Gone Surfing – Can you specify a sustainable lifestyle?

Children in kitchenThe most basic but largely unanswered question in the world of sustainable development is what can a sustainable lifestyle look like? This is more than just a academic exercise because if businesses are to help provide that lifestyle through their products and services, they need to have a design specification and a direction of travel. In other words they need a brief.

Creating a picture of a sustainable lifestyle does not need to be a complex science.  It might not even be accurate. The narrative may be no more than tabloid journalism but that may be its value because tabloid journalism is good at communicating complex ideas to many people in an engaging and compelling way. The typical three-legged stool of economics balanced with environment and society helps, but for some it is overwhelming because those three legs can be summarised into everything! How do we re-articulate that language into the elements of people’s lives?

Plasma TV lives

Firstly, what lifestyles do most people want? Most would agree with the ambition to “eradicate poverty” and as a result, where we enjoy success we see the growth of the middle classes. You only have to walk down the inner city streets of China and Vietnam and you see those lucky enough to have reached the middle classes buying into the middle class style we are familiar with in the UK and elsewhere – what I call the plasma TV lifestyle.

If plasma TV lives are what people want, the pressure is not on those who decide their lifestyles, but on those who make the products and those who set the laws that shape how people live and how their products they use are made. Technically it is difficult, politically it is very difficult but it is not as difficult as moving a population back into forests or waiting for famine or disease to do it for us.  The business case for supplying plasma TV lives in a sustainable world is therefore compelling.

But just what would that lifestyle look like? The answer is not that difficult to work out. In my S narrative (or sustainability narrative), I think it boils down to 10 key points.

The 10 key discussion points of sustainable lifestyles

Imagine a conversation of plasma TV man today, depending on multi planet resources and living a high carbon lifestyle talking, via the newly invented time telephone, to a future single planet, zero carbon living plasma TV man. The conversation focuses on the sustainable plasma man telling his ancestor why his life is different to his. I predict that his conversation would cover these 10 discussion points:

1) I manage my own self-esteem and health

2) I have enough to live on and I live within my financial limits

3) The products I buy help everyone in local and international supply chains

4) I only use clean and renewable energy

5) I am active in a vibrant community

6) I live in a high trust society in which I talk with, rather than at, people

7) I have found the right balance between technology and simplicity

8) My leaders (political and business) have courage

9) Much less stuff is used to supply my life

10) The true value of nature is protected by economics

Yes, it’s that simple and the really good news is that for many there is already a lot happening to make these happen.

This process of visualising sustainable lifestyles involves many environmental complexities but even more challenging are the social and political impacts. But the real challenge is how people react.  There is a fear in academic and government circles that any work to visualise and describe sustainable lifestyles might appear too idealistic and too elitist or middle class.  There are calls to narrow the gap between the rich and poor. Whilst some people might approve of a goal of sustainable lifestyles that will narrow that gap by either forcing or encouraging the rich to use less stuff and helping or funding the poor to enjoy a lifestyle that meets at least minimum standards, there is an inevitability that a gap will remain.

It is feasible that visualising such a lifestyle might be seen as imposing or giving approval to a particular way of life.  While some argue that it will curtail the lives of the rich, there is also a perception that sustainable living is only possible for those middle class people with money in the bank (people who can afford organic food, buy new electric cars, install solar panels).

If there is a concern that sustainable living is only for a charmed few, there is also an economic fear of changing our lifestyles to such extent that we will have to go without, scale down our possessions, feel guilty about shopping, travelling and enjoying a meal out. And if we can’t buy anything or go anywhere, what will happen to the economy?  Will living a more sustainable lifestyle mean unemployment for others?  On the other hand, sustainable lifestyles could open up opportunities for other products and services that people can enjoy.  New technology will play a part.

Achieving these principles

Sustainability, when divided into these key building blocks, emerges as a very positive ambition. No one likes being unhealthy, in debt, having bad neighbours, weak leaders or waste. Sustainability means the opposite of all these, but somehow sustainability has been contaminated with perception of costs and sacrifice. The opposite is true and that is why we must learn to relish and look forward to it. The Apollo Moon landing succeeded because people wanted it to, we need everyone to want nine billion sustainable TV lifestyles to be achieved. These ten principles show that unlike Apollo Moon landings this is not rocket science. They key is how and that is where I believe business has huge role to play.

Is this possible?  Yes, only if the company takes a massive and bold first step, and that is to NOT wait for their customers.  This is not a market issue, it’s a supply chain issue or the ultimate business project.