A few months ago, I visited a quaint bookstore near my hometown in central Pennsylvania. The shelves were packed to the brim with both new and used books. The air smelled like a fusion of fresh and old paper. There were also several cats roaming the space, which I can only imagine brightened the faces behind everyone's masks. I checked out once I picked a few gardening almanacs. The cashier asked me if I wanted a bag, and I declined because I had no problem carrying a few books in my hands. She quickly exclaimed that for every time a customer declines a bag, the store donates some money into a fund for local foster cats. It made my day.
More recently, I was on my bi–weekly grocery shopping trip. At the self–checkout, I loaded all my items into my outdated and quite ugly reusable grocery bags. At the adjacent checkout, I noticed a customer load their small quantity of items into a few plastic grocery bags. While I understand that not everyone remembers to be sustainable every time they go to the grocery store, this person was wearing a cute oversized canvas tote on their shoulder, where they could have easily put their groceries instead. It ruined my day.
Reusable bags are just one example of sustainable practices that don't seem to have survived the trial of trendiness. I remember when reusable water bottles became a hot commodity in my high school. Anyone and everyone had one. Now at Penn, I can't walk for a few minutes without seeing an obnoxious disposable Starbucks cup—the one with the extra plasticky lid that's designed to eliminate the need for a straw, but is served with a straw anyway. We see trends live and die every year. It's a fact of life. But when it comes to sustainability, we can't continuously reduce practices that promote a healthier and cleaner planet to trends that die when they become inconvenient. Earth won't survive our noncommittal stance.
As consumers, we must understand the urgency of the crisis our planet faces. For one, Earth's average surface temperature has risen about 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, slowly melting glaciers. Alongside this melting, which is primarily due to increased carbon dioxide emissions from human activities, global sea level rose about eight inches in the last century, putting low–level areas at great risk of devastation. Though these only comprise a few of the issues at hand, the common denominator here is human activity. Mass consumerism, overproduction, and pollution—all of which are relatively recent phenomena—have compromised our planet's future.
Combatting the climate crisis will take more than short–term trends that make people feel like they're doing their part without actually limiting their environmental impact. Treating sustainability as a market trend is just as dangerous as mass consumerism, as it inherently suggests that we as consumers need to jump on it while it's still hot—or we'll miss out when it's too late.
That isn't what sustainability is. Yes, sustainable practices need to meet our current needs as a society, but they also must preserve the ability of future generations to meet their needs. Businesses benefit from creating trendy sustainable goods and services because they're profitable and meet current consumer demand. But sustainability cannot be not a market trend that dies when it becomes unprofitable like any other fad—it's a requirement if we want to continue having an Earth to live on. And it's definitely not a concept anybody should embrace solely because it's 'in fashion.'
Preventing businesses from using temporary sustainability as a marketing scheme may be quite difficult. But making lasting sustainable choices as individuals will make it harder for businesses and corporations to present it as a short–term option. If you're financially capable, embrace being sustainable as a way of life. Make commitments to avoiding single–use plastic. Walk to Center City instead of taking an Uber. Research the practices of your favorite brands, understand the carbon footprint they have behind their shallow sustainability promises, and then adjust your purchasing habits accordingly. Support companies that are dedicated to sustainability in more ways than using compostable cups. And, if you're able, donate to environment–minded nonprofits that are pressuring lawmakers to make sustainability a viable lifestyle for everyone.
Going forward, we cannot accept the crises Earth faces as an unavoidable fact of life. We must create boundaries with nature. This means that, as individuals, we cannot succumb to the mindset that our personal decisions play no role in the grand scheme of things. When aggregated over our entire planet, those small choices add up. Permanently embracing a sustainable lifestyle will incentivize businesses and corporations to adopt sustainable operations as a new reality.