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How to Be Sustainable & Advance UN Sustainable Development Goals

We all know our world needs to be a better place. Each of us can point to concrete areas that demand immediate improvement. But have you ever found yourself trying to describe the problems at hand to someone, answering the question of, "Why is sustainable development important?" and feeling completely overwhelmed in the process?

Fortunately, organizations like the United Nations have clearly laid out goals for global sustainable development.

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If there's one thing the world doesn’t need, it's more talk—more words unsupported by concrete steps. Standing up for a sustainable world requires taking action.

If you're wondering how to be sustainable, it starts by reframing sustainability goals like the ones developed by the UN and implementing them into your life. Create your own personal sustainability goals and share them with your family and friends. Setting sustainability examples in everyday life is the first step in encouraging others to be sustainable.

Let’s talk about what that looks like and the three ways you can improve human life and the planet today.

The United Nations is leading change

In an extraordinary show of solidarity, the United Nations (UN) has identified the most pressing issues facing our world today. In September 2015, at a historic UN summit, the coalition of world leaders outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which took effect on January 1, 2016, with the goal of being accomplished by 2030. These new goals which universally apply to all nations, call on countries to mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities, and tackle climate change while ensuring that no one is left behind.

These 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), which reached its target completion date in 2015. The new goals are unique in that they call on all countries to participate - whereas the MDG only applied to the developed world.

Let's take a look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals:

  1. No Poverty
  2. Zero Hunger
  3. Good Health and Well-being
  4. Quality Education
  5. Gender Equality
  6. Clean Water and Sanitation
  7. Affordable and Clean Energy
  8. Decent Work and Economic Growth
  9. Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
  10. Reduced Inequalities
  11. Sustainable Cities and Communities
  12. Responsible Consumption and Production
  13. Climate Action
  14. Life Below Water
  15. Life On Land
  16. Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions
  17. Partnerships for the Goals

How to be sustainable through supporting the UN Goals

UN SD Goal #1: No Poverty

Current conservative estimates have more than 700 million people living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per person, per day. While the majority of these poor live in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, extreme poverty is not a problem in only underdeveloped countries. Right now there are 30 million children growing up poor in developed nations in the world’s richest countries.

The best way to help end poverty once and for all is to use your voice and active engagement to petition policymakers and private industry to prioritize addressing extreme poverty. Extreme poverty ends when the world’s poorest are given access to tools such as meaningful jobs, quality education, and affordable healthcare, to name a few. The USAID’s Vision for Ending Extreme Poverty names effective governance and accountable institutions as the foundation for inclusive economic growth.

Personal sustainability goal: use your voice once a month

Using your voice can mean many things—from activism to using social media to create environmental awareness through art.

If you do nothing else, write a letter, send an email, or pick up the phone and call your congressperson. Demand that they work to pass legislation that would take action to end extreme poverty. Organizations such as ONE are leading this charge against poverty through campaigning and advocacy. One example of an initiative the support is the BUILD Act, in which the federal government would partner with the private sector to help provide the capital necessary to sponsor American entrepreneurs, bringing jobs and economic growth to the world’s poorest countries. Volunteering with organizations like ONE—and encouraging your inner circle to do so, too—is another great way to use your voice.

UN SD Goal #2: Zero Hunger

Extreme hunger and malnutrition remain a barrier to sustainable development and create a trap from which people cannot easily escape. Worldwide, nearly 800 million people suffer from hunger, the majority of whom are in developing countries. With an expected 2 billion hungry people on the planet by 2050 (i.e., a staggering 1 in 5), there needs to be a dramatic shift in global food and agriculture systems.

Addressing the need for food security is paramount, as it is a key piece of building a more sustainable and just future for everyone. Hunger limits human development, which in turn prevents us from reaching other sustainable development goals, such as education, health, and gender equality.

Personal sustainability goal: make eco-friendly food choices weekly to fight hunger

As one of the more clear-cut sustainability goals for individuals, this one is all about how to live more sustainably every day.

  • When possible, support your local community by purchasing food at farmers' markets and making sustainable, nutritious food choices.
  • Do you have a backyard and the ability to support a hen house? Cut the poultry farm supply chain out of your life—at least where eggs are concerned.
  • Grow your own food. Again, this requires space—often outdoors—but even certain hydroponic systems have started to make indoor gardens more accessible.
  • Fight food waste by only purchasing the food you know you will be able to consume. One great tool that helps guarantee success in this (among other ways to reduce household food waste) is meal planning. By taking the time to plan out your meals for the week, then making a list of the necessary groceries, you can avoid overbuying—saving you money and reducing the likelihood of throwing away uneaten food.
  • Start composting. Reduce food waste and feed your plants.

As a more long-term goal, you could even reach out to leaders and organizers in your community to see if you can start a neighborhood composting program.

UN SD Goal #7: Affordable and Clean Energy

By 2030, the UN’s goal is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. Currently, 1.2 billion, or 1 in 5 people do not have access to electricity. This setback acts as a constraint on human and economic development. Additionally, energy consumption is the dominant contributor to climate change, accounting for about 60 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

Personal sustainability goal: conserve energy daily

At an individual level, you can save electricity by plugging appliances into a power strip and turning them off when not in use. Encourage others to do the same when you raise awareness and advocate for change through social media platforms. You can also reduce your energy consumption and carbon footprint by walking, biking, and ride-sharing.

A longer-term goal, but one that would certainly encourage others to be more sustainable—review energy conservation efforts at your workplace. Are there any?

Businesses everywhere need to protect ecosystems and commit to sourcing their operational electricity needs from renewable sources. That's easier said than done, of course. You'll need to do the work and not just bring the problem to your employer. Clearly lay out the benefits of creating workplace sustainability. When you outline the problems, be sure to provide solutions and ideas. For example, is there a possibility of transitioning to a hybrid workplace model to reduce the demand for transport? Even if not, would your employer consider offering an incentive for those who use less energy-intensive transportation (such as carpools, public transport, bikes, etc…)?

Change in the workplace can be complicated, but there are steps you can take to overcome resistance. A helpful resource is an episode of WorkLife, Adam Grant's podcast, entitled "How to Change Your Workplace."

Here's how to be sustainable—a graduate degree in sustainability

Earning a graduate degree in a sustainability-related field can help you learn how to be more sustainable and help you transform the world.

Your graduate degree will help you make a career out of your passion. Sustainability programs like Bard's MBA in Sustainability, Master's in Environmental Policy, Master's in Climate Science and Policy, or Master's in Environmental Education can give you the knowledge and skills necessary to make your job application stand out in a sea of sameness.

If we truly want to advance the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, then the world needs passionate, driven individuals in the various fields of business, policy, and education, who are trained to lead the change in sustainability practices and inspire others to follow. Together, leaders and individuals committed to working for justice, fighting against poverty and inequality, and adopting sustainable practices will bring about the world in which we all want to live.   

Work on these issues from a policy or business standpoint.

Bard's Graduate Programs in Sustainability have degrees to prepare you for both fields!

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About the Author

Eban Goodstein

Eban Goodstein

Dr. Eban Goodstein is an economist and the Director of the MBA in Sustainability and the MS and MEd programs at the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College. He is known for organizing national educational initiatives on climate change, which have engaged thousands of schools and universities, civic institutions, faith groups, and community organizations in solutions-driven dialogue. Goodstein is the author of three books and numerous journal articles focused on climate change, sustainability and green jobs.