Eating, Building, Moving: 3 Industries That Could Hold The Key To A More Sustainable Future

This is a guest blog from James Hale, a graduate of the University of Kent. Having studied English and American Literature, James now works as a freelance writer, penning his thoughts on anything and everything of interest. He’s passionate about sustainability, and loves helping to spread the word about how we can all factor it into our day to day lives.

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It’s not uncommon to see concerns about sustainability appearing in the news. While unfortunately it’s not always to decry a positive update, it’s certainly a good thing that this vital issue is so prominent in the public eye. One recent story, however, caught my eye – the news that some of the world’s most prominent investors have called on the largest fast food companies in the world to act urgently on the climate and water risks in their supply chains.

This got me thinking a bit. Of course this is a step in the right direction, but one statistic jumped out at me: “animal agriculture is the world’s highest-emitting sector without a low-carbon plan.” This makes perfect sense with the sheer scale of animal farming in mind. But which other industries are the most harmful to our natural world? And where are the most significant opportunities for change and improvement?

After a little bit of digging, a few stats emerged that I found fairly surprising. Particularly the fact that 71% of all man-made emissions since the dawn of the industrial age have come from just 100 companies. We’re constantly reminded of the things we can do to improve our carbon footprint – recycling, bringing our own bags when we shop, turning the lights off. But it’s clear that while we all have a part to play, the largest responsibility falls on industry. But which industries?

With this in mind, and following on from some of the other posts I’ve written for the sustainability blog, I thought it would be good to take a look at a few of the industries that have – or could have – the biggest impact on the environment, and in particular, those with the potential to have the most positive effects if appropriate steps are taken.

How to define environmental impact

But first, a quick note. It’s very easy to band about phrases such as ‘environmental impact’ without much clarity on what they actually mean. With the risk of being reductive in this sense, I think it’s important to establish how we actually define how ‘environmentally friendly an industry is.

A simple approach can be to simply look at the cumulative estimated emissions (in the form of various greenhouses gasses such as Co2, methane or nitrous oxide) that a given industry is responsible for. But while this is a vital statistic, focusing solely on this one aspect of sustainability arguably isn’t the best way to paint a wider picture.

Instead, for the purposes of this article, I’ve decided to take a slightly broader approach, and consider the far-reaching and hypothetical impacts an industry can have. This includes things like the role an industry has on consumer behaviour, the potential it has to change the way we act and live, and various ways different supply chains can impact the natural world. Basically, we’re talking big picture, and I’m not trying to make any definitive claims!

1: Agriculture/Food production

It makes sense to start with the industry that triggered this train of thought. Food production is one of the building blocks of our civilisation, and it’s hard to underestimate its scale and potential impact. The agriculture industry is so vast, and involves so many different stages and sub-industries, that it clearly takes responsibility for a huge majority of our global carbon footprint.

How does agriculture affect the environment?

This is hard to summarise succinctly and with any true degree of accuracy, but simply by considering the vast number of elements involved in the agriculture industrial supply chain, it’s easy to see just how significant its impact is. It would be foolish to attempt to list all of these, but instead let’s look at a few diverse elements:

Deforestation

In order to farm, land is required. And in order to make more land available, those pesky forests that produce oxygen and provide a self-sustaining biodiverse ecosystem need to go. According to British environmentalist Norman Myers, 5% of deforestation is due to cattle ranching, 19% due to over-heavy logging, 22% due to the growing sector of palm oil plantations, and 54% due to slash-and-burn farming (burning large areas to create a layer of ash, resulting in nutrient-rich soil.)

Food packaging

Single-use disposable plastics for packaging food are a hot topic at the moment, and the absurdity of the amount of plastic we use in food packaging (think mushrooms wrapped in clingfilm in a plastic holder wrapped in clingfilm) is hard to deny. It’s easy to forget that this is a part of the food production industry, but with food products representing a huge amount of our regular purchases, this is a vital consideration.

Pollutants

 

When producing food, all kinds of pollutants are used in the process. From pesticides and herbicides used to ensure quality, to emissions from farming equipment and machinery, and even the pollution of surface and groundwaters from waste, the agriculture industry contributes a staggering number of pollutants to the environment en masse every year.

