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Ever wondered: What does sustainability mean? Your guide to living greener

Feeling overwhelmed by the wealth of information out there about how to live a greener, cleaner lifestyle? You’re in luck, because we’ve asked the experts to tell explain what sustainability actually means, plus highlight what issues really matter, and what you personally can do

"My actions won't make a difference." "Recycling is a waste of time." "What does sustainability mean?" These are all common excuses when it comes to trying to live a more sustainable, ethical lifestyle. Sometimes, doing a Google search on the definitions of sustainability and how to live a more eco-friendly life can even leave you even more confused. And who can blame you? While we all know that sustainability is a priority, there's so much conflicting messaging bandied about these days that it can be hard to know exactly what sustainability is, and how you personally can help. 

First up – a definition. According to a paper by McGill university, sustainability "means meeting your needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In addition to natural resources, we also need social and economic resources. Sustainability is not just environmentalism. Embedded in most definitions of sustainability are also concerns for social equity and economic development."

So, sustainability is caring for the planet, bit by bit, habit reform by habit reform, to ensure there still is a planet for your children, and your children's children. Sounds overwhelming – but it doesn't have to be. Let us help you work out where to start and introduce some daily practices that will actually make a difference.

To help you riddle it out and discover what works for you, we've enlisted the help of several experts within the food and drink industry, asking them to debunk existing misconceptions around sustainability and show you exactly how your actions can have a positive impact on people and the planet without compromising your lifestyle.

Considering going vegan in the name of sustainability? Keep scrolling to read why maybe you shouldn't. Stopped eating bananas because you're worried about food miles? A scientist explains why that isn't necessarily the answer. Don't think organic food is worth it? Here's exactly why it is.

At the end of the day, trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle presents a vital ongoing – and frequently rewarding – challenge. Whether you're a business working to effect positive change, a supermarket trying to maintain quality but reduce environmental impact, or simply a human trying to make better choices, we're all in this together.

What does sustainability mean? Myth one: Being sustainable is expensive

The expert: Megan Perry, communications manager at the Sustainable Food Trust on the true value of food

By taking a more holistic approach to the way we buy food, we force ourselves the wider impact of our purchases. Today, we spend about 10% of our disposable income on food, but in the 70s people used to spend around 30%. That's a big difference.

Although we may feel like we can’t afford it, the price we pay for food often doesn’t reflect its true cost. For every pound we pay for cheap food, it actually costs us more in hidden ways: pollution clean up, water bills, healthcare costs and so on. Other costs include environmental damage, because the intensive farming processes that make most of the food we eat aren’t held accountable for the damage they’re doing.

Today, we spend about 10% of our disposable income on food. In the 70s, people spent around 30%

Don't ask what does sustainability mean - instead, do your research. For example, you could read up on the fact that overuse of nitrogen fertiliser has polluted our water and degraded our soils, yet food produced in this way is still sold for very little. Conversely, there is currently little business incentive for farmers to follow sustainable practices. They receive limited additional financial reward for farming in a way that helps the environment and benefits public health. We have a skewed economic system which fails to honestly reflect production costs, and it can seem to consumers that sustainable food is not affordable. Until fundamental policy changes come into play, it is crucial that citizens play a role in driving the market away from ‘cheap’ food and that, as much as possible, they support sustainable systems.

A great way to do this is buying directly from farmers at farm shops, or local farmers’ markets. Buying from a local butcher or greengrocer is also a great option; you’ll likely be surprised just how competitive prices are with the main supermarkets. Eating eco doesn’t have to be costly.

sustainablefoodtrust.org

Myth two: you should cut out meat and dairy

The expert: Lizzie Rivera of ethical lifestyle website BICBIM explains why this isn’t always the case

There is no question that a vegan food system is better than a factory farming one. The fact that almost half of crops produced worldwide are fed to intensively bred livestock when more than 800 million people suffer from hunger is unacceptable. As are the many environmental problems linked to this way of producing food. But mass-produced, plant-based alternatives are unlikely to be the answer.

Key ingredients in these foods such as soy often come from monoculture farms where swathes of land are sprayed with herbicides and insecticides, which is devastating for biodiversity, the planet, the farmer – and, ultimately, us. Similarly, foods that don’t contain animal products but do contain palm oil are likely to have contributed to rainforest deforestation. Whether we’re vegan, veggie or flexi, we need to stop pondering what does sustainability mean and consider where our food is coming from: who is farming, who is profiting and at what cost.

Whether you're vegan, veggie or flexi, consider where your food is coming from: who is farming, who is profiting and at what cost

Beef especially gets a bashing when it comes to the Meat vs. Environment debate. But in the UK, there is mounting evidence to suggest farming with ruminant animals can have positive effects on biodiversity and on climate change. Essentially, grazing animals help to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in soil. Here, where two-thirds of our land is grassland, rearing cows and sheep solely on pasture could make sense as part of a wider ecosystem.

