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Sustainability & the 8 Billion People Conundrum

Updated: Nov 18, 2018

Almost nobody actually wants to harm wildlife and fewer still want to exploit factory workers in developing nations. And I've never met anyone who willingly wants to send their plastic waste to landfill to spend the next four centuries decaying. Yet frustratingly, these things happen day in, day out around the world. And due to the complexity and challenge of these global issues, it's far too easy to feel disheartened, as if there's very little we can do as individuals to change it!

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Sustainable Development & the 8 Billion People Conundrum. Photo: Bangkok

The 8 Billion People Conundrum

I call this the 8 Billion People Conundrum. We're fast approaching an estimated global human population of 8 billion individuals spread unevenly over five giant continents. So with overwhelming numbers like this, it's understandable to feel as if your individual efforts won't count for much.

Begin With the Vote in Your Pocket

As consumers, our collective buying choices have the potential to make a tangible difference in the lives of others, and the environmental health of our planet. So one of the best places to start, if we want to change things for the better in our day-to-day lives, is to exercise our consumer buying power by purchasing products and services which meet good social and environmental standards (e.g. minimal packaging, fair trade, grown locally, not harming animals), from socially responsible companies and organizations.

This is a great place to begin as it's like having a 24/7 vote of change wherever you go! Changes in consumer patterns force producers and manufacturers to meet consumer demand to hold on to market share, and this is a surefire way to make your consumer vote count. Still I know what you're probably thinking. How can one individual really make much difference?

How Can One Individual Make a Difference?

Many of us simply don't know where to begin. In our busy work and family lives, sometimes sustainable living quickly falls down our list of priorities in favor of practicality and convenience. Do you stop buying from companies with a bad environmental record? If so, how do you know which companies to trust? Do you buy food which comes with minimal packaging? Do you boycott clothing brands implicated in poor labor practices? Do you eat organic food? Do you avoid eating meat?

"It's challenging to remain positive and actively engaged, if we feel we simply don't have the tools, willpower or discipline to transform our behaviors and face a challenge on this scale..."

Well, all these things would make a difference of course. But how do we become well-informed of the business practices of global food and retail companies? How do we achieve an eco-friendly diet and maintain optimal health without the advice of a nutritionist? Adjusting your diet to reduce your environmental footprint is a brilliant idea, as long as you're also able to ensure you get the right nutrients to maintain good health.

Getting the Right Information: Your Portable Ethical Shopping Guide

In an era of data overload, we need an ethical rating system for businesses based on a range of simple and easy to digest scores, enabling us to discern the good, the bad and the ugly in seconds and with confidence.

Well fortunately there is. Enter Over the past 20 years, Ethical Consumer has rated over 40,000 companies, brands and products using an intuitive and objective ethical scoring system. By relying on available secondary data from a range credible, non-commercial sources, together with independent research, they update their database on a daily basis to keep you in the loop about the companies and products you can trust.

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Ethical Consumer (

Top Tip: also has a mobile-friendly version of their website, which comes with an A-Z of their database and a search bar, enabling you to carry your very own ethical shopping guide wherever you go! In addition, they offer a magazine and a range of detailed product and lifestyle guides, if you want to go that little bit further.

The Change Mindset

It's challenging to remain positive and actively engaged, if we feel we simply don't have the tools, willpower or discipline to transform our behaviors and face a global challenge on this scale, even though we might know deep down it's the right thing to do.

"Most people find big changes unsettling. We're creatures of habit and we like to have our own routines."

In addition, governments and institutions are slow to react, or worse, have vested interests which prevent tackling social and environmental injustice head on. To add to this, big corporations are powerful entities and they often have few incentives to change their business practices, especially when this might impact upon their bottom line.

But thankfully there's hope. It's a matter of educating the public with reliable information and guidance, holding governments, institutions and corporations to account for poor policies and practices on sustainability issues, banding together as consumers and concerned citizens to build momentum for change and adopting a change mindset on an individual scale, by taking daily actions no matter how small. As the late Margaret Mead, an eminent American cultural antropologist, author and speaker expressed: "Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have."

Creatures of Micro-habits

Most people find big changes unsettling. We're creatures of habit and we like to have our own routines. This is natural of course, as it means we can spend a good proportion of our day in what's known as cognitive ease (kind of like power saving mode on your electronic device). It would be highly stressful if we weren't able to do this as it's our default operational state.

So how do we use this facet of our psychology to our advantage? In the end, it comes down to our ability to gradually tweek our habits and routines. Nearly every person on the planet can cope with small incremental change through what I like to call micro-habits. If we set the bar low by giving ourselves simple but specific goals like "I choose not to eat meat on Mondays" or "I choose not to buy products from...because..." then we can slowly build on our successes, rather than overwhelming ourselves with too much change too quickly.

"Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have." Margaret Mead

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Ethical Consumer ( empowers citizens to become informed, responsible consumers.

By choosing to change just 3 micro-habits at a time (no more than 3 for optimum success) over the space of 30 days+ (or 1 month), we maximize our chances of success. Don't believe me? Think of crash diets and intense exercise routines, designed to give you a six pack in just 4 weeks - these radical lifestyle changes are unsustainable for most of us, so 9 times out of 10 we fail to keep them up, returning instead to our original habits.

Scaling Up Our Sustainability Impact

If each of us made just 1 to 3 micro-habit adjustments per month, that would lead to a cascade of between 12 and 36 positive changes per individual per year towards a better, more sustainable world. Multiply that up to 8 billion people and the scope for unprecedented social and environmental progress becomes truly mind blowing!

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