Week 21: Anatomy of Action: On How We Move

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There’s no denying that we live in the age of busy — we are continuously on the go, living amongst a chaotic frenzy of personal responsibilities, appointments, leisure activities, and whatever else is demanding our presence and attention. But the way we move has led to some devastating impacts for our home planet and for all the people who inhabit it, like soaring carbon dioxide emissions and dangerous amounts of air pollution. Reducing these emissions is, without a doubt, a matter of life or death, as at least 3.7 million people die each year as a result of outdoor air pollution, and transportation currently contributes 23% of all carbon dioxide emissions

We all have to get places, and the impact we each have on climate change and air pollution is directly attributed to our transport choices. You can opt to drive less, share your ride, and swap to electric. Let’s dive into how the Anatomy of Action (AoA) explores the different ways you can move around your community to swap to having more intentionally positive impacts. 

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Action 1: Keep Active

Humans around the world are sitting more than ever before in our human history, and much of the push to a sedentary lifestyle involves a long commute paired to work that is paired with sitting at a desk all day. These sedentary lifestyles have quickly taken a toll on human health, with over 300 million adults around the world being categorized as obese. 

Then there is  the environmental impact that all this individual vehicle use is having, but there are many ways to transport yourself from one place to another, offering a perfect opportunity to use your body to get around. Human-powered transport, like walking, biking, skateboarding, are great for a variety of reasons; it’s much cheaper, cleaner, and better for your general health, and the increase in more human forms of mobility often increases road safety. According to this research, “Increasing median daily walking and bicycling from 4 to 22 minutes reduced the burden of cardiovascular disease and diabetes by 14%, increased the traffic injury burden by 39%, and decreased greenhouse gas emissions by 14%.”  By just cycling to work, you reduce your chance of cancer by 45% and cardiovascular disease by 46%. In many places around the world, walking and cycling are the norm, but more can be done to enhance the infrastructure to ensure our cities are more human transport friendly. For example, introducing sidewalks in a city can reduce serious traffic injuries by 25%

Personal car transportation contributes huge impacts to air pollution and to your carbon footprint, so whenever you can, swap your car rides to human-powered transport options to help reduce these stats, to save costs and time, to reduce noise and congestion, and to encourage a shift in the way we design cities and move around them. 

#KeepActive Everyday Actions

  1. Pre-check and choose routes for walking and cycling, give yourself extra time, get exercise, increase your productivity and health and wellness, and reduce your transport impact

  2. Engage with green spaces and support urban conservation projects in your community by using public nature spaces for moving around, like bike paths

  3. Give your productivity and personal wellness a boost by walking or cycling instead of taking short personal car rides 

  4. Start a group of people commuting to work at the same time to make a walking or bike ‘bus’ if safety is of concern  

  5. Swap short drives for walks or bike rides (or learn to rollerblade, skateboard, or scooter if you want a cooler way to get around)

  6. Support local government initiatives to introduce better urban design, walkable cities, and mass public transport systems 

Action 2: Share your Ride

It’s true, sharing is caring! Not only does sharing car rides when you have to take them reduce emissions, but it also saves money. Transportation studies put “the annual cost of congestion at $160 billion, which includes 7 billion hours of time lost to sitting in traffic and an extra 3 billion gallons of fuel burned.” Or, consider this German study which has calculated that “a 10% increase in the modal share of walking and cycling in urban areas would mean that the German GDP would go up by 1.11% by 2030, representing €29bn, based on German GDP in 2012.” 

Of course, ride sharing will have positive impacts on air quality, too, which is a crucial point of intervention given that in 2014, 92% of the world population was living in places where the WHO air quality guidelines levels were not met. Rather than taking your car, by walking, cycling, or taking public transport like trains and busses, you not only lower your carbon footprint but also invest in the services to keep them functioning.  There are numerous case studies that show the positive flow-on effects of investing in design for human-powered transport or ride sharing — like this one from Portland, Oregon that found “the number of miles of bikeways (lanes, paths, and boulevards) increased 247% from 79 in 1991 to 274 in 2008. This coincided with the share of workers commuting by bicycle rising from 1.1% in 1990 to 6.0% in 2008.”

#ShareYourRide Everyday Actions

  1. Join bike, scooter, or car share services if your city has them

  2. Use public transport and give extra time to yourself (read a book, enjoy music, meet someone new)

  3. Join rideshare apps or start collaborative commuting with your neighbours or friends 

  4. When using on-demand taxi services, opt for the green option (if available) and the ride share option 

  5. If available, consider intercity or intercountry rail services over short distance flights

Action 3: Go Cleaner

In addition to using your own body to get around and ride sharing, you can opt for electric forms of mobility to help reduce the harmful emissions at the city level caused by petrol-powered transport options. There are multiple benefits of low-carbon mobility, like an improved economy, reduced spending on imported fuel, increased energy security, and of course better human health. Globally we are seeing a rise in electric vehicle use and charging stations, so now is a great time to find ways of swapping to electric.