If we continue eating meat, we should eat much less than we do currently. But whatever our diet, the most sustainable way to eat is seasonally and locally. The important thing is farming in tune with nature, not rearing animals in factories. Hopefully, it’s on this point that vegans, veggies and conscious meat-eaters can align.

bicbim.co.uk

Myth three: 'organic’ doesn’t mean anything

The expert: Soil Association ambassador and chef Thomasina Miers on why ‘organic’ matters

Ultimately, choosing organic food certified by the Soil Association is one of the easiest ways to know if your food has been produced in the best way for people and the planet. All organic food is fully traceable from farm to fork so you can be sure of what you’re eating. The standards for organic food are laid down in European law and organic farms have to be certified to strict standards.

Yes, organic can sometimes be more expensive, but not every time. Staples like pulses, pasta, rice and whole grains are often the same price and, when you can, buying directly from farmers or through box schemes helps too. When organic does cost more, you’re paying for the extra care organic farmers place on the environment and animal welfare.

What’s more, organic food is more common than you think. In fact, organic is available in more than 8,000 shops across the country. Aldi, Lidl and Tesco have increased their organic lines, all milk at both McDonald’s and Pret is organic and schools, hospitals and universities across the country serve it every day.

Organic grub is more common than you think - it's served in McDonald's and Pret, schools, hospitals and universities, and at Aldi, Lidl and Tesco, plus 8,000 other shops across the country

As for what it means for our health, organic food is nutritionally different – scientific research found organic milk and meat contains around 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than non-organic, and organic fruit and vegetables have up to 68% more antioxidants. Eating organic also reduces your exposure to antibiotics and pesticides. Organic farmers avoid the use of pesticides. If all farming was organic, research suggests that pesticide use would drop by 98%. More than 320 pesticides can be routinely used in non-organic farming, and these are often present in non-organic food. Farm animals account for almost two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the EU and these are passed down to us through the food chain. In organic farming systems, the routine or preventative use of antibiotics is banned.

When you see the Soil Association Certification organic symbol, you can be sure what you buy has been produced to the very highest standards. It means fewer pesticides, no artificial additives or preservatives, always free range, higher standards of animal welfare and absolutely no GM ingredients. Fancy dining out at Foodism's favourite organic restaurants in London or sustainable restaurants? Read our guides.

@thomasinamierssoilassociation.org

Myth four: you can’t shop ethically in supermarkets

The expert: Tor Harris, head of CSR, health and agriculture at Waitrose & Partners on how to choose more sustainable produce in the supermarket

Although some supermarkets have a wider selection than others, you can still get loose fruit and veg in most stores. Waitrose, for example, offers packaging-free produce in all stores, alongside compostable bags to take home if you forget your reusable one. As for meat and fish, across the board moves are being made to ensure the animal’s life and general sustainability requirements are met.

When asked what does sustainability mean to them, supermarkets realised that not enough was being done and that consumer demand for sustainable produce was on the rise, and rightly so. With their Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, last year, 100% of Aldi’s fish was responsibly sourced – fresh, frozen and canned. And, in most Waitrose stores, you can shop at counters, which offers not only a guarantee of ethically and sustainably sourced product but the option to take your meat and fish home in your own container, too.

In June, more than 100 UK food chains, including all large-scale supermarkets, signed a government petition to halve their food waste by 2030

Most major supermarkets are working to make the plastic they use recyclable, reusable or home compostable in the next few years. Others are moving towards refill stations – in June, we launched Waitrose Unpacked, a trial where a refill station was introduced for more than 200 products in store. We’ll be extending the scheme later this year.

Thanks to a sharp rise in organisations offering to take produce off our hands, more and more ‘waste’ is being reused and re-homed rather than thrown away. Last year, Asda launched the first ‘wonky veg’ box, allowing consumers to buy slightly abnormal-looking vegetables that would otherwise have been thrown away, with supermarkets such as Aldi, Co-op and Tesco quickly following suit. And in June, more than 100 UK food chains, including all large-scale supermarkets, signed a government petition to halve their food waste by 2030.

There’s still a long way to go, but change is definitely in action.

waitrose.com

Myth five: always eat local food

The expert: Professor David Reay, author of Climate-Smart Food, explains why minimising food miles isn’t as simple as you think

Our food is a major driver of climate change, and time is against us. Each carrot and tomato, burger and chicken drumstick has a carbon footprint and feeding us all requires a lot of it.

The United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organisation is a global powerhouse of research. They share good practice on how food systems can become more productive, more resilient to climate change and produce less carbon. A study found just one day’s food and drink had travelled more than 40,000 miles and encompassed an array of climate change risks.

