Living in a way that met the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs was second nature to my grandparents generation who grew up in rural Kenya. Back then, they didn't describe it as 'sustainable living' even though that's exactly what it was. To them it was just common sense and the difference between the survival or extinction of your offspring.
Two generations later, not much had changed, at least not for my family. We drank fresh milk from the cows my mother raised on her farm on the outskirts of Nairobi, the capital city, and we eat meat, fruits and vegetables sourced from neighboring farmers. The one glaring difference was the amount of non-degradable plastic waste that littered the streets of the capital, an eyesore that didn't exist during my grandparents generation when they used gourds for storage.
It always used to bother me to see the ever increasing mountains of trash marring the beauty of my beloved city but city trash collection, never mind recycling, was nonexistent. The city council was so ineffectual and inept that residents had to pay for private trash collectors to come and pick up their weekly waste despite paying taxes to the city for this service.
I remember travelling to Germany and Britain as a teenager and marveling at how clean the streets were in comparison to Nairobi. It was the same in Las Vegas where I relocated to attend college at UNLV. Talk about culture shock, not only was the trash collected on a regular basis it was also divided into recyclable versus bio-degradable waste.
However, everything wasn't better in the developed world. The quality of the food, something that I had taken for granted in Nairobi, was different, not just to my taste buds but to my waist line as well. I went back home to Nairobi for the summer holidays after my first year in college 10 pounds heavier and returned to Vegas 10 pounds lighter at the end of the three month break without making any changes to my diet.
Somehow the food that I ate in Kenya didn't have the same effect on me as US food and it had nothing to do with my portion sizes (I was actually eating less in the US) or my activity levels (I was a member of the UNLV track team for my freshman year). I figured out it was because most, if not all of the food, in Kenya is organic whereas everything I ate in the US was processed and full of hormones and chemicals.
This also explained why everyone was so much taller and larger in size than people of comparable age and socio-economic background in Kenya. I had always wondered why the kids I would see while out and about that I thought were my age turned out to be at least three to four years younger than they looked to me, but I realized it had to be due to meat that they ate that was pumped full of hormones. After all, if the hormones made the animals we ate develop much faster than normal, why wouldn't they have the same effect on humans?
I came to the realization that all, and not just some of the choices I made in my life, had an impact to me and to everything around me. Over the next several years, I started making incremental changes to my lifestyle. I started by eliminating processed foods from my diet since that was all I could afford at the time and eventually switched to a Paleo diet based on organic and locally sourced produce once I started making more money. For the last ten years, I've incorporated regular exercise into my routine and make an effort to use eco-friendly products and to recycle whenever possible.
But it's not all peaches and cream. One area of my life (and I imagine many other peoples) that still needs a lot of work as it relates to sustainability is fashion. Most people don't realize that their fashion choices have not only an environmental but a socio-economic impact as well. From the hazardous levels of chemicals like lead in your clothing , to the fact that synthetic fibers take decades to decompose, or the uncomfortable truth that the workers who produced that $15 top you purchased usually work for less than a living wage in horrific conditions, it is apparent that the fashion industry-just like the farming industry-as we know it today is not sustainable.
The good news is that the tide is starting to turn and sustainability has become something that both the fashion industry and conscious consumers are beginning to take seriously. From established brands like 'Stella McCartney', one of the first designers to embrace it, to the new designers like 'Freedom from Animals' joining the ranks, sustainability is here to stay.
To support this effort, we'll feature a different sustainable brand on our blog each week so you can learn more about the brands and how they incorporate sustainability into their process. As a sustainable designer, I believe that we can all do our part to support the ability of future generations to enjoy everything that the world has to offer, one conscious consumer at a time, one choice at a time.