Many countries are offering financial incentives for low-carbon vehicles, like the UK who provides “100% first year allowance for business owners up to 2021, UK Plug-in Car Grant of £3,500, Exemption from London Congestion Charge, Significant Fuel Savings vs. a comparable Combustion Engine Car and no car fuel benefit for company cars, and Scottish customers can enjoy interest-free loans of up to £35,000 (personal) or up to £100,000”. And it’s not just passenger vehicles that we’re seeing electric options pop up; battery- and fuel cell–electric trucks and buses, especially transit buses, are already in operation across many US cities and are continuously expanding their fleets, not just in the US but also across the world. In fact, the global adoption of electric buses is expected to triple by 2025

#GoCleaner Everyday Actions

  1. Explore all the options available to you getting around and find which ones have the least impact 

  2. Adjust your routes so that you are going the least distance 

  3. Swap short distance drives for alternative modes of transport 

  4. Look for and ask about flexible working options to reduce your commute, such as working from home, video conferencing or later start times 

  5. See if there are leasing services where you can give an electric car or bike a try

  6. Swap your fossil fuel car to an electric one

  7. Use cleaner fuel when you can

  8. Support government or business initiatives that provide alternative fuel and cleaner transport options for your community 

Why the AoA?

There are no simple solutions to complex problems, and the transportation  issues we face are indeed complex. While the global environmental issues may be big and sometimes overwhelming, they are the outcomes of many individual actions. So, the choices we each make as individuals, as workers, and as members of societies have the potential to reinforce undesirable actions or to create the opportunity for new, more sustainable solutions. 

The actions outlined in the Anatomy of Action are are some of the top-level actions any individual can do to help support the global shift toward a more sustainable and regenerative future. No matter who you are, every action you take has an impact, so by taking these more considered actions, you can contribute to a global movement towards activating the SDG’s. There are many other things you can do; this list is by no means an exhaustive account of all the aspects of our lives, but all the actions in the Anatomy of Action offers a starter list that any individual, anywhere can take action on to help make a positive future for all of us!

Week 20: Anatomy of Action: Getting to grips with STUFF!

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Stuff! It is everywhere, all around us, fulfilling needs and helping to make our modern lives possible. But SO much stuff is wasted, useless, or unnecessary, and the impact of the material world is astronomical. Wherever you are right now, you can look around and see a bunch of stuff that has been manufactured, purchased, and at some point, will be waste - this linear economy has resulted in heaps of unintended negative consequences on the planet, many of which we are now seeing come around to hurt us - like ocean plastic waste

It’s hard not to get overwhelmed when thinking about the amount of “stuff” in this world. The average American household contains 300,000 items, an average British 10-year-old child owns 238 toys but usually only plays with 12 of them,  and 77 million automobiles will have been sold by the end of 2019.  With the rise of cheap manufacturing and convenience-driven shopping (free 2-day shipping, anyone?), stuff is now as ubiquitous in our lives as food, only it doesn’t nourish and sustain us but instead, it often simply takes up space — first in your home, then in a giveaway box or most likely, a landfill, with 99 percent of stuff being trashed within 6 months! We have become obsessed with buying sh*t we don’t necessarily need, and the economy is fueled by the hyper-consumption loop that drives the faulty GDP system. That’s why, for the second category of the Anatomy of Action, we tackle how to improve our consumption habits with thinking beyond buying, slowing down fashion, and ditching disposables. 

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Action 1: Beyond Buying 

What’s behind so many of the negative environmental impacts we’re grappling with today? Although there’s no one singular, simple answer, we’d be remiss not to look at the linear economy that we’ve designed over the last century in order to meet human wants and needs. Our current economy is based on a waste-based system of production where we take raw materials and natural resources out of nature, process them into usable goods to meet human needs, and then discard them back into giant holes in the ground that, ironically, were often where we took the raw materials from to begin with.

This entire system is in opposition to the natural systems that sustain life on Earth — which are circular and regenerative — and it’s counterintuitive to the way we function as living organisms. For example, we all require nutrients to survive, which is part of the beautifully-designed system of nutrients cycling through bodies and back into the ground to grow the next generation of food; this nutrient cycle is one of the fundamental ecosystems that makes life on Earth possible. Basically, humans designed a broken system that needs waste to sustain itself, and thus everything is intended to constantly lose value after it's purchased. Our linear economy does not fit in a circular world, and we can instead find ways of circumnavigating this cycle and activating our agency within the economy by buying better things. 

