Make 2021 Your Year for Sustainable Impact
| By Jennifer Kuklenski |
Here’s to making 2021 a year for sustainable impact!
2020 was an epically difficult year. It proved to be the most challenging, troubling, and heart wrenching year for many of us. If you’re like me, 2020 also gave you a lot of time to reflect on your personal and professional growth. My goal for the New Year is to improve my commitment to sustainability and to and help others do the same – here’s a few ways we can make 2021 our year for impact!
Invest in People and Communities
If there is anything I’ve learned from this year of social distancing, it’s that people are important and relationships matter. I’ve had to find new ways to nurture personal relationships with friends and family (e.g. Zoom, anyone?), but staying connected professionally has been more challenging. I’ve also heard from numerous professionals who feel like they just keep being asked to do more at their jobs, with little show of appreciation of those extra efforts by management.
This is troubling because even before the pandemic, roughly 85% of people surveyed by a recent Gallop poll reported that they were unhappy at work. Building (or perhaps re-building) community among people, both inside and outside of work, may be one of the most important things we do in 2021.
I’m a VERY strong believer in the power of volunteering to build community. In fact, I wrote another article all about why it’s so important for strong relationships, social capital, and community, and how it improves organizational success. Volunteering gives people a sense of shared purpose and pride while also giving back to those in need. This is great for organizational culture and helps people build relationships outside of work.
We can also invest in people through donations to organizations that address social challenges. Donations to nonprofits and charities have been declining for years, but recent reporting indicates that charitable donations to nonprofits and charities hit an historic low in the middle of 2020. Many nonprofit organizations were unable to hold their annual fundraisers, which caused the number of overall donors to drop, especially among mid-level and higher-level donors. Despite these drops, the number of smaller donations (under $250) increased in the first half of 2020, which shows that despite hardship, everyday people are still willing to give. Continued giving will be important if many hard-hit organizations are going to rebound in 2021.
2020 was not only a year where we learned a lot about global pandemics, how viruses spread, and hygiene, it was also an eye-opening year for social justice issues, especially those related to diversity, inclusion and sustainability. I realized that although I’ve been studying and teaching about social justice for years, there is still so much more to learn. It’s true what they say, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.
A lot of people don’t keep learning after they’ve finished their schooling because of the cost associated with continuous learning. However, we spend a lot on things we don’t need (more on this later). There are also a lot of free learning opportunities out there (e.g. check out Coursera), although consumer behavior research shows that when people pay for something, they are more likely to find value in it.
A recent study from Harvard and MIT found that less than 8% of students completed an open online course they had started, but that number increased to 60% for students who paid for a verified certificate. This study echoes an earlier report, which found that students who paid for online courses were 11 times more likely to complete them.
With continuous learning, we are more likely to complete a program we’ve paid for. I’ve signed up for four or five free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in the last few years and I haven’t completed one of them. Why? I didn’t feel invested in them. I’ve completed every course I’ve had to pay for though. If you really want to learn something to help improve your social impact, it’s worth investing in something you’ll actually finish.
This was a big goal for me in 2020. The last two years of my Ph.D. program were incredibly bad for my diet. I was teaching full time, working 10-15 hours per week as a graduate assistant, and teaching one adjunct course per semester for the local community college while also completing my dissertation. Needless to say, finding time to cook or prep healthy meals felt impossible. Although I never eat much fast food, I was eating quick meals like processed pasta and microwavable meals once or twice per day. I finished my Ph.D. in 2019 (woohoo!) and I committed to making a change.
I decided to cut down on my carbs. I didn’t make the Keto switch because this just felt too extreme. I realize it works for a lot of people, but “things in moderation” is a better long-term strategy for me. I switched to eating fish (usually Salmon) or eggs (cage free) at least once per day. I found “carb counter” tortillas and made plant-based “meat” or bean tacos a few times per week. I found cauliflower rice and zucchini pasta to make as side dishes and I started eating peanuts instead of chips for snacks. I even looked at the carbs in my yogurt and switched to a brand with less. I managed to lose the weight I had put on the previous two years and I didn’t change anything but my eating habits.
