What does being green mean to you? Many of us might answer this question with a list of actions that reflect a sustainable lifestyle: using reusable grocery bags, walking to work, buying products labeled environmentally friendly. But for most of us it is probably difficult to identify what common principles unite these actions. There are opportunities each day to live more sustainably. To recognize and act on those opportunities requires a clear vision of what sustainability means to you.
There is no one correct way to define sustainability but it is helpful to think in three sustainable health categories — human health, ecosystem health, and community health. Human health refers to individual well-being and may be measured by air quality, access to food, and access to water as well as other metrics. Choosing to purchase organic produce falls into the human health category, because your personal health is the highlighted focus. Ecosystem health refers to the stability of the natural environment and may be measured by a variety of metrics, including greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and biodiversity. Bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store reflects ecosystem health because it reduces the number of plastic bags entering the waste stream. Community health refers to the collective well-being of different social groups and may be measured by similar metrics as human health. An example of community health is supporting your local farmers’ market.
The three sustainable health categories are tightly interwoven; however, they are not always equally satisfied through a particular action. For example, eating foods labeled organic may always satisfy the human health category but not always satisfy ecosystem health as compared to conventional foods, especially if organic foods must travel a farther distance to your local market, generating more carbon emissions in transport. From an environmental science perspective, determining whether organic foods are sustainable is incredibly complex and significantly outside the individual consumer’s ability or interest. But you, as a consumer, can establish personal priorities between and within the sustainable health categories to help navigate these complex issues more simply and make decisions that are right for you.
The question of what is sustainable is always complex. To ensure that you are making the right choices for your own life, begin by asking what category of sustainable health is most important to you and which issues within each category most concern you. The ultimate goal is to define and refine a sustainability vision statement to help guide future decisions and actions.
- Make a list. Write down a list of activities you engage in, which you consider to be green and rewarding.
- Categorize. Define these activities by sustainability category—human health, ecosystem health, and community health—and recognize the trends in your current behavior. Do all or most of your activities focus on one sustainability category?
- Take action. Decide whether the trends in your behavior align with your overall goals. Choose to either add more behaviors consistent with your goals or adopt behaviors that address a different sustainability category.