This needs to be emphasized when we start to think “Beyond Buying”, as we cannot sustain the wasteful, reductive linear economy and thus need to transition to a circular economy in order to shift the status quo of our consumption problem. While many people automatically think that transitioning to circular systems design will result in monetary losses, it’s actually the opposite in that a circular economy offers some huge financial incentives. Current research indicates that the material saving potential alone, for example, is estimated at 500 billion € per year for the European industry, and the job creation potential of remanufacturing and recycling in Europe is estimated at one million new jobs!

Along with rethinking how we consume stuff and implementing circular design practices, there are also huge opportunities in sharing, swapping, repairing, and repurposing the things that we already have. Consider the fact that on average, cars in North America and Western Europe are only in use 8% of the time, or that the average electric drill is used 6 to 13 min over its lifetime. It makes absolutely no sense as to why we all need to own so many items individually, and it’s much more practical to consider collaborative consumption.

Similarly, we’ve also become accustomed to a throw-away economy in which instead of repairing our goods, we discard them and then replace them instead. This isn’t all the fault of the consumer, however — 77% of EU consumers say they’d rather repair goods than buy new ones, and indeed, there are systems issues with planned obsolescence and enforced disposability that encourage this uptick in buying new devices. This is especially true with tech gear and the trend of replacing smart phones on an annual basis (there are now more phones on this planet than people!), which is a massive missed economic opportunity among its other issues. In fact, a United Nations University report estimates “the value of the recoverable materials in discarded electronics was $52 billion dollars in 2014 alone.”  Similarly, if the industry were better regulated and made phones easier to take apart and recapture, then the cost of remanufacturing them could be reduced by 50% per device

So, as you can see through this small snapshot, there are huge opportunities in moving away from this exploitative economy and moving beyond buying. This is, in short, what the circular economy is all about: meeting our needs with new sustainable product designs, service delivery models, and new approaches to business where we get better experiences with less stuff. To start, we can find ways of introducing things into our daily lives that have more value and last longer, reduce disposability, and maximize material recapture. 

Whilst we wait for all producers of goods and services to adopt these new approaches, consumers of all walks of life can be more conscious of what they need, what they are buying, and how they value the things that fill our lives. Increasing the usable life by repairing, sharing, reselling, and reducing helps reduce the need for new goods. If you can, invest in goods with longer warranties and design durability, and find companies that offer buyback and repair schemes for their products along with swapping and sharing things you need. Consider what you need before you buy products so that you can ensure you acquire things that will last longer, be used multiple times, and are intended to be in the economy for as long as possible before being waste. 

#BeyondBuying Everyday Actions: 

  1. Consider what you really need and what impacts these have on the planet before making buying stuff and reduce what you buy

  2. Continue or start sharing, swapping things like appliances, tools, clothes, talents and services

  3. For new purchases, look into how you can get what you need via a service or a product that lasts longer and has been made sustainably 

  4. Find things with extended warranties and that can be repaired, and then make sure you repair things

  5. Buy beautiful second hand things and find new homes for things you no longer want

  6. For technologies and gadgets use them longer, repair and donate them and ensure you find a reliable recycler at the end of their life 

  7. Delete old emails and other files stored on the cloud (servers use heaps of energy)

  8. Offer your technical skills and talents to extend product use, help others, and build a sense of community

  9. Recommend and buy from companies that provide spare parts to repair, that offer take back services or use recycled materials in production

Action 2: Fashion Slow Down

One of the most pervasive subcategories of stuff that accumulates and creates waste is found in textiles. Fashion is a hyper-fast, resource-intensive industry that impacts nearly everyone on the planet in some way. We all wear clothes not only for functionality, but also to express a certain style and identity. But with global clothing production doubling in the last 15 years,  the fast fashion phenomenon exacerbates labor conditions (excessive dust, heat, rodents, lack of sanitation, etc.), and product quality is pushed as low as possible by brands to make inventory on a weekly basis. And then, after the newest styles are purchased for the thrill of newness and a low price, they often just sit in one’s closet, unworn. According to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, “...the average number of times a garment is worn before it ceases to be used has decreased by 36% compared to 15 years ago, and the same pattern is emerging in China, where clothing utilisation has decreased by 70% over the last 15 years.” 