How could agriculture make a difference?

Far be it for me to suggest how to fix the agriculture industry, but it’s worth noting that on the whole, if broad and far-reaching improvements were made to the way we farm and distribute food produce, the impact on the globe could be massive. If we’re going to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, big changes are needed in farming.

Fundamentally, a global shift towards agreed upon low-carbon guidelines and plans would be an important first step. Agreements between suppliers on clear policies that take steps to reduce freshwater impacts and reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be vital. Similarly, while industries such as the automotive industry have taken steps towards quantitative accountability, it’s crucial that global quantifiable agriculture targets are agreed upon, set, and regularly reported on. Put simply, we need a clear, numbers-driven plan to reduce the harm farming is doing to the environment.

The widespread adoption of sustainable practices including water management, healthy soil maintenance, pollution reduction and biodiversity promotion will be essential – and these will need to be established in clear guidelines and targets for farmers and producers to meet. If we can achieve this, the potential positive impact – or at least the reduction of the current scale of damage – is hard to understate.

2: Construction and Building Design

However well (or poorly) we treat the environment as a society, we still have to live in it. As humans have evolved, we’ve increased our proficiency in design and construction to such an extent that architecture has become one of the most significant industries in terms of our impact of the natural world.

I wrote an entire piece about this on the sustainability blog a little while ago, but seeing as we’re discussing industries with the biggest role to play here, I would be remiss not to include it again. I’ll provide a slightly condensed analysis this time though!

How does architecture affect the environment?

Put simply, the buildings we construct and reside in have a huge effect on how sustainably we live as a society. The supply chain involved in architecture is vast, but generally the impact of building design comes down to two things: construction, and the way we use buildings in the long term.

Construction

The construction industry alone is responsible for a huge amount of environmental damage, which can be attributed to a few different key areas. These include waste (60 million tonnes of materials are disposed of every year without ever being used, due to damage or inaccurate ordering), the emissions from large-scale and long-distance transportation of materials and machinery, and on-site emissions, identified as one of the main causes of CO2 pollution in the UK (with up to 40% of carbon emissions attributable to construction).

Building use

It’s not just the way we construct buildings that has a profound and measurable effect on the environment – it’s the way we use those buildings too. Once construction is complete, a structure’s environmental impact doesn’t go away, it changes. The parameters are different, but the effects are just as significant.

The way a building provides heating, water, ventilation, and energy all play a part in its overall sustainability. The supply of these elements, the energy efficiency of the interior spaces, and things such as the disposal of wastewater need to be considered, and can have both negative and positive effects.

How can building design and construction make a difference?

When thinking about this, it’s important to get to grips with the term ‘sustainable’, as this is really key. Architecture and construction aren’t ever going to have zero impact on the environment, and yet they’re a necessary part of our societal development – so the specifics of sustainable development, that is development which doesn’t involve the irreparable destruction of resources, is crucial.

Sustainable construction practices are already in place which can help us to achieve this goal. This predominantly involves the use of things like nontoxic materials, and renewable resources (such as harvested wood and glass) in the actual building process.

On top of this, it’s worth noting that the way architects approach the design of a building could also have a significant long-term benefit to the overall sustainability of our future. Simple amendments such as the inclusion of effective daylighting through use of something like a glass rooflight, or the inclusion of effective ventilation and natural heating can make a huge difference.

This could have a massive impact on our natural world as we continue to expand our man made influence upon it; rather than reducing both space for natural ecologies to thrive and the amount of resources available to build, sustainable construction and design could ensure that we maintain the resources that are available as we provide efficient and sustainable new living and working spaces for our expanding population – all the while reducing the long-term environmental impact our buildings have.

3: Energy Industry & Fossil Fuel Producers

For many people, regardless of how aware they are of the overarching issues affecting our environment, the energy industry often springs to minds as one of – if not the – prime culprit when it comes to emissions. This opinion is hardly unfounded. In 2017, the ‘Carbon Majors Report’ from the CDP determined that “…a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions.”

