SDG icon 2 SDG icon 11 SDG icon 6   “Boxed water is better.”  Is boxed water better?  Why (or why not?).  Should I be skeptical of a product that tells me in its name that it is better than others?  Better than what?... I am neither advocating not discouraging the purchase of this particular product – rather, it is an example of how we need to think carefully about the messages we are receiving and how they affect our purchasing decisions. There are many components that must work together in order to effectively reduce the impact from the production and consumption of goods and services.  We often look to manufacturers (i.e. producers) to provide the sustainability solution. However, we, as consumers play an important role in this cycle too.  The images below show the cycle of production (top left), transaction (top right), consumption (bottom right), disposal/reuse (bottom left).  While consumers have little control over the sustainable production of products and services, we can be advocates in other ways – for example by voting through our purchases (or in some cases, ‘voting’ to not purchase a good or service).  We also have some control over how we use the product.  In the case of clothing, we can choose how often or how long to wear a garment.  We can also choose how we wash that garment – what type of detergent we use, whether we wash it in hot or cold water and how we dry it.  Lastly, when we are finished with a particular piece of clothing, we can decide to pass it on to someone else, donate it or throw it in the garbage. When I show this image in presentations, I ask the audience, “What do you think this is a picture of?”  Often the first response is, “A landfill?” In fact, it was taken at the end of one of the world’s largest annual music events – the Glastonbury Festival in the UK.  The concept of sustainable production and consumption can be applied to so many things – even things you haven’t really thought much about. My big area of research at the moment focuses on the sustainability of music concerts and festivals.  Often when I first mention this to people, they look at me quizzically.  Music and sustainability???  When we attend a concert, we are consuming like we would anywhere else – from the transportation we take to get to and from the venue, to the food and beverages we buy onsite.  In recent years, social media has become a medium to communicate the impacts of some of these music events (such as the waste produced from festival-goers). At the end of the day, both producers and consumers have an important role to play in working towards sustainability. I love this quote from Jack Johnson (in his song Ones and Zeros)[There’s] a lot of traffic in the streets, so who’s really doing the drilling?1.    Think carefully about the marketing messages you are receiving2.    Vote with your dollar by purchasing sustainable products3.    Consider how you care for your products and what you do with them when you no longer want them4.    Be mindful of hidden consumption, like transportation and on-site purchases at eventsDr. Jennifer Lynes is associate professor and director of the University of Waterloo’s Environment and Business program. She is Chair of the non-profit organization Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP Green Solutions) and co-founder of the North American Sustainable Concerts Working Group. 12

People walking past green and glass building

For the average person learning about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its ambitious and far-reaching Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it might be easy to think “they don’t apply to me.” After all, what can one individual do to end poverty in all its form, eliminate hunger around the world or ensure access to clean energy for all? As it turns out, quite a lot.

The 17 Global Goals laid out in Agenda 2030 are intended to include every stakeholder on the planet; from the largest national body to the smallest rural village. They are intended to involve governments, universities, industries and individuals alike because it will take the efforts of all actors working together in partnership to accomplish the urgent global challenges facing the world today.

So how can you do your part?

In early February, School of Environment, Enterprise and Development professors hosted a plenary panel at the Ontario Council for International Cooperation’s Global Citizen’s Forum. The topic was 'Localizing the Sustainable Development Goals in Thought and Practice.' Based on that presentation, Professors Frayne, Lynes and Swatuk offer the following advice on changes you can make right now to engage meaningfully with the SDGs in your everyday life.


Eating for impact

Women shopping in open air food marketTo achieve a world free of hunger, SDG 2 focuses on sustainable agricultural production but is silent on the challenges of feeding the world’s growing urban populations. When considering sustainable cities, SDG 11 does not raise the issue of urban food and nutrition security. Yet we know from the African Food Security Urban Network (AFSUN) research on 11 cities in Southern Africa that three out four poor households are food insecure. Food supply is plentiful in our cities, but accessing that food for the urban poor is the real challenge. Bringing this point home, the majority of Canada¹s 3 million food insecure individuals live in urban communities, and simply producing more food (SDG 2) does not solve hunger.

Can we, as individuals, contribute to SDGs 2 and 11 in our everyday lives?

Yes, we can. Achieving a food-secure future for all people means helping to achieve the related goals of sustainable agriculture and sustainable cities. Agriculture uses a lot of environmental resources, from farming to food processing and preparation, and cities use more resources per capita than rural communities. Therefore, being mindful of how we choose to eat can collectively make a big impact on sustainable development outcomes.

To be part of a sustainable food system that benefits all, consider the following:

  1. Educate yourself about food – read, watch and discuss
  2. Support local, responsible agriculture
  3. Support food charities
  4. Cook more of your own food
  5. Waste less food
  6. Be mindful of the health and ecosystem impacts of what you eat

For a practical way forward, take Michael Pollan’s advice to heart:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Dr. Bruce Frayne is an Urban Planner and Geographer and teaches in the International Development program. His research interests fall within the broad ambit of sustainable cities and encompass the three related areas of human migration, urbanization and food security. Bruce’s regional focus is Sub-Saharan Africa and China.