You know what happens next — after garments sit unworn in a closet for some time, they are then shipped off to the landfill whenever a tidying-up urge hits. Recycling isn’t happening: 84% of all textile waste is sent directly to landfills. Of course, all of this negatively impacts climate conditions, whereas  “reuse of clothing saves 29kg CO2e per kg of clothing compared to recycling and 33kg CO2e compared to disposal.” When we configure the economics of this environmental disaster, we find that “globally, customers miss out on USD 460 billion of value each year by throwing away clothes that they could continue to wear and some garments are estimated to be discarded after just seven to ten wears.”

 You can avoid contributing to this by breaking the vicious cycle perpetuated by constantly changing clothes by finding responsible brands that support the betterment of workers and the environment or by buying second hand. In becoming a conscious and responsible consumer through the power of your decision making, you will help the environment and society in significant ways.  

#FashionSlowdown Everyday Actions

  1. Celebrate being unique - buy vintage, redesign old clothes, create a core basic or ‘capsule’ wardrobe, and be bold in your fashion choices

  2. Give your clothes a second chance: share, reuse, repair, recycle, sell, and donate high-quality fashion for second-hand use

  3. Think long-term: buy quality clothes that last and take care of them. Today’s new pieces are tomorrow's vintage treasures 

  4. Let brands know when you are not happy with their practices and help encourage them to move towards sustainable production

  5. Use your consumer power to buy better clothes and to increase the availability of more sustainable fashion options

  6. Ask brands about how best to take care of their clothes, how they produce and source, and how they are committed to sustainability 

Action 3: Ditch Disposables

We have a collective global challenge unprecedented in the history of humans on this Earth. We have designed ourselves into a tightly-wound system of disposability that is wreaking havoc on the systems that sustain us all. No human is immune to these outcomes from our collective actions, as no one can deny that they need food, air, and water to survive and thrive. Thus, we are all implicated in the necessity to dramatically redesign our manufacturing, production, and consumption systems to be post disposable.

From the oceans to the air, our natural systems have become innocent victims of our hyper-disposable cycles of meeting human needs. This is not an alarmist warning — this is a biophysical realty of the planet we all share. The data tells the story here; with over 320 million tons of plastic being consumed globally and more plastic produced in the last decade than ever before, plastic is infiltrating all of our natural systems, especially the ocean with more than 8 million tons of it leaking into the ocean each year, thanks to poor disposal practices, broken recycling systems, and the lack of waste management in emerging economies where plastic is pervasive.

The UNEP reported in 2018, “Only nine percent of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Most ends up in landfills, dumps or in the environment. If current consumption patterns and waste management practices continue, then by 2050 there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment. By this time, if the growth in plastic production continues at its current rate, then the plastics industry may account for 20 percent of the world’s total oil consumption.”  And we’re just scratching the surface on how all of this is also impacting human health, as we’ve recently learned that 90% of table salts contain microplastics and the average adult consumes approximately 2,000 microplastics per year through salt.

All over the world, our daily lives are overwhelmed with single-use products and plastics, from packaging to beverage cups and bags. As shared by UNEP, "The most common single-use plastics found in the environment are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic drinking bottles,  plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, other types of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers. These are the waste products of a throwaway culture that treats plastic as a disposable material rather than a valuable resource to be harnessed." 

Disposable products are not just hazardous for the environment but also costly to remove and hard to recycle. By ditching disposables in whatever way you can, you are supporting the global movement to go #zerowaste and sending signals to producers and stores that we don't want plastic in our oceans and littering our streets. This is more important than ever before with the recent global shakeup stemming from China refusing to take more recycling — by 2030,  it’s estimated that 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced due to this new law.  But the good news is that from personal beverage containers to shopping in bulk and even making your own cleaning products, there are hundreds of micro actions you can take to support the global trend towards a post disposable future.

#DitchDisposables Everyday Actions:

  1. Swap daily disposables such as straws, bags, coffee cups, take out food containers, forks, razors, sanitary products for reusable alternatives, you will save money in the long run 

  2. Continue or start to buy at bulk food stores and bring your own containers and bags to take products home in 

  3. Carry your own vessel for water and hot drinks 

  4. Rethink food storage to eliminate plastic baggies and wrap, you can swap to reusable containers and beeswax wraps 

  5. Clean greener- from toothpaste to household cleaning products there are alternative and often cheaper ways of getting things clean such as bicarb soda and vinegar 

  6. Replace disposable hygiene products with reusable ones, such as swapping pads & tampons for the menstrual cups and moon pads

  7. Consider ways to refill products like cleaning and household liquids in bulk to reduce packaging 

  8. Use your consumer power where you shop, eat, and work to voice the change you want to see and reduce disposability from our lives!

Why the AoA?

