of electronics in such a way that would allow safe reuse of the raw materials once the device can no longer be used or repaired? A requirement of that nature might encourage the production of longer-lasting devices that would also be repairable. This might raise their prices, but also lengthen their lifespan and through that, decrease the amount of electronic waste.
Perhaps we should entirely abandon the concept of consumer. The problem with the concept is that it draws our attention to individual people and the consumption choices they make. From the individual’s point of view it is important to know whether a product is fixable and how long it will function. It is, however, not realistic only to expect individual people to act, as consumers will always buy what is on offer. Perhaps a better term to use when discussing sustainable lifestyle would be citizen – someone who is not only an individual but also part of a community. If a community (such as The Republic of Finland or The European Union) values actions that are in line with the principles of a sustainable lifestyle, it will show in how products and services are regulated, what products are on offer, and in how the life cycle of the products is taken into account. This allows citizens to choose between several different sustainable products and services. Decisions should not have to be made between sustainable and unsustainable products and services. According to Dec and Ryan’s Self-determination theory (2017) a need to belong is a basic psychological need in humans. If an individual feels that he/she is part of a group where sustainable living is highly valued, he/she will also be motivated to work towards this common goal. This is why actions symbolising sustainable living are important: they show others what the group considers important and valuable. Taking part in Earth Hour is one example of a symbolic action, according to Bishop Irja Askola (Huili, 2014).
To enable sustainable decision making, multiple certification schemes have been established by different organisations. The Finnish Organic Association’s Luomumerkki label and the registered trademark of Fair Trade International are examples of such schemes.
According to Virtue Ethics, a person becomes virtuous by performing virtuous acts. Sustainable consumption choices can be considered as virtuous acts. However, an individual’s decisions are not enough. A virtuous human performs such acts that cause others to think and make sustainable choices. Having an impact on other people’s decisions requires skills. Making inventions can be one way to impact someone else’s choices.
- Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Publishing
- Huili (2014). Ekologisuus on myös nautintoja. Ekoelämänkaari Irja Askola. Huili 3/2014.
- Salmenkivi, E. (2007). Kestävä kehitys ja elämänkatsomustiedon opetus. Teoksessa: Jari Lavonen (toim.). Tutkimusperustainen opettajankoulutus ja kestävä kehitys. Ainedidaktinen symposiumi Helsingissä, 3(2006), 91-103.
- World Comission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our Common Future. United Nations: Oxford University Press.