The Limits of Sustainability: Can We Ever Be Fully Sustainable?
It’s no secret that I loathe fast fashion – for nearly a year now I have sworn off it completely, feeding my hunger for new clothes with regular charity shop visits, Depop finds, and sustainable purchases from slow fashion brands. But, in the back of my mind there was always that niggling worry – what about when I need a new bra?
Being big-busted and trying to be sustainable are not mutually exclusive – maybe this says more about my lacklustre internet research, but it seems that there are no ethical underwear companies that cater to girls with big boobs (a gap in the market for anyone looking to start a sustainable business). Now that my bras have all but worn out, I’ve had to do away with my morals and order from a fast fashion company for the first time in a year, the only alternative being to endure the pain of going braless, or perhaps attempting to make my own bra out of some scrap material and chicken wire.
All this has me thinking, what are the limits to sustainability? Can you eat meat and simultaneously campaign for climate change? Can you drive a car while forgoing fast fashion? Can you travel on a plane for your summer holidays and eat a vegan diet? There are vast and unexplored complexities on the road to sustainability, so today, I’d like to dig a little deeper.
While vegan diets don’t limit any particular vitamin or nutrient (with the exception of B12, though this can be obtained via supplement), there are some factors that may prevent a person from giving up animal products. Allergies and intolerances, particularly to things like soy, nuts, or types of beans which crop up regularly in vegan food, and certain health conditions like Coeliac disease, a.k.a. gluten allergy (seitan is a common ingredient in vegan diets which contains gluten) or Irritable Bowel Syndrome can all create barriers to a vegan lifestyle. “I felt the healthiest and most content in my diet and ethical choices when I was vegetarian,” said Lydia Waller, a final-year student at the University of Birmingham who suffers with IBS and other digestive issues, and as a result had to eat a low FODMAP diet for around a year. “But when things went wrong with my health and I had to go on a diet that meant I couldn’t have a lot of the main vegetarian foods, I became iron deficient and generally really ill, so I had to reintroduce fish and white meat into my diet.” While changing her diet was for the best in terms of her health, she felt that her morals had been compromised; “It’s a shame because I don’t feel as ethically sound, but I literally can’t eat natural vegetarian protein. But I do only buy sustainably sourced and local fish.” Lydia is along the right lines buying locally, as this saves an average of 1,500 air miles, but pursuing sustainability any further is near impossible for her when it comes to food.
While walking, cycling and taking public transport are undeniably better for the environment, for those who live in an area with poor transport links, have a long commute, or use a car for work, driving can’t be avoided. Electric cars are the hottest new topic for environmentally conscious drivers, as research has shown that they emit less greenhouse gases and air pollutants than petrol or diesel cars – according to EDF energy, annually, ‘just one electric car on the roads can save an average 1.5 million grams of CO2’. While this may sound like a perfect alternative to traditional vehicles, a spanner is thrown into the works when you realise that lithium, the main component of electric car batteries, has to be drained from lithium lakes in South America, water sources that native communities have relied on for years. Carlos Guzman, a resident of the Olaroz-Cauchari salt flats that lie between Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, told The Washington Post in 2016, “they are taking everything away from us”. As water supplies are threatened by contamination and more and more water is used up in lithium mines, he worried, “this way of life is in danger.” Is this a better option than petrol and diesel vehicles that produce more pollutants on the road? Sustainability, then, is severely compromised for those who depend on car usage.
Air travel, too, is a double-edged sword. While one flight emits more CO2 than the average citizen around the world produces in a year, the tourism industry that depends on plane travel is a key revenue and job provider in many countries. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Spain has become the perfect model for what could happen to an economy without tourism – the country, which boasted nearly 84 million visitors last year alone accounting for 11% of GDP, suffered tremendously following lockdown restrictions, as holidays were cancelled in their thousands, flights terminated, and reservations un-reserved. In March, Ramón Estalella of the Spanish hoteliers’ confederation, told The Guardian, “the impact is really significant, especially on conferences and visitors travelling long distances”. When people’s livelihoods and entire state economies depend on the frequency of air travel, choosing a staycation for the environment over a foreign excursion is set in problematic perspective.
Sustainability, it seems, has more limits than you might originally plan for. Though I can’t offer any answers on how to navigate these dilemmas, I can encourage that you do your research when attempting to make the right ethical choice in any area of your life. But for the love of God if you can see no other option, don’t suffer the pain of a bad bra for the sake of the environment.
Acti-Veg, "Are There People Who Can't Go Vegan?", Apr 7 2018.
Insider, '10 things that might prevent you from going vegan', Sept 25 2018
Thought Co., 'How Does Eating Locally Grown Food Help The Environment?', Mar 9 2018.
EDF Energy, 'Electric Cars and the Environment', Feb 15 2020.
The Washington Post, 'Tossed Aside In The ‘White Gold’ Rush', Dec 19 2016.
The Guardian, 'How your flight emits as much CO2 as many people do in a year', Jul 19 2019
The Guardian, 'Coronavirus: Spain’s tourist industry braces for big losses at Easter', Mar 11 2020.
Image credit: Jordan Sanchez