There are no simple solutions to complex problems, and the consumption issues we face are indeed complex. While the global environmental and social issues being big and often overwhelming, it is important to be reminded that they are in part the outcomes of many individual actions. So, the choices we each make as individuals, as workers, and as members of societies have the potential to reinforce undesirable actions or to create the opportunity for new, more sustainable solutions to emerge.

The actions outlined in the Anatomy of Action are the top-level actions any individual can take to help support the global shift toward a more sustainable and regenerative future. No matter who you are, every action you take has an impact. By taking these more considered actions, you can contribute to a global movement for a more sustainable future. There are many other things you can do; this list is by no means an exhaustive account of all the aspects of our lives where we need to tackle to meet the SDGs. But it’s a starter list that any individual, anywhere can take action on to help make a positive future for all of us! 

Week 19: Anatomy of Action: Thumbs up for Food!

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Food! Delicious, terrible, gross, amazing —  everyone loves it, we all need it, Instagram is filled with it, and it's the biggest impact of our daily lives, which is exactly why we chose it as the first action in our Anatomy of Action (AoA) set. Let’s take a look at the issues and opportunities that we all have with the food in our life, via the three action areas that we set out in the AoA: protein swaps, using all your food, and growing your own. Then pick and action and get started!

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If you’re at all into sustainability, then you’ve surely heard that reducing meat consumption — which we have coined as “Protein Swaps” in the AoA to have a more positive, inclusive impact —  has a tremendously positive impact on the planet’s health and the well-being of billions of animals and people. But before narrowing down on that, it’s important to point out that the staggering increase in meat production that we have all experienced in our lifetimes is a brand new phenomenon — never before in human history have we humans eaten so much meat. Experts estimate that total meat production has increased 4-5 fold since 1961, and in order to meet the demand, over 70% of the world’s farm animals are now factory farmed (including 99% of the animals in the US!). This massive uptick in meat production is accompanied by a massive uptick in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (and a huge freshwater footprint), with livestock and their byproducts accounting for at least 32,564 million tons of CO2e per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions. Which all makes sense when you discover that every year in the US alone, according to the US Meat Institute 9 billion chickens (yes that’s a B), 32.2 million cattle and calves, 241.7 million turkeys, 2.2 million sheep and lambs, and 121 million hogs are killed for meat consumption (here is a creepy real time kill clock).  

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Given the astounding snapshot of just how pervasive factory farmed meat is, there are, of course, many health and planet impacts that we are often blind to. Without going too much into the details, mass produced meat-based proteins contribute to desertification, deforestation, and nutrification (as well as the development of oceanic dead zones), all while subjecting factory-confined animals to heaps of animal cruelty issues.

It’s no surprise then that various governments around the world are encouraging citizens to adopt a more plant-based diet. For example, Canada released a new national food guide in 2019 that focused on plant-based eating, whereas the UK and the Chinese lawmakers have made statements about the benefits of reducing meat consumption. Similarly, New Zealand’s 2019 Sustainability Report also urges citizens to begin eating more plants, less meat, as did the popular EAT-Lancet Commission Report released earlier in 2019. The US, one of the worlds biggest meat consumers, is also seeing a change in consumer preferencing, with more people opting for plant-centric eating. 

Swapping meat-centric food habits for meals with different protein sources is good for your health and for the environment. In many parts of the world this is already a way of life. The best way to re-shape our global food systems is for people to swap meat to plant based options. By making the switch to a more vegetable-friendly diet and being more selective in where your meat comes from (adopt a flexitarian or reducetarian diet!), you can improve your health, lower GHG emissions and reduce biodiversity loss

#ProteinSwaps Everyday Actions

  1. Swap animal protein for more plant-based proteins 

  2. Diversify your diet and cook more at home

  3. Eat what is seasonally available 

  4. Opt for locally-produced foods; seek out local farmers and markets that offer sustainable produce

  5. Talk with your friends and family about healthy and sustainable food options to encourage them to swap their diets too 

  6. Become an everyday/weekday vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian 

  7. Try to have a rainbow of vegetables on your plate in every meal

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Another enormous problem within our food systems that we examined through the AoA is the issue of prolific food waste — 1.3 billion tons are wasted each year, which is an incredible one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption. This isn’t just an ironic issue in the face of widespread world hunger; it also means that “huge amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain, and that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain." And what about the end-of-life for this wasted food in landfills? Given that on average, the carbon footprint of food wastage is around 500 kg CO2 eq. per capita and per year, there are enormous environmental and fiscal opportunities in reducing food waste. In fact, it’s estimated by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that the U.K. could save “USD 1.1 billion a year on landfill cost by keeping organic food waste out of landfills—this would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7.4 million tonnes p.a. and could deliver up to 2 GWh worth of electricity and provide much-needed soil restoration and specialty chemicals.” For these reasons and more, the second action area focus of our AoA food exploration is all about using all your food. 

