Your Sustainability Efforts Will Pay Off, Suddenly

Even if it seems like nothing is happening for now

Photo by Thomas Kinto on Unsplash

A message for people who care about sustainability and the environment: you might be discouraged by the slow progress of countries and people toward sustainable development. Over recent decades, the problems have been clear and yet the solutions have stalled.

We recycle and buy package-free. We carry our own reusable bags and mugs to the store. We scour the internet for the most sustainably produced couch or dental floss, knowing that we are only one customer and the ‘other’ couches and dental flosses are doing a roaring trade without us. We sign petitions and advocate for new processes in the face of inertia and resistance. Is any of this even working?

It is. But we can’t see it yet.

Widespread change tends to be sudden

The change we are trying to make is widespread and distributed. In the future, stores in every town across the world, factories in every country, people sitting at their kitchen counters in their homes will need to behave a little differently in the future. The whole economy needs to change.

That makes it sound difficult, but changes of this scale have happened over and over in the past, and they tend to be sudden.

The sudden going in and then out of favor of — smoking, packaged food, social media — nothing was changing, and then it did, all at once.

In our lifetimes, we have seen social media touted as the thing that would connect us, free lonely teens from their isolation in the remote parts of the world, and reaffirm our common humanity, to regarding it as monopolistic, surveilling, democracy-destroying, and mental health-addling.

We have gone from low-fat, high sugar, ‘labor-saving’ packaged food and white bread to sprouted grains, avocado, paleo, keto, single-ingredient organic.

The public perception has changed beyond recognition. Plastic could be next.

There’s a tipping point in sustainable options

Right now, the easiest, cheapest, most convenient option is the most plastic-wrapped and factory-farmed product available. There are, and will be for the foreseeable future, vast swathes of every population who can or will only use the easiest, cheapest, most convenient option. Some, because that’s all they can afford. Some, because they have other concerns on their mind that leave no room for environmental considerations. Understandably.

Every day, sustainable solutions inch closer to being the easiest option. As they get slightly easier, a small segment of the population adopts them. People who had a little money, effort, and consideration to spare, for whom the new option brings sustainability within reach.

But these rates of adoption are small. There are only so many climate-conscious, affluent people you can add to your customer base.

But as the space of options shifts, as the easiest option becomes the sustainable one, the adoption rate explodes. In what seems like an instant. Like a powder keg.

Don’t be discouraged by the pace of change

We feel like we’re falling behind, and nothing is happening. But change won’t be linear.

The fraction of Americans who think protecting the environment should be a top priority of government has been growing since 2011, and was 64% in 2020. People care, but they don’t have a lot they can do. If we can make things easy enough for them to take action, we’ll catch up to where we want to be, because change tends to be sudden.

There’s hope, so don’t give up. Keep innovating. Keep incentivizing companies to innovate. Keep supporting the ones that do. Keep experimenting.

Originally appeared in Sustainability Experiments.
Also featured on CofoundersTown.

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