The impact of those producing energy from fossil fuels is undeniably crucial. Reports such as the one cited above are illuminating, because they hone in specifically on the emissions of energy producers rather than simply analysing emissions on a national scale. And the data is telling.

How does the energy industry affect the environment?

In a very simple sense, the way the energy industry impacts the environment is fairly straightforward regardless of the specific energy source in question. When fossil fuels in any form are burned for energy, they create an abundance of harmful greenhouse gases that are emitted and dispersed into the atmosphere, which over time accumulate and cause an array of problems for the planet. (I know this is GCSE level science but that’s the gist of it!)

Large-scale emissions

These emissions are some of the most significant influencing factors in climate change, and the energy industry is responsible for a terrifying proportion of them. While other industries impact the Earth and sustainability in a variety of ways, the large scale emissions of harmful gases from the burning of fossil fuels have a direct impact on the natural state of our climate.

Since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration has increased by about 40% to above 400 parts per million, and current CO2 levels are 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last million years (possibly even more than any time in the last 25 million years.)

This increase of 100 ppm over 120 years is something that normally takes 5,000 to 20,000 years, and is directly correlated with and attributable to the increase in burning of fossil fuels. As we continue to do so, we effectively wrap the world in a gaseous heat blanket, and the effects of this are causing chaos to our climate.

Coal (yes, we’re still burning it)

While the coal industry’s demise in the UK might make it easy to assume this is no longer a significant problem for the wider world, coal is still burned on a massive scale and remains one of the primary contributors to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Coal-fired power plants are the main contributor of Co2 into the atmosphere,

What’s particularly surprising is the extent to which this is true. With so many more ways of generating power sustainably, and so many more providers of green energy, I was shocked to discover that between 1988 and 2015, a staggering 14.32% of ALL global greenhouse gas emissions originated from a single company: China Coal.

How can the energy industry make a difference?

The statistics acknowledged above are indicative of the sheer scale of the problem presented by the energy industry, and it’s clear that even a small but industry-wide modification would have a drastic and far-reaching positive impact.

When it comes to tackling emissions (which currently present the most significant threat) there are three fundamental approaches – plants that use fossil fuels need to either: 1. Remove the hazardous, pollutant-causing materials before they are burned 2. Find ways to contain and eliminate the pollutant after it has been created 3. Find methods and processes using the same materials that eliminate (or drastically reduce) the pollutants usually formed.

Fortunately, there are already technologies emerging which allow energy producers to do this. The collection of gases in other liquids or on solid materials that can then be destroyed safely, and other more complex techniques such as electrostatic precipitators or cyclones are also possible.

Of course the technology may already exist, but the challenge will be implementation. It’s clear that the energy industry has the potential to make a huge contribution to the reduction of global emissions. But this will either require the widespread and universal abandonment of fossil fuel-based energy production in favour of the adoption of sustainable energy production, or a large-scale investment (potentially involving a legal impetus from governments or other ruling bodies) in reducing the emissions of long-standing industries.

Conclusion

I’m certainly not trying to suggest I have all the answers when it comes to this vast, and vital topic. This is such a multi-faceted, complex issue that it really isn’t as simple as saying ‘if we do X, then everything will be fine’. What I think is important, however, is acknowledging how vital a role industry has to play, and coming to terms with both precisely which industries have the largest impact, and how they could potentially hold the key to a sustainable future.

We all know about the impact we can have individually, and there’s no denying how important this is, but when you break down the numbers it seems clear that for us to truly make a global difference as a species, we’re going to need to rip up the rulebook for industries everywhere – and whether it’s in the food we eat, the buildings in which we live and work, or the way we power our increasingly digital lives, we need to be bold in redefining how we operate as a society.

A sustainable food breakdown

Monday saw the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, two weeks of celebrating the Fairtrade movement, raising awareness of what Fairtrade is and what it had achieved, and encouraging people to switch over to Fairtrade where possible.

The University of Kent is a Fairtrade University and has a Fairtrade Steering Group that works to promote Fairtrade to our staff and students, ensuring that we stock an increasing range of Fairtrade products and seeking opportunities to increase our communities knowledge around trade issues.