The best part? Eating healthier not only made me feel much better, it is also better for the planet! As recently cited in a study published by Springer, diets high in calories, saturated fats, added sugars, processed foods, and red meats are less environmentally sustainable than plant-based, healthier diets, which are associated with less greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and lower land and water use. Plant-based diets are more ethical when it comes to animal treatment too.
In 2020, I committed to shopping a LOT less. I realized that I have so many things that I just don’t need and I certainly don’t need more of them! I’ve been conscious about responsible shopping for a long time, but I’ve decided to make a greater commitment in 2021. It can be hard to know where to shop when trying to shop responsibly though.
The first thing I look out for is greenwashing. I wrote another article about how to identify greenwashing, but I’ve found that the best way to tell if something is legitimately sustainable is to look for reliable third-party labels or certifications and clear descriptions of the sustainability work the company is doing.
An organization I’ve found to be really helpful in my responsible shopping journey is Ethical Consumer. They’ve created ethical shopping guides for more than 100 products and services! I’ve also committed to shopping locally. Don’t get me wrong, I love the convenience of Amazon, but I also know that having items packaged and shipped to me individually is not very sustainable. Plus, small businesses need our help now more than ever.
Be a Resource Conserver
“Resource Conservers” are what sustainability marketers call people who relish the financial savings of reducing waste. They purchase classic clothing styles that can be worn for years, they use refillable water containers, they bring their own bag to the grocery store, and they hate overpackaged products because they know overpackaging drives up product costs and utility costs associated with waste removal.
One way to save resources is to drive less. Obviously, many of us were working from home for the majority of 2020. Although most of us will go back to “in-person” work at some point in 2021, cutting back on our driving is a good way to decrease our consumption of fossil fuels, cut down on our pollution, and save money.
After the pandemic began, I started cutting my trips to the store down drastically, usually only leaving my house in my vehicle once per week for errands or groceries. I made a list of what I needed for the week and tried to get everything in one trip. I still drive for recreation, but I’ve been riding my bike a lot more and walking to places like the bank, the post office, and the hardware store (all within walking distance of my house).
This is important even if driving a hybrid or electric vehicle. One research firm found that people who drive hybrid vehicles actually drove more, possibly offsetting the environmental benefits of their hybrid purchase. Plus, electricity has to come from somewhere and most power companies are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
Another way to conserve resources is to save energy while at home. This can be done through purchasing EnergyStar rated appliances or electronics and plugging them into power strips that can be turned off while working or away from home. I live “Up North,” which means most of my energy consumption occurs during the cold winter months. Last winter, I decided to try saving some energy by keeping my heat about 2 degrees lower than I did the previous winter while I am awake at home, and by turning my heat down another 4 degrees when I wasn’t home and while asleep. I don’t have “nesting” technology in my thermostat, which would make this process a lot easier, but just by creating a habit of turning down the heat, I saved between $30 and $40 per month throughout the winter. These savings add up and proved that my efforts were actually reducing my energy use!
Remember that Nobody is Perfect
Aside from the fact that many people cannot afford the ethical or sustainable option all or even some of the time, we also live in a system that is not designed for sustainability. Our world is only catching up to its own needs. Part of systemic change is advocating for policies that force large-scale behavioral change, but our personal efforts do make a difference. Systemic shifts have been happening because person by person, we’ve made the commitment to educate ourselves on social problems and how to address them.
Committing to sustainability doesn’t mean that our eco-footprint needs to be zero (in fact, this is probably impossible) and it doesn’t mean that we must be perfect all the time. It’s about making a conscious effort toward learning about the issues and doing better when we can.
3P INSIGHTS is a consulting firm that offers training, speaking and support services to help organizations attract and retain diverse talent, create inclusive workplaces, become better environmental stewards, and improve their overall social, environmental, and economic impact.
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