Revisiting Sustainability

2020 is slowly coming to an end, and as we look back, it surely is a year packed with great awakenings. Important discussion topics have resurfaced, and all of us are challenged daily to dig deeper into our relationships with not just each other, but also our planet and the many living organisms that populate this beautiful world with us.

Scientific American kept a running list of “Record-Breaking Natural Disasters in 2020” which, when I was reading it, felt like a horror movie script — the ravaging wildfires that took over thousand acres of lands in Australia and California, the abnormal visits of Hurricans and floodings, the ~5.0 magnitude earthquakes that have popped up several times in Asia and Europe in just the last few months….

A recent screenshot from my disaster alert app

The silver lining that came with these traumas is that our society is actively working towards more awareness and better education on how important it is for us to protect the nature. Documentaries such as My Octopus Teacher and Seven Worlds, One Planet were made to ensure this “learning” is easy but impactful for people of all ages. And these efforts have paid off — according to NY Times, nature documaries are “hot again”.

What I find ironic about our society is that, with all the budgets and fundings going into the “love-your-nature education” so we can all learn to love and appreciate our planet, few efforts have been made for anyone to really practically incorporate sustainabiluty into their lifestyles. Example 1: almost all major online e-commerce brands continue to use an insane amount of non-bio-degradable shipping and packaging items. I recently ordered 2 pairs of shoes and ended up with 8 plastic bags and 4 cardboard boxes plus a ton of useless fillings. Brands seems to think consumers like the idea and the experience of extravagant unboxing and while that may be true for some, packagings that result in a whole pile of leftover packages sitting on the floor probably do more harm than good for most consumers. Example 2: I’ve come to realize many business and residential buildings (at least in NYC) employ an “all show and no substance” attitude when it comes to recycling. My previous firm used to give each employee two trash bins, one for recycling and one for normal disposal. However, 3 months into the job, I realized both bins were carried by our floor custodians and dumped into the same large bin. After a few stalking trips, my observation was confirmed by our lovely custodian who felt sorry that I had to find out this way. Needless to say, I was pretty heart-broken for a while after that 💔

So natrually, fed up with the big brands, I turned to startups, hoping to find some truly enviromental-friendly and -conscious concepts. As sustainability is in every parts of our lives, there are many companies that reach the goal of contributing to the overall enviromental goals by simply doing their businesses in innovative ways. I’ve been a long time fan of garment recycling and upcycling, and have been subscribers of Rent the Runway, Nuuly, Rocksbox, and Switch for different periods of time. However, I woudl say I often use these services more for my own benefits of having different clothing options, and just enjoy the side benefit of reducing carbon footprints in the textile industry. This time, I have the direct goal of “gloriously” saving our planet in mind and intentionally picked one company that I think really tackles a core enviromental issue we see today.

Anyone living in NYC would’ve already seen the Misfits posters on the subways by now. Misfits is a subscription service offering weekly and bi-weekly (once every two weeks) deliveries of “misfit”, “discarded” and “overstock” produce that fails to hit specific cosmetic guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Misfits claims that

“Every box of Misfits produce you order benefits farmers, helps prevent food waste, and ultimately helps save our environment. Our rapidly expanding Philadelphia- and New Jersey-based operation rescues produce from regional farms and distributes it throughout the Northeast in three business days or less.”

Misfits subscription options

While the idea is amazing, does it actually work? Sifting through online reviews from the past 6–12 months, it didn’t take me long to spot a few “complaints” from consumers — lack of variety, no allergy options, random assortments and (funny enough) bad packagings. Many customers have expressed disappointments in Misfits, which is a great concept but not developed or executed well enough.

What further got my attention is a customer’s feedback saying she received a box with more than half of the items coming from outside the country instead of local farmers from neighboring states. While Misfits doesn’t explicitly claim on their website that they support local farmers, it would be strange if the operation isn’t grounded in a concept similar to this. My guess is that Misfits has to introduce produce from overseas so consumers have a variety of items, and my question is, if the shipping isn’t handled right, isn’t this a net net zero equation? Wouldn’t it be a bit hypocritical to love ugly food for the sake of our planet but love it so much that increasing carbon footprints don’t matter anymore? I am not sure how Misfits handles this issue, and it could very much be that they are following the most eco-friendly shipping guidelines for overseas produce, but the question then becomes — why not just start from your local farms?

The battle for many for-profit companies trying to make a positive enviromental impact is finding the right balance between serving the interests of consumers vs. serving our planet. In Misfit’s case, I think while many parts of the operations require more probing before a conclusion can be made, we can still ackowlegde the positive contribution towards saving food that would otherwise be wasted and the general awareness that the company helped bring to our society. In the case of the many clothing rental or second-hand marketplaces, people can also argue that the excessive amount of dry cleaning and the promised 2-day shipping and returns may very much cancle out whatever good recycling or upcycling does. There isn’t a 100% correct answer that makes all parties involved happy.

So instead of looking outward, maybe the answer is within ourselves? For the last few months, I’ve tried to be more mindful of selecting the Amazon shipping option that groups all my items together so I receive them in a box instead of multiple packages that come in different days. I’ve also been more careful when I go grocery shopping and try to use my own bags instead of the paper or plastic ones stores give out. Hopefully by time, the appreciation for our natural and the resources we now enjoy freely will become a part of my life instead of a check list I need to set reminders for.

(Source: TheSchoolBus)

I realized this is such a cliche topic as I was about to wrap up. We all know to protect our nature and love our nature. I remember the first assignment I had for school when I was a first-grader was to read this short children’s book and the first story was about a river. At the end of that story, the baby duck said “I love the river!” Thinking back now almost 18 years later, I have to say — 100% agreed. I love the river too!

Making some observations & connecting some dots

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