Fairtrade is one aspect of what I would term sustainable food. Sustainable food, being a grouping of food and drink items that are produced in a way that has a reduced negative impact on our environment and communities. Below I give a breakdown of some of the key areas of that may come under the sustainable food collective; the list is not exhaustive so if you have any others you would like featured here, please let me know! (Header image – Enjoy responsibly by Dan Norris and Ray Shaughnessy)

Fairly traded goods

For more information on fair trade and the difference between fair trade and the Fairtrade Mark please take a look at last week’s blog.

Local Food

There is no official definition for ‘Local Food’ but often we expect local food to be comprised of the following characteristics:

  • Low food miles – the miles the food has traveled from where it was grown/produced to our table
  • Direct sales – the consumer can purchase the food locally often directly from the farmer/producer e.g. through farmers markets
  • Ecological/geographical charateristics – the food has been grown/produced in an area that shares the same ecological/geographical characteristics e.g. same soil type, same flora/fauna diversity etc.

Some people consider the fairtrade movement and the local food movement to be automatically opposed as one requires the shipping of food across the globe whilst the other does not. My personal opinion is that the two can coexist quite happily together. We are not going to be growing locally produced bananas and coffee anytime soon and unless large swathes of the population are prepared to give these items up, why not choose to buy these items through a fair trade cooperative?

The Goods Shed near Canterbury West Station. A great place to buy directly from local producers.

Organic 

The Soil Association … define organic as the following:

“More of the good stuff, less of the bad – Organic means working with nature, not against it. It means higher levels of animal welfare, lower levels of pesticides, no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers and more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment – this means more wildlife!”

Anything labelled as organic as a minimum will mean:

  • Fewer pesticides
  • No artificial colours & preservatives
  • The highest standards of animal welfare
  • No routine use of antibiotics
  • GM Free

This is good not only for the environment especially our soil, but also is good for us. In 2015, Government testing found pesticide residues in 43% of British food, and with there being around 320 different pesticides being used it is hard to know exactly what is on and in your food and therefore what is going into your body. The easiest way to eliminate this is buying organic. Find out more about pesticides from the Food Standards Agency.

Seasonality

Seasonality is basically eating food when it is in season. It is as simple as that.

Eating with the seasons often ties in with local food as your local food providers will be changing what fresh produce they sell dependent on the time of year and what they can grow.

Eat The Seasons provides a great breakdown of the benefits of eating with the seasons:

“WHY EAT THE SEASONS?

There are a number of good reasons to eat more local, seasonal food:

  • to reduce the energy (and associated CO2 emissions) needed to grow and transport the food we eat
  • to avoid paying a premium for food that is scarcer or has travelled a long way
  • to support the local economy
  • to reconnect with nature’s cycles and the passing of time

but, most importantly, because seasonal food is fresher and so tends to be tastier and more nutritious”

At the time of publishing we are deep into Purple Sprouting Broccoli season so make sure you pick some up and taste the difference!

Higher Welfare

Often higher welfare for farm animals is considered an ethical issue rather than an environmental, however Compassion in World Farming has done a fantastic breakdown of the environmental consequences of factory farming that, wherever you stand on the ethics of meat and dairy production, is a compelling read for those that are concerned for the environment.

Factory farming has been linked to:

Find out more here.

Conscious meat consumption

Leading on from higher welfare is conscious meat consumption. For some this means going vegan or vegetarian, eliminating meat and dairy from their diets to reduce their personal carbon footprints, take away money from the meat and dairy production industry and/or for health reasons. The associated carbon and water footprint of the meat industry has been covered in many articles.

The Guardian – Giving up beef will reduce your carbon footprint more than cars

Foodtank – Meat’s large water footprint

The Daily Mail – Help save the planet – Ditch lamb for rabbit!

For those that do not want to remove all meat and dairy from their diet there is a way to consciously think about the amount and type of meat you eat, and there are many well known campaigns that support this idea. Click the pictures below for more information.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less waste

From growing to transportation, packaging to our plates there are a lot of opportunities to reduce the amount of waste produced in our food system.

Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall from River Cottage Fame has been highlighting the issue of wasted food recently bringing this huge issue to the forefront, from campaigning supermarkets to stock ‘Ugly Veg‘ to helping people make the most of their left overs.