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Using all your food helps reduce food waste which, in trash heaps and landfills, leads to releases of leachates and methane (which is 30x times more potent than CO2). Food scraps and stale bread are not trash at all! They are filled with the building blocks of life-nutrients, which your body and soil can use (replacing fertilizers and chemicals). So, by getting organics out of open dumps and landfills, we can reduce emissions released into the air and give nutrients back to the soil to produce healthier and tastier plants.

#UseAllYourFood Everyday Actions

  1. Design your meals to use up the entire food product

  2. Buy only what you can finish or save — don’t waste food after all you paid for it. If you throw it away, you are tossing your money in the trash 

  3. When buying foods, avoid excessive packaging and take your own produce bags

  4. Seek out "ugly" fruit and vegetables to give them a life in your meal

  5. Manage how you store food to maximize freshness, such as using sealed containers in your fridge and pantry 

  6. Get (more) into canning, preserves, and freezing to extend food life 

  7. Make stock out of food scraps 

  8. Compost your food scraps 

  9. Share excess food to help ensure everyone has enough (there are many apps that help with this)

  10. Find out what’s available in your neighborhood and advocate for communal composting and organic waste processing solutions 

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Of course there are many food options for a healthy person and planet, but our 3rd one for the AoA supports you growing your own food and connecting to where it comes from in order to save money and to reduce transport, packaging, and food waste. While we hear a lot of conversation about plastic water bottles and plastic bags — especially when talking about plastic bans — the lesser known truth is that food’s plastic packaging accounts for nearly 50% of plastic waste (!) as waste is generated along the entire life cycle of food products, from the growing practices through to the supermarket and home wastage.

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By growing your own food, even if it only replaces just some of what you would otherwise buy, you can connect better to what you eat and reduce the impacts that occur from the growing, packaging, transport, retail practices and food waste. Producing some of your own food has multiple benefits so even a small amount of home grown produce is a great way to start.

Access to land and time to garden of course varies, so if you can’t grow your own food, consider finding local farmers and support them or join a farmers cooperative. There are many benefits to small scale community agriculture — better food, more nutrients, higher air and soil quality, pollinator plants for bees and inspects, and an enhanced sense of community.

#GrowYourOwn Everyday Actions

  1. Farm, plant, and grow whatever you can, wherever you can 

  2. Start or join an urban school or kitchen garden

  3. Connect with your food: find out where your food comes from and how it is produced  

  4. Regrow vegetables like leeks, carrots, and beets in your house in a glass of water instead of discarding them 

  5. If you can’t grow food yourself, support a local sustainable farmer or shop at farmers markets 

  6. Promote, develop, and support initiatives in your building, street, or  community that increases your access to food-growing space 

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There are no simple solutions to complex problems, and the food issues we face are indeed complex. While the global environmental issues are big and sometimes overwhelming, they are the outcomes of many individual actions, and of course the decisions made by governments and industry as well. Food is certainly a vital area for progress and change which can start with us exerting our influence over the demand side of the system.

So, the choices we make as individuals, as workers, and as members of societies have the potential to reinforce undesirable actions or to create the opportunity for new, more sustainable solutions.

The actions outlined in the Anatomy of Action are the top-level actions an individual can do to help support the global shift toward shared good-life goals (check out the AoA action validation report to discover more). No matter who you are, every action you take has an impact.

By taking these more considered lifestyle choices, you can contribute to a global movement for a more sustainable future. There are many other things you can do; this list is by no means an exhaustive account of all the aspects of our lives where we need to tackle to meet the SDGs. But it’s a starter list that any individual, anywhere can take action on to help make a positive future for all of us! 

Week 18: Introducing our UNEP collaboration: The Anatomy of Action

By Leyla Acaroglu

Over the last year, the UnSchool team and I have been working on an exciting project in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to activate sustainable living and lifestyles.

The outcome is the Anatomy of Action, and this week, we are launching it into the world!

Here are the how’s and why’s of this exciting new initiative. 


When I talk about sustainability, a topic I have spoken about a lot over the last 15 years of my career, people often react in one of three ways: 1. they are really into the idea but don’t know what to do about it; 2. they are openly hostile about it, usually because they have had a bad experience with some form of environmentally-motivated actions/product etc; or, 3. they are confused by what it actually means and whether it is achievable, which makes them feel overwhelmed by it.

