Tree and sun

How Does Something Get Labeled 'Sustainable?'

Like “influencer” and “athleisure,” the word “sustainable” has become a daily presence in our lives. "Sustainability" is used to talk about agriculture, and how we grow our food with less chemicals. "Sustainable products" is used to talk about fashion, and how we make our clothes with less waste. It’s even used to talk about travel, and how we can engage our world without harming it when we visit. But as everything from tequila to music festivals says it’s “sustainable,” what actually is?

“When we talk about sustainability, we’re actually talking about 2 different things,” says Joyce Wang, the Vice President of Sustainability and Impact at Wild Elements. (Joyce Wang was also the Director of Conservation Partnerships for the Wildlife Conservation Network. She has 2 master’s degrees—one in environmental management from Duke and one in law from UPenn, where she was managing editor of an animal ethics law journal. In other words, Joyce Wang is f*cking legit.)

“First, there’s sustainable cultivation. Sustainable cultivation is when things are grown in a way that strengthens the environment, instead of wrecking it. Sustainable cultivation is a major force for good in the world of agriculture, and it helps keep our water supply, our soil, and our food healthy.”

Then there’s the other, more literal kind of sustainable, which means “keeping things as they are, and preventing our actions and products from doing further harm to the earth.” And listen, that’s great. Of course we want to stop doing harm to the earth! But “keeping things as they are” isn’t the best that we can do. And in that context, sustainability is just a hamster wheel that keeps us running in place, anxious at what’s in front of us, and working so hard just to stay still.

But when it comes to planetary and personal wellness, we don’t want to just run in place, and we can’t afford to “just” keep the earth the way it is. We want to leave our planet even better, more radiant, and more alive than we found it. That’s why “sustainability” is step one. Step two is regeneration.

“Regeneration is the process of renewal and growth within nature,” says Joyce. “For example, regeneration can be apple cores decomposing into soil and feeding nutrients back into new apple trees—or any other trees. ‘Circularity’ is a big buzzword these days – but nature’s processes have been circular since the beginning of time.”

Regeneration doesn’t keep things the same—it creates a cycle of rebirth that makes the planet and all living things more resilient. Regeneration promotes biodiversity by giving every piece of the ecosystem the fuel and function needed to flourish. And regeneration is what we’re really aiming for when it comes to changing the world, and changing ourselves, for the better.

Meanwhile, you can tell something is sustainable by answering these questions:

  • Does this thing require significant fossil fuels or other natural resources that can’t be replaced?
  • Was this thing created without harming anyone’s health or quality of life?
  • Does this thing have a life cycle beyond one single use?

You can also take a deep breath and realize that almost everything made or cultivated by people has some amount of impact on the environment, which means nothing can be 100% sustainable—and that’s okay. What’s important is taking small steps whenever we can to encourage regeneration, and leave the planet better than we found it, whether that means buying thrifted jeans instead of new ones, eating local produce that supports small farms, or swapping the plastic wrap in our kitchens with reusable wax paper. (You can get more tips for plugging back into the planet with our weekly newsletter.)

Because look, we’re not here to be perfect; we’re here to be human… which is, when you think about it, the most natural thing of all.