Eat Ugly by Harriet Stansall

According to Love Food Hate Waste, throwing good food away costs the average person in the UK around £200 a year, which is not great for your wallet. This total is nothing compared to the amount of food thrown away during productions and from the supermarkets. Organisations like FareShare are working hard to address this issue. “Last year [FareShare} redistributed more food than ever before, enough for frontline charities to provide 18.3 million meals for vulnerable people. Yet hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible food still gets thrown away, or used to generate energy or animal feed, every year –  enough to provide at least 650 million meals for people in need.”

Traceability

Knowing where your food comes from has become much easier in recent years with fresh produce in particular being labelled with its origin. This allows the consumer to look out for things such as food miles as mentioned earlier. One area where traceability is crucial to a sustainable diet is fish.

The easiest way to ensure the fish you buy is from sustainable fish stocks and can be traced is to look out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s Blue eco label:

 

“The blue MSC label is only applied to sustainable fish and seafood products that can be traced back to MSC certified fisheries. Supply chain businesses must identify and separate MSC certified product in order be certified to our Chain of Custody Standard for traceability. Every business, along every step of the supply chain, is audited by an independent certification body.  The MSC regularly monitors the supply chain and auditors’ application of the Standard to make sure requirements are being followed correctly.

We also conduct a series of monitoring activities to ensure the robustness of the system. One of the ways in which we ensure our traceability system is working is through independent DNA tests. Tests have been carried out on hundreds of random samples from MSC certified products and have shown that mislabelling is extremely rare. In the last 6 years, less than 1% of samples have been found to be incorrectly labelled on average.” Marine Stewardship Council

The Global Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals for a more sustainable world feature sustainable food. These Goals ask us what we can do as individuals, communities and countries to ensure that we meet these goals 2030. For more information on the goals please visit our blog calling you to action!

Sustainable Food is a crucial part of the goals so after this breakdown how sustainable do you think your plate of food is? Can you change the world for the better three times a day?

“What actually is Fairtrade?”

It is the start of Fairtrade Fortnight today and this year’s theme is ‘Take a Break for Farmers.’ To find out more about this year’s fortnight please visit the Fairtrade Foundation’s website.

To kick things off at Kent we thought we would answer the question that we hear a lot from students:

“What actually is Fairtrade?”

The Fairtrade Mark

 “When you buy products with the FAIRTRADE Mark, you support farmers and workers as they work to improve their lives and their communities.

The Mark means that the Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been produced by small-scale farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards.

The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment, payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects.” The Fairtrade Foundation

Most people are used to seeing these marks on some common food items such as: tea, coffee, sugar and of course chocolate and bananas. It does not end there though, cotton, beauty products, flowers and gold are all available as Fairtrade options.

The Fairtrade Premium

Fairtrade goods you buy will usually cost a little more than you are used to when buying non-fairtade alternatives. This is because an additional sum of money is added – the fairtrade premium. This premium goes directly to the workers and farmers for them to use to improve social, economic and environmental conditions.

Now, not everyone can afford to swap to every available fairtrade product so where you can, make one or two swaps and see where your money goes…

 

Fair Trade

There is of course fair trade outside of the Fairtrade branded mark. Traidcraft provide this simple explanation here:

The definition is not so different but there are differences in trade that is defined as fair and those who are under the Fairtrade Mark.

Controversy

The Fairtrade label has been criticized and that by buying into free market forces it is inherently unfair. By sticking with the same market system it cannot help every farmer and therefore some will remain in severe poverty, especially those who cannot afford to pay the labeling schemes fee.

As a Fairtrade University we are encouraged to stock an increasing range of Fairtrade labelled products which we do and which sell well. However, is this to the detriment of other stock items such as more sustainable local produce or other labelled scheme items such as Rainforest Alliance?

Wherever you sit on this issue it is clear that there is not a one label fits all approach to ensuring producers of our favourite food, drink and other items get a fair price for the work.

If you have any thoughts please comment below or alternatively, submit your own blog to be published here by following the instructions on the Write For Us page.