I try to remind people that sustainability is about the social, economic, and environmental considerations of what we do in our personal lives, the way we do business, and the government decisions that our elected representatives make on our behalf so that we can sustain the systems (such as food, air, and water) that every single living thing on Earth needs to survive and thrive. What it is not is a hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, wishy washy, anti-business concept that means you have to give up a lot and go back to the ‘dark ages,’ which is literally what some people who fall into the openly-hostile category have said to me. By being human, you need the planet, and as a result of our collective actions, the planet now needs us to alter damaging practices and replace them with more sustainable and regenerative ones. 

I will be the first to admit that we have a whole bunch of historical legacy issues to overcome when it comes to sustainability, as, in the past, actions by environmental movements and organizations have accidentally pigeon-holed the ways in which people view and care about the planet. Whilst often very good intentioned, the use of fear and shaming have been two well-executed tools in a space that often ends up being polarized between people who ‘care’ about the planet and those who ‘don’t’ — which is very strange when all people need the planet to live and thus don’t really have the option to not care about it. 

There are also many issues with the boom in greenwashing that we are still trying to shake off from industries who spend more money on marketing green credentials rather than doing them, and thus the resulting consumer cynicism from people who feel they were duped into buying crappy, often more expensive, so-called ‘green’ products. 

Now, though, we are in a more sophisticated era of understanding the ways in which we can design products and services that meet human needs but don’t destroy the systems that sustain us all. That's really what the core of sustainability as a practice is — a better understanding of systems and how we participate in them, which then leads to more informed and creative decision-making around how we all live well on this shared planet. And by shared, I mean not just with all the 7.5 billion other humans, but also the biological miracle that is the diversity of all the different species that make Earth the only known life-sustaining plant in the universe.

The current trend toward circularizing the economy is, in part, a reaction to the phenomenal waste crisis that we have designed ourselves into. The sad reality is that yes, recycling is broken, and we have global supply chains churning out stuff designed for the dump every second of every day. With many people profiting off this linear system, it does seem hard to turn the tides on such a well-oiled production-to-waste machine.


But now, many of us humans are seeing the feedback loops from this by way of mounds of ocean plastic waste and air pollution, which is one of the world’s biggest killers. In fact, cities around the world regularly peak above the WHO safe living index, and recent studies have shown the link between air pollution and all sorts of cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s disease. And then there is the climate crisis, a massive, scary, overwhelming concept that is freaking many people out. So, what in all of this mess and chaos is one individual to do about this, when we are presented with so many issues in need of solutions like the 17 in the Sustainable Development Goals? How do we overcome the inertia felt by the magnitude of the issues at hand, when we see there are just so many things that need to be addressed and we are just individuals trying to live a good life? How on Earth do we do anything that has any impact at all? 

Every issue holds its own solution, and that’s the case here. We each make up the world by the actions we take; the planet is in the state it's in not because we exist, but because we do the things we do each day. Sure, many choices are taken out of our hands and all industries and governments have a lot to answer for when it comes to obtaining a sustainable and positive future. But for each of us, we hold in our own two hands the opportunities to change the economy, as it is made up of all our individual actions accumulated as an economic outcome.

If you have ever worked for a company that sells goods or services, you will know that the trends in consumer behavior are the things that dictate the next steps for the company. So, let’s say you work for a large supermarket chain, and suddenly, people start avoiding overly-packaged products. When you look into why, you discover it's because of the concerns about ocean plastic waste and that there is a trend toward package-free products. So then, you make a case to your boss to have package-free options that meets the rising trend in consumer preferences. That is how the market works — actions breed reactions in the market — so if we want to be a part of designing a future that works better than today, then we need to redesign our lives to mimic the kind of future we want to live in. 

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The complexity of sustainability is in the fact that we don’t really have all the answers yet. There is much work to do on the technical solutions to meeting our needs in more regenerative and planet-positive ways, like how do we mass-produce carbon-free energy and provide power for transport devices as large as airplanes? But, the very fact that we discovered how to fly was a miracle not too long ago, so the future will result is these issues being addressed, once we have a more widespread acceptance of the base reality that all humans need the planet and that our actions have negative impacts on it that, in turn, negatively impact us all. There is absolutely no escaping this, no matter how much power or wealth you may have. 

But, there are many things we can do, and I want to make it really clear that we each have agency and some kind of control over the future we create, even if it doesn’t seem like it at times. We make up the economy through our actions, and in turn, the economic system dictates what we value and how we live our lives. So, we are in a dynamic relationship that often feels as though the way things are is the way things have and will always be. But 10 years ago, smartphones were a brand new thing, and 20 years ago, we all had to plug our desktop computers into a phone line to access this new thing called the Internet. As such, in 10 or 20 years, the future will be very different from today, and I, for one, will be working to ensure that the kind of future we end up in is more equitable, sustainable, and regenerative than today. 

