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Exposing the realities of sustainability and how to find our own path towards conscious action.

It was nearly two o’clock in the afternoon in Dubai. As I silently contemplated my questions, a tidal wave of emotions surged within me. I was at the Climate Change Conference (COP28), about to interview Dame Ellen MacArthur, the Champion of the Earth Laureate, the United Nations’ highest environmental award. Within minutes, one of the most respected voices in the circular economy field would step into the recording studio. The conversation promised to be both profound and transformative.

In the midst of laughter in front of cameras and anecdotes from her carpentry workshop, I asked her how she integrated sustainability into daily life. I anticipated a systematic, almost list-like response, but her words took an unexpected turn as she replied: “When it comes to the global solutions we need to address these immense challenges, what we do individually every day is important. However, the system must enable us to play a part in that solution and our current challenge is that it doesn’t yet do that. The system is not yet set upfor us to live in a circular way.”

Circular economy: a new way of living

What Ellen was alluding to is that we’ve shaped our society along a linear model: we extract resources from nature, transform them for use and then dispose of them. Without delving into climate jargon, the circular economy can be understood as a system where waste has no place. It’s a model in where products are designed not to be discarded, turning the final stage of one item into the beginning of another.

This is not a fantasy. On the contrary, it’s the very essence of our planet. Circularity manifests itself every day in nature, becoming evident to any observer. However, we’re far from reaching that goal, as recent studies evidenced: less than 10% of the world’s plastic gets recycled and only 1% of used clothing finds its way into new garments. If the system is not yet fully prepared, what is our role as this unfolds?

Solutions sorrounding us

Ever since global warming became a reality in our lives, the news has been heartbreaking. Science warns us of what’s at stake and urges us to implement profound changes in how we live, produce, and consume. As Donella Meadows warned in her systems theory: human are just one link in nature, part of a great system that self-regulates without our intervention. It would be more comfortable to live under the illusion of its infinity, but now we know that’s not the case.

When we analyze our place in the sustainability space, the answers often chime in with a familiar tune. Recycling , cutting back on meat consumption, embracing alternative transportation, outfitting homes with solar panels, reducing water and electricity usage. It’s no coincidence; these solutions have accompanying us for decades. That’s why we often believe that sustainability is limited to small individual gestures, while true change must be led from the top, by governments and multinationals. We have relegated this transition to CO2 emissions reduction reports and sustainability reports.

“The most important thing you can do about climate change is to talk about it,” defends Katharine Hayhoe, a prominent climate scientist. I would add something else: it is also crucial to contemplate it. It’s time to pause and reflect. To ask ourselves questions about how we live, how we love, and how we relate to the environment around us. What role do we play in our own ecosystem? In our city, in our home.

We are all protagonists in this transition

From where I stand, I am convinced that knowing which seasonal local fruits are, is just as important as avoiding food waste. That investing in quality garments far outweighs the option of saving on clothing that deteriorates after a few washes. That separating waste reflects our desire to ensure that our cities manage waste in a correct matter. In this world of voracious ambition and immediacy, embracing sustainability can become a revolutionary act.

We must internalize that sustainability transcends individual gestures of collective commitment. It truly implies re-evaluating existing norms, gradually fostering structural changes to the systems we have built. And so, one day, we may share anecdotes saying: “Yes, that used to happen back in my days”. It’s not about adopting it out of obligation, but recognizing that it makes perfect sense to aspire to a more conscious and present way of living. In absolute harmony with this great system called nature.

Perfectionism: the great barrier to sustainability

Sustainability has many adversaries, but possibly one of the lesser known is the sense of perfectionism. The feeling that we must be perfect environmentalists in order to speak out and share examples. Let me be clear: there is no manual for perfect sustainability. What’s is to recognize that each of us is part of this transition, taking into account our own possibilities and priorities. As we inflate this balloon and set our sights on the horizon, let’s embrace the idea that sustainability is a personal journey and that the best day to embark is today.

Jessica Sánchez

Expert in international relations and sustainability professional. She has developed her professional career in global organizations such as UN Climate Change and Women's Forum for the Economy & Society. She founded The Movable Middle, a communications consultancy focused on social impact and sustainability.