This article originally appeared in the Fifth Estate.
Christmas. It’s not a month gone.
The turkey is toast, the ham has been gnawed to the bone. Happy New Year has morphed into an unhappy to do list. It’s time to get doing again for another year.
But wait, first things first. A little time to reflect.
Between the feasts and sleeps, surely there was a lesson or two to unwrap and take away which will help me be a better sustainability person this year.
Ah yes, I remember now. Three lessons to take away from my holiday, all starting way back last year, when I saw a sign…
Lesson One: We all love more
There I was, feeling the weight of my gift list yet unable to buy any of them with my two kiddies stuck like magnets to the play area in Westfield.
I looked around hopefully at shop windows peering at me needily, and there it was. The sign. It said ‘The more the merrier. 20% off all homewares’.
Mmm. The more the merrier? That’s not how I was feeling while I cleared out my home for Airbnb guests.
More means more to store, more to take to Vinnies. More to um and ah about as you ponder whether you will ever use again. More is ‘I need a bigger house’ and a bigger insurance policy. More is more clutter. I’m not sure more is more.
Yet, as humans, we crave more.
I can only put it down to one thing: the joy of getting is so immense we forget about the pain of having.
As sustainability people, we live in a world of trying to use less. We do our best to question want vs need and reduce consumption while keeping the wheels of business going.
It makes sense to us, but that’s not where the wider world is at. The message of more is more is still loud and strong. If we want our message to get through, it can’t be all about less in a world that wants more. We have to be smarter than that.
Lesson Two: We all hate waste
Moving on. Somehow I have gotten the kiddies unstuck. Probably after they fell asleep and I prised the indoor climbing frame from their warm, limp hands.
I’m outside Coles. I take a wrong turn and there it is, tucked in a faraway corner. The Coles plastic bag recycling bin.
It’s full. No, it’s overfull…cascading. The bin made to take plastic bags is barely visible in a mass of plastic bags full of plastic bags that surround it.
People want to recycle their plastic bags and, given the chance, they have brought them here by the bootful. So much so that Coles can’t keep up.
Fair play to Coles for having put the program in place in the first place. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but think they could do a better job of running it given they hold up and promote it as sustainability in action (See the video here).
Yes, you can argue that people shouldn’t take plastic bags in the first place, or that Coles should encourage people to simply reuse their bags instead of recycling them and taking new ones.
Still, the point remains. Given a way to deal with waste, people have acted. They have bothered to bring their bags back, find the hidden recycling bin and put them in. A company has helped make it happen. And that’s a good thing. It shows that as much as we crave more stuff, we also hate waste. There’s hope for humanity yet.
Lesson Three: Experiences are where it’s at
Gifts. Yep, I got some. But stuffed if I can remember the half the stuff that was in them.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the effort people go to in buying a gift. I liked getting each and every one of them, it’s just they weren’t the highlight of my holiday.
What does stick in my mind clearly is guitar and sing-alongs in the national park, time to have a long lunch with my wonderful wife, taking the kids in the boat, surfing in the midday sunshine and crawling through caves at Wombeyan Karst.
Giving and getting might feel good at the time, but experiences are life’s true gifts.
The season may be defined by mad Christmas shopping followed by even madder Boxing Day sales, but the lesson it brings is this: what makes us happy is not what we have, but how we spend our time. And that’s where the heart of sustainability is at.
If we can tap that feeling, then we can move to a better kind of consumption, where we buy only what we need and time well spent is what we most want.
So what is time well spent? Well, the surfing was fun but there’s still a mortgage to pay. That’s why I’m grateful the time spent at work is spent working in sustainability. It’s rewarding, it’s meaningful, it’s full of good people and I’m learning every day.
So happy New Year, my dear sustainability friends. I hope you feel the same way.