This is my very long introduction to a project we have been working on with the United Nations Environment Program’s economic division. For the last year, we have been exploring what types of actions individuals can take that will actually have an impact, if replicated and normalized, as part of people's everyday lifestyle actions. The outcome is the Anatomy of Action, an initiative we will launch this week at UNESCO in Paris. We wanted to not only design something that supports lifestyle changes for sustainable living, but also base it on a deeper understanding of what is working, along with why and how to amplify it so that we get new types of behavioral normals that encourage positive shifts within the economy. 

In 2016, I was awarded Champion of the Earth by the UNEP for my work with the UnSchool and my creative products that bring a science-based, innovative approach to sustainability. So it was fitting that we would find a way to collaborate on the complex and fascinating topic of sustainable lifestyles and how to activate more of them. 

For this collaboration, my team and I started by shining a light on all the bright spots of organically-growing cultural movements that exist outside of the traditional sustainability or environmental movements — things like zero waste, minimalism, guerilla gardening, ride sharing, etc. We identified over 80 movements, categorized them into which everyday lifestyle areas they were addressing, and then dissected the actions that these movements were identifying and taking. Next, we searched for the last five years of peer-reviewed academic papers and studies to see which of these hundreds of identified actions have positive impacts if amplified out among more people.

This helped us refine the list of actions down into a more detailed action heat map, and from that, we developed the five themes that make up the Anatomy of Action: food, stuff, movement, money, and fun. Experts within the UN system then reviewed the long lists of validated actions and confirmed the high-level ones that we could share as significant actions that anyone can take to have a positive impact in their daily lives.

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The resulting 15 sub-actions are all positively framed; for example, we are not asking everyone to go vegan (which is shown will have significantly positive impacts) but instead to ‘protein swap’, which everyone can do a few meals a week. We chose this intentional language because we know that globally, food options are very different, and health conceptions as well as cultural conventions are also very diverse. For me, a protein swap is achievable, and if we get more people doing this, it will encourage meat producers to move away from intensive factory farming and instead, produce high quality, ethical, grass-fed meat, which will result in a better place with many environmental impacts. 

The action set presented in the Anatomy of Action shows everyday lifestyle swaps that fit easily into daily lifestyle choices. I drew heavily on behavioral and cognitive sciences to gain an insight into how to frame these actions as opportunities rather than losses, as the reality with sustainability is that it is a massive opportunity! For example, the benefits in swapping your car drive for human-powered transport are massive. Not only do you get exercise, but also the less cars we have in urban environments, the better air quality we get. Additionally, there is a lot of research as to when people disrupt their daily habits and rituals — usually when there are already in an altered life state, such as going on vacation, having a baby, or moving houses. This struck me as fascinating, as we often fall into rutted ways of doing things, and as the old adage goes, “A change is as good as a holiday,” because change often brings positive results for us. 

  • Part of the Anatomy of Action asset set, Illustrations by Emma Segal. See all assets here

In designing and making the Anatomy of Action, I wanted to create a memorable, but simple memetic tool that reminds us all of the choices we make everyday. Nearly everyone has hands and we see them in front of us everyday, doing the things that make up our lives, so this reference is easy to remember when taking actions. But the critical thing is taking action! So to launch the initiative, we are challenging everyone to pick one of the actions, swap to it, and then share your habit disruptions on social media, tagging three friends to challenge them to get started too. Then repeat! For example, I personally moved banks for the UnSchool and started to move over other banks for my personal life because part of the research showed that divestment from banks and energy providers that are relying on the old carbon-producing industries could be done pretty easily. It takes time, for sure, but the outcome is investing in the kind of companies I want to see more of and divesting from the ones that need to change. 

Keep in mind that, due to the need to reach a diverse range of humans around the globe who live among different circumstances, the final action set is simply a chunk of things you can start doing now, but there are MANY things you can do and that need to be done. The next stage in our progress toward a sustainable future is discovering the things that we have impact on, both in negative and positive ways, and then designing these so that they are more effective and efficient. That's exactly what we're doing with sustainability — we are researching and working to figure out where the impacts are and what we can each do to address these, in our lives, in our businesses, and through the actions we take everyday that have an impact on the economy. 

We need many approaches to communicating, engaging, and activating a sustainable, circular, regenerative future. The Anatomy of Action is just one, but I hope it inspires you to reconsider some of the daily lifestyle choices you make, as well as how we each impact the economy and how, in turn, it impacts us, because the future is made up of our actions today. In doing so, we can all, over time, work to change the narrative of sustainability and design a future that works better than today.