Surprisingly, miles weren’t actually the best indicator of a food’s total carbon footprint. For example, apples all the way from New Zealand, bananas from the Dominican Republic and Brazilian oranges were among the top carbon-friendly foods for UK consumers. Why? Because the conditions for those fruits were just right to grow them carbon efficiently, whereas producing them in climates without these conditions means more energy usage to mimic these conditions.

A study found just one day’s food and drink had travelled more than 40,000 miles and encompassed an array of climate change risks

Buying local is great, but should also encapsulate buying produce that’s in season to keep air miles down. For example, government stats revealed that British-grown tomatoes have more than three times the footprint of Spanish-grown tomatoes harvested and eaten in season.

Shop locally, and shop seasonally; the best way you can reduce your carbon footprint is by buying produce from countries that are meant to be producing said product at that time of year. To find out what produce is in season now, head to the Eat The Seasons website now.

Climate-Smart Food is out now. palgrave.com

Myth six: recycling is ineffective

The expert: Orlaith O’Byrne, sustainability manager at commercial recycling company Paper Round on why – and how – we should recycle

Despite the recent bad press, our consumption of plastics is increasing. Even worse, single-use plastics are often non-recyclable – a WWF study found that only 29% of single-use plastics get recycled.

Yet plastics are very efficient at what they do. They are lightweight, cheap and clean, so switching to other materials might not always be the most carbon-efficient option. For instance, you’d have to use a paper bag three times and a reusable cotton tote more than 100 times to have a lower global warming potential than using one plastic shopping bag.

You’d have to use a paper bag three times and a reusable cotton tote more than 100 times to have a lower global warming potential than using one plastic shopping bag

If we treat our plastics properly by washing out containers, we could recycle as much as 4% more. Grease and liquids from food can render paper and card unrecyclable.

The best solution is to consume less. The best alternative to a single-use straw is no straw at all. If you over order at a restaurant but you reckon you might fancy seconds later, ask to take your leftovers with you to reduce food waste. Always check your council website to see if items can be recycled. Recycling is not the best solution to our waste problem, reduction is.

paper-round.co.uk

Myth seven: food waste is only a small part of the problem

The expert: Anoushka Grover, marketing manager of  food waste-fighting app Too Good To Go on why minimising food waste is one of the most important things we can do

Globally, wasted food is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If it were a country, it would be just behind the US and China in terms of its impact on global warming. It’s such a big deal that climate change expert Chad Frischmann has said that reducing food waste (aka, moving towards eating reducing our waste and eating at zero waste restaurants more regularly) is one of the most important ways we can help. Yep, that forgotten carton of eggs, those ends of the bread loaf – they’re all heating up our planet.

What’s more, food produces methane as it decomposes, and we’re also wasting all the resources it took to produce it. From the water required to the land set aside, it all creates needless strain on the environment.

Globally, wasted food is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If it were a country, it would be just behind the US and China in terms of its impact on global warming

There are all sorts of easy ways we can reduce our food waste. Going through our fridge every week and cooking meals out of leftovers is a start: turn wilting vegetables into a frittata by whipping them into eggs; or blitz them into your morning smoothie. Make use of your freezer if you cook food in bulk.

Outside of the home, bakeries, cafés, and restaurants are often left with extra food. The Too Good To Go app lets you discover unsold food in your local area – you’ll be fighting food waste, but you’re also getting your hands on restaurant-quality food at discounted prices.

toogoodtogo.co.uk

Myth eight: my actions won’t make a difference

The expert: Cemal Ezel, founder of coffee roasters Change Please, on why even your choice of coffee can help

We don’t like referring to ourselves as a social enterprise because people doubt the quality of the coffee. Actually, we’ve won a Great Taste Award for our coffee every year we’ve been open – and we keep our prices competitive. We want to make it easy for people to do good.

When you buy a coffee from us, several good things happen. We find people that are homeless and train them to be speciality-level baristas to an STA-level standard. We provide them with a living-wage job – £21k a year – and housing in ten days, using a job-first model. We’re making it sustainable for people to go into housing rather than depend on the government for welfare. Then we also help with bank accounts, mental health support, therapy support, taking pressure off the NHS and government services, and we’ve calculated that in the last three and a half years we’ve saved the government £2.6 million.

When you buy a coffee from us, several good things happen

Our graduates move into a new job typically around six months in, going on to work with our partners, other cafés, other restaurants, or even as graphic designers or accountants. The coffee is that initial platform back into society. We purchase coffee from a farm in Peru that supports women who are victims of domestic abuse, and another farm in Tanzania that supports landmine victims. The coffee comes to London, where it gets roasted by people that are homeless at our sister company Old Spike Roastery. The roasted coffee then comes to Change Please and its 35 sites around the country.

We also supply coffee to big companies like Barclays and Virgin Atlantic. The last thing we do is look at our environmental impact. We convert our waste coffee grounds to biofuel. Even now we’re moving away from plant-based cups to takeaway bamboo cups – it only takes six months to grow compared to years for other varieties.

changeplease.org

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