Our View: Sustainability isn’t simple

CW Editorial Board

All those in the conversation surrounding environmental sustainability are familiar with a common phrase: “Everyone can do their part!” From taking shorter showers to carpooling to work to reducing the use of single-use plastics, there is no shortage of advice on how individuals can, and must, stop contributing to climate change. 

This kind of advice, while well-intentioned, places the responsibility of saving the world on overworked and busy individuals that are attempting to manage both their finances and their time. For college students, this burden of environmental responsibility represents just one more thing on their busy schedules. Between classes and extracurriculars, they are tasked with preventing ecological disasters. 

Environmental sustainability isn’t a simple achievement or a few boxes to check off and disregard. Rather, it is an evolving attitude that one must embody. There is no definitive way to be “environmentally sustainable.” Instead, college students and citizens alike must examine every aspect of their lives and surroundings. In adopting a comprehensive view of sustainability, we may one day enact change. 

Individual decisions

College students make countless decisions every day that either contribute to or harm the cause of environmental sustainability. Regardless of our awareness of our impact, we are actively shaping the earth for the next generation. Through simply increasing our knowledge about these decisions, we may begin to ensure they advance the cause of environmental sustainability, one move at a time. 

Food

College students may find it difficult to navigate dining halls while on a specialized diet. While dining halls may boast some vegan- and vegetarian-friendly options, these options are often rather limited compared to their nonvegan counterparts. 

Take, for example, Ithaca college, who boasts an A-plus rating for vegan dining hall options. Despite the recognition, options are severely limited, repetitive and lower quality. While the most recognized institutions fall behind the curve, the rest struggle to implement basic menu choices. This leaves most vegan students in a double bind: they can either search for sustainable alternatives or eat repetitive, unhealthy vegan options that do not satisfy basic dietary needs. 

Then there’s our campus. Despite efforts to include vegan accommodations, marginalized dietary needs often remain outside the scope. Student interviews last year exposed dining hall options to be severely limiting for students with religious or moral dietary restrictions. In addition to most vegan options being processed and sodium-filled, students find themselves “hodgepodging a few sides together” to make a meal. While most students in these situations turn to mobile ordering or other means, it remains difficult to find accessible limited diet options at dining halls. 

Clothing

In addition to sustainable eating, college students are faced with another environmental challenge: sustainable fashion. 

College students are especially prone to engage in fast fashion, or rapidly produced clothing to follow evolving trends. In the age of social media and market trends, fashion represents social capital. When this is the case, it is understandable that the average college student may navigate toward Shein for their next date party. Doing so is a quick and inexpensive way to ensure that students feel confident and comfortable on their night out. 

However, college students must examine their own consumption habits if society is to see an end to the environmental degradation and human rights abuses inflicted by fast fashion, an industry that accounts for one-tenth of the water used by industries that produce and clean products.

This is easier said than done. Truly sustainable fashion presents a higher cost of clothing due to its value of labor, sourcing and transparency. 

Students can instead seek to be more sustainable in their clothing choices by simply becoming more mindful of them. This may look like reducing consumption itself: Next time you’re buying a dress for that one formal, ask yourself if you already have one that would suffice. Go thrifting with a new friend and turn it into a day out. Support local businesses around Tuscaloosa. 

Though these choices may appear insignificant, we must recognize the value of our “dollar”. Corporations will continue to pollute our environment as long as we let them. It’s time to show them that their consumers value ethical practices. 

Activism 

Though individual decisions are undoubtedly meaningful to the cause of environmental sustainability, they cannot exist in isolation. They must be coupled with systemic and lasting change.  

If one goes to a campus Starbucks, this kind of change is evident. Due to a decision in April 2019, all Starbucks are phasing out plastic straws and navigating toward paper and wooden utensils. This action represents just one in the “anti-plastic straw” trend that is sweeping the globe. However, this trend reflects a flaw in placing the burden of environmental sustainability choices. National Geographic has revealed that plastic straws make up just 0.025% of the plastic found in oceans every year.

When consumers are told they’re morally reprehensible for using straws by the same companies responsible for ecological disasters, it is easy to become jaded. A 2017 report by CDP revealed that just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of carbon emissions. How can the average college student compete with figures such as these? 

The feelings of fear and despair that often result from this helplessness in the face of ecological destruction are known as climate anxiety, and they are plaguing young people at alarming rates. In the face of climate anxiety, college students have a powerful tool: activism. 

As young people, our voice carries weight. We have the opportunity to influence the world our children will grow up in, the world of the next generation. One needs only to look at examples such as Greta Thunberg or Vic Barrett or countless other youth activists to understand that we have the power to change our surroundings. 

With the Clean Water Act under threat by the Supreme Court, environmental concerns are more relevant than ever. It’s time for college students to act. Do the research. Educate yourselves on local environmental concerns. Find an environmental bill you support and call your representative about it. Though these actions may not seem monumental now, they surely will in the future. 

Here at home

While environmental sustainability may be an elusive goal, it is a goal worth pursuing. We don’t have to wait to enter the “real world” to advocate for a healthier world. We can start now, in our own communities. 

To support environmental sustainability on campus, college students simply need to start conversations on the environmental impact around them. In doing so, students will surely find that every aspect of campus could be improved toward the cause of environmental sustainability. From our dining hall practices to the water used to maintain the Quad, environmental impact is all around us. It’s up to us to pay attention to it. 

If you have a concern about environmental sustainability on campus, address it! Consult organizations such as the Environmental Council. Arrange meetings with administration. While you may not see immediate results, but you will change this campus simply by bringing attention to overlooked issues.

Instead of demonizing someone else’s consumption choices or giving up in the face of a complex world, view environmental sustainability as a life’s endeavor. We simply cannot make every ethical and mindful decision all the time. Together, however, we can start a revolution.

This story was published in the Environmental Edition. View the complete issue here.

Questions? Email the opinions desk at letters@cw.ua.edu.