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Forty years of sustainable progress: A comprehensive exploration (II/II)

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By Yury Erofeev

· 6 min read

This is part two of a two-part series about the history of sustainability. You can find part one here.

Part 2 of this series on sustainability delves into the intricacies of enhancing sustainability in production and retail, emphasizing cleaner energy sources, emission reductions, and waste recycling. It explores the challenges and solutions across the product lifecycle, from manufacturing to consumer use, highlighting initiatives like synthetic aviation fuel and slow fashion to combat environmental degradation. The discussion extends to disposal practices and the importance of corporate social responsibility in promoting a more sustainable, equitable future amidst pressing global environmental challenges.

Stage two: production and retail

Here, increasing sustainability is also possible in several ways: switching to cleaner energy sources, reducing emissions of pollutants and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and recycling the waste generated in the process.

The share of alternative global energy sources remains, but in many countries, “green” investments are still small. This slows the development of entire industries — for example, the creation of synthetic aviation fuel.

Aviation produces up to 3.6 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions through the combustion of kerosene, a product of petroleum distillation. In contrast, producing synthetic kerosene does not require the extraction of hydrocarbons. Instead, it uses carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and hydrogen extracted from water as feedstock. Providing such plants with energy from burning minerals could undermine efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of production. However, similar plants using alternative energy sources exist in Germany and the Netherlands. The fuel produced there has a zero carbon footprint.

Where there is no access to alternative energy, companies are modernizing production and increasing its energy efficiency: automated resource accounting and building management systems, such as LED lamps, motion sensors, and dimming systems (light brightness control), are installed on the premises.

In some countries, “green” construction is developing, which covers not only production needs. The London administration works inside the City Hall building, which was built using heat and energy-saving technologies. Part of the administration’s required electricity is generated in solar panels.

To reduce the amount of toxic emissions, companies equip their enterprises with sensors and filtration units, and to process production waste, they organize their separate collection and negotiate with contractors on disposal. An important step towards reducing overall waste is reducing packaging and working on its composition.

Public companies publish annual sustainability reports, which provide a tangible measure of their achievements in eco-conscious business practices, moving beyond mere promises to demonstrable outcomes..

Stage three: Consumption and use of products

While production methods are evolving towards sustainability, consumption habits must also adapt to ensure a minimal environmental footprint. Most of the goods produced have a very short lifespan: about 99 percent are thrown away within six months at the latest. For example, out of 350 million tons of plastic produced annually, 200 million become waste in the first days or even hours after purchase, as they are used as disposable packaging. This leads to the accumulation of a large amount of practically indecomposable plastic waste in the environment and pollution of the world’s oceans with microplastics that are dangerous for marine life.


A sea turtle caught in an abandoned fishing net.

The only way to combat this is to abandon most goods' short-term (and incredibly disposable) use. Sometimes, such initiatives are encouraged by the state. For example, in Turin, to reduce water consumption in plastic containers, kiosks with free drinking water were installed — you can collect it in your container there.

Companies support responsible consumption by reducing assortments and organizing pre-orders. In the field of clothing sales, they also introduce the concept of slow fashion. This approach involves the release of limited quantities of high-quality clothing that will be in fashion for several seasons in a row. Some people are turning to reusing clothes by buying them second-hand, which is also thought to help avoid overproduction.

One of the most problematic areas for sustainable consumption is digital technology. Gadgets have a much longer lifespan than low-quality clothing or disposable packaging. However, even when completely intact, they can become unusable due to planned obsolescence: after several generations of devices, manufacturers stop supporting the old ones. Some manufacturers are finding a solution to this problem: for example, Samsung can use old smartphones as sound and lighting sensors in a smart home system. The maintainability of the equipment also plays a significant role. Repairing it is often more difficult and expensive than buying a new one. Apple recently announced the Self-Service Repair program, which allows customers to fix devices themselves . For this, it will release original components and tools for sale and publish repair instructions on its website.

A steady trend in recent years has been the release of cost-effective products that last longer or are consumed more slowly than their predecessors. Manufacturers achieve this through more extensive packaging and reformulation of products. For example, the popularity of solid shampoos, which last for a long time, is growing: one bar weighing 60 grams is equivalent to 600 milliliters of liquid shampoo (2–3 bottles). These shampoos use less water to produce, their packaging weighs less than a plastic bottle, and can be made from recycled cardboard without the use of plastic. They also take up less space during transportation, which helps reduce the carbon footprint of shipping.

Stage four: Disposal

Sooner or later, any goods become waste. And companies committed to sustainability must take responsibility for recycling them. At the same time, materials differ significantly in their suitability for processing. PET (polyethylene terephthalate), used to make plastic drink bottles, can be quickly and relatively cheaply processed into a polymer with its original properties and can be used for its original purposes. At the same time, the methods of processing it have improved significantly in recent years. If previously it was subjected to thermomechanical processing, resulting in a lower quality raw material, now it is possible to use cutinase, an enzyme easily obtained from leaf compost. It can recycle PET with 90 percent efficiency in just 10 hours. On the contrary, foamed polystyrene (from which trays for vegetables, fruits, and meat are made), polyvinyl chloride, receipt paper, and other waste types are almost impossible to recycle.

Even recyclable materials do not always make it to sorting and recycling. To simplify their collection and, at the same time, attract consumers, brands encourage the return of used goods (and not necessarily their production) in exchange for discounts, gifts, or special trade-in conditions. Sometimes, from collected materials, it is possible to create a new product for the same purpose without losing commercial benefits — for example, clothes for upcycling collections, which are made using fragments of worn items and fabric scraps left over from production. In other cases, the material may serve as the basis for new products. 

Responsibility for success

Companies’ efforts should not be limited to modernizing all stages of production and consumption to reduce environmental damage. An essential step towards sustainable development is for companies to accept social responsibility: engaging in philanthropy, educating and supporting local communities, and ensuring gender equity in their hiring practices. Thus, recently, Garnier, together with National Geographic Creative Works, announced the launch of an educational campaign about conscious consumption. With its help, companies plan to motivate 250 million people to change their lifestyle towards a more environmentally friendly one by 2025.

Against the backdrop of climate change, environmental pollution, and resulting social problems, the issue of achieving sustainable development is becoming increasingly pressing. However, there is hope that not only in business but also in the context of international politics, it will cease to be a utopia.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Yury Erofeev is a Business Analyst at SQUAKE, utilizing a solid foundation in Physics, Mathematics, and Sustainable Development to drive meaningful industry changes through data-driven decision-making.

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