A brave new world

29th December 2021

When ZERO – Association for the Sustainability of the Earth System was created as a Portuguese environmental NGO in December 2015, it was clear to the founding members that the focus would have to be on sustainability. This clear path resulted from two main reasons:

  1. It was the year the Sustainable Development Goals were agreed, so it became obligatory to frame our work in this new overarching strategy and vision;
  2. Most of the activists involved in giving life to ZERO have a much longer experience (2, 3 decades) in the Portuguese environmental movement, and it was clear that we needed to communicate and implement projects that clearly have a positive impact on all areas of sustainability and this had to be communicated in a much more proactive way, so that new publics could start receiving the messages and get involved in making sustainability a reality.

Even though ZERO aims at working in many different areas – climate change, energy, soil, biodiversity, water, etc., it is becoming increasingly clear that if we do not act on the root of the problem – production and consumption model – we will not achieve the SDGs and none of the worrying indicators trends related with the breach of the planetary boundaries will change.

The challenge ahead of us is immense, but there are some possible ways forward. Each one of them do not hold the key to a more sustainable future, but, together with action in other key areas, change is possible.

Circular economy is one of them, but in order for it to be more than just a concept that everyone uses as fits best to its own interests, it is important to dive into the root of the concept and organize our action and focus our initiatives on the actions that clearly will allow us to change the current development paradigm.

Preventing the use of resources can be anchored in different possibilities. Questioning the need is the most important element. We regularly see new needs being created and stimulated by all sort of strategies and many companies still flood the market with many unnecessary things. So questioning the need is fundamental. We must always take under consideration that we are already way above a balanced relationship with nature, and most things needed for our survival as a species comes from nature, so if we do not start to come close with our options to the limits imposed by the planet, we will put our wellbeing into question.

The next step is eco-design. Thinking, planning, integrating the need to have products or services that demand less resources, are durable, can be reused, repaired, updated, that are non-toxic and recyclable in the end of life, is fundamental. Although recycling should be the last resource in a circular economy, so not included in the prevention approach, it is nonetheless something that must be consider from the first moment.

Political will is a key element. There are several tools available: legislation demanding minimum standards of durability, reusability, reparability and recyclability; specific targets on integrating recycled materials into the economy; defining reusable targets; taxing virgin materials; applying in a more decisive way extended producer responsibility (producers must take responsibility for what they place on the market and the impacts resulting from it), so that producers are pressed into making structural changes into what they produce towards a more circular economy. All these tools are necessary and should be used to create structural change.

Pressure from citizens will be another key strategy. Brands are highly sensitive to feedback from their customers, so if we start communicating more with them suggesting changes like our right to repair, reusable options, refill options, being able to buy in bulk, information on the durability of products, our preference for solid products (like in shampoos or soaps), concentrated products (detergents) etc., they will start changing. It is also important to “be the change you want to see in the world”, so start choosing to have less stuff, to share, to buy second hand, to borrow, rent and take care of what you have, so that it will last longer, buy local, organic, prefer reusable options, become a member of organizations that are working to create a better world - even if you do not have the time to volunteer, being a member increases the social significance of organizations, so when they meet representatives from governments, brands, etc. they are empowered by your support.

Companies and brands should also start integrating these concerns into their business models and stop seeing everything with the produce, use, dispose lenses. This is the bigger challenge. Most companies have so far move only to the point of changing as little as possible in this model and have shown a clear preference for circular economy solutions that do not touch, structurally, into their business models. One good example is the substitution of one material by another (fossil plastics by supposed bio-plastics, or compostable and biodegradable plastics), or advances in the use of water, toxic substances, or even in recyclability of some fibers (a huge challenge) in the textile sector, but without touching the fast production/sale/consumption/dispose model.

The real change will come from questioning the essential - we need to produce differently (definitely less) and develop new business models that will use the full potential of circular economy (durability, secondhand use, reparability, updatability, etc.) and not just focus on being able to recycle it at the end of life. Recycling is, as energy efficiency, relevant and an objective to strive for, but it is not a game changer. That comes before recycling with prevention strategies.



So, as said above, the challenge is huge, but instead of feeling small in the face of all this adversity, we dare you to become empowered and be part of the change. Can you imagine yourself in some years into the future being able to tell your children and grandchildren that you where there, when everything was almost lost and you helped to make it right, that you have contributed so that their generation could live well within the limits of the planet? To build this new path for Humanity we are all important!


About the author:

Susana Fonseca
Member of the Board of ZERO - Association for the Sustainability of the Earth System