Be water wise

Young girl standing in front of a latrineSource: UNICEF

Water and sanitation are the focus of SDG 6, for obvious reasons. Around the world, about 1 billion people lack access to potable water and more than 1.6 billion lack access to improved forms of sanitation – even something as simple and basic as a pit latrine. The consequences for health and livelihoods of poor quality water are significant, so addressing the shortfall in delivery is of paramount importance particularly in the Global South. But there are other reasons to focus on water. Two stand out. One is the risk to water supplies posed by over-consumption and pollution across the world. The second is the fact that water is a cross-cutting issue that impacts all SDGs: without access to adequate quantities and qualities of water, society comes to a standstill.

Click on an image below to open a high-resolution version and read the captions.

What might be done? Well, there are the obvious actions to be taken wherever you are: use less.

Be frugal and conscious of the significant cost to your municipality that it costs to pump, treat, deliver, collect, treat again, and return water to the system. Being frugal is not so much about ‘saving water’ as it is about saving money and making ‘water for all’ an affordable option in your municipality.

A second action you might take is to soften your home environment. Many societies are dependent on groundwater for their daily needs, yet groundwater supplies are under threat from overuse. It is not that we are running out of water. Rather, it is because we have hardened the landscape around us: roads, buildings, sidewalks and so on. Less and less sinks into the ground and more and more runs off of these hard surfaces to places further downstream. So, what you can do is encourage infiltration around your house: remove paving stones on your property and plant a rock garden. Such a simple action taken by many adds up to a large social benefit.

Third, you should think about what you eat. Most of the water you consume every day is embedded in your food. Rather than eat a strawberry imported from California out of season, eat locally grown goods. The water footprint of some imported foods is very large. The hundred mile diet is as much about water as it is about food.

  1. Be frugal with your water use
  2. Soften your home landscaping
  3. ‘Eat’ less water

These are just three ideas. There are many more. The time is right for the right action.

Dr. Larry Swatuk is associate professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development and Research Fellow of both the Balsillie School of International Affairs and the Water Institute. His current research interests focus on the unintended negative consequences of climate change adaptation and mitigation interventions.


Consume consciously

Rows of cartons labeled "Boxed water is better"

A student of mine sent me this picture from her phone. It was a display she saw in a grocery store: “Boxed water is better.” 

Is boxed water better? Why (or why not?). Should I be skeptical of a product that tells me in its name that it is better than others? Better than what?...

While I am neither advocating nor discouraging the purchase of boxed water, it is nonetheless an interesting example of how we need to think carefully about the messages we are receiving and how they affect our purchasing decisions.

There are many components that must work together in order to effectively reduce the impact from the production and consumption of goods and services.  We often look to manufacturers (i.e. producers) to provide the sustainability solution. However, we, as consumers play an important role in this cycle too.  The images below show the cycle of production (top left), transaction (top right), consumption (bottom right), disposal/reuse (bottom left). 

Four quadrants of the production cycle

While consumers have little control over the sustainable production of products and services, we can be advocates in other ways – for example by voting through our purchases (or in some cases, ‘voting’ to not purchase a good or service).  We also have some control over how we use the product.  In the case of clothing, we can choose how often or how long to wear a garment.  We can also choose how we wash that garment – what type of detergent we use, whether we wash it in hot or cold water and how we dry it.  Lastly, when we are finished with a particular piece of clothing, we can decide to pass it on to someone else, donate it or throw it in the garbage.

Musician Jack Johnson singing and playing guitar on stage

The concept of sustainable production and consumption can be applied to so many things – even things you haven’t really thought much about. My central area of research at the moment focuses on the sustainability of music concerts and festivals. Often when I first mention this to people, they look at me quizzically. Music and sustainability??? When we attend a concert, we are consuming like we would anywhere else – from the transportation we take to get to and from the venue, to the food and beverages we buy onsite. In recent years, social media has increasingly become a medium to communicate the impacts of some of these music events. A number of artists, such as Jack Johnson, are also becoming strong advocates for delivering concerts that try to minimize these environmental impacts.

At the end of the day, both producers and consumers have an important role to play in working towards sustainability. I love this quote from Jack Johnson (in his song Ones and Zeros)

[There’s] a lot of traffic in the streets, so who’s really doing the drilling?

  1. Think carefully about the marketing messages you are receiving
  2. Vote with your dollar by purchasing sustainable products
  3. Consider how you care for your products and what you do with them when you no longer want them
  4. Be mindful of hidden consumption, like transportation and on-site purchases at events

Dr. Jennifer Lynes is associate professor and director of the University of Waterloo’s Environment and Business program. She is also co-founder of the North American Sustainable Concerts Working Group.


This story is part of our series on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Faculty of Environment.