Let’s be honest, Episode 3: The Global Competition for Sustainability

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle’s project with the aim to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to make life more sustainable, as well as the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try, instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world creating a uniquely multicultural environment.

Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!

In the last episode, we talked about travelling. One of the perks is that you learn about other countries and cultures first hand. I learned a lot about the environmental harm we humans cause. I also learned that you should educate yourself further and not let a few aspects of comparison count as a generalization. In Greece, I witnessed people grocery shopping. I was shocked by the normalized amount of packaging. Huge amounts of groceries were bought (mostly packed in plastic already) and stored in plastic bags to carry them to the car. Meanwhile, more and more zero-waste stores pop up in countries like Germany or the Netherlands to limit exactly this waste.

To further exemplify my point: While I was backpacking in South-East-Asia, I did a tour through the mountains. There was one road leading through the forest and making traffic through the wildlife possible. The nature was astonishing and breathtaking. In the middle of the trip, we stopped at a restaurant at the top of a mountain. It was in the middle of nowhere so getting goods up and down again had to be a lot of work. When we left, I saw a huge pile of plastic trash behind the restaurant. The trash was just tossed in the wildlife. The harm to nature is obvious. The consciousness that western countries by now have, seemed not to be there (yet). Plastic packaging seemed convenient, cheap and a great solution but not questioned in its harm to the environment.

In Germany, where I grew up, we recycle plastic or at least try to. We have a deposit system for plastic bottles. We were the pioneers of this system. More and more zero-waste stores pop up. The awareness of the urgency of reducing plastic seems to be there. You could (but shouldn’t!) easily conclude after this comparison, that Germany is way ahead on the sustainable path. On the other hand, we waste 19 tons of food each minute. Additionally, Germany is sixth on the list of carbon dioxide emissions (Too Good To Go, n.d.). There is a LOT of room for improvement, even though Germany already seems to have more regulations and measurements to save the environment than others do.

There are different methods and tools to calculate a nation's environmental harm. The most common one is probably the ecological footprint. There is a footprint per person and a global footprint (Global Footprint Network et al., n.d.). In short, it takes into account the land and area we need for our waste disposal and to produce the resources necessary for our consumption (WWF, n.d.). There can be specific calculations made to measure the ecological footprint e.g. in regards to import or export (Global Footprint Network et al., n.d.). The ecological footprint considers the demand on and supply of nature. For the calculation of the demand, the productive areas, the ecological assets and natural resources used, as well as the waste generated, especially carbon emissions, are examined. For calculating the supply, the biocapacity, referring to the productivity of the ecological assets, is observed. Biocapacity refers to the biologically productive area available to provide the resources we use and need to absorb our waste. To differentiate, the ecological footprint focuses on the land and water we need to produce resources, whereas biocapacity refers to the biological area providing the resources (Wackernagel & Rees, n.d.). The data of the biocapacity minus the ecological footprint gives insight into the ecological status. If the calculation shows a positive amount, the biocapacity is higher than the land and water needed and the nation can be referred to as an ecological creditor, like for example Canada. If the amount is negative, the biocapacity provided is less than the land and water required. Such countries can be referred to as ecological debtors. The USA and Germany can serve as an example of this. Most developed countries count as ecological debtors (Global Footprint Network, n.d.). We need 1.6 planets at the moment to maintain our current situation globally. Germany ranks sixth with 3.1 planets in the worldwide ranking. Australia is first by needing 5.4 earths (Earth Overshoot Day, n.d.).

Ecological deficit means that the ecological footprint exceeds the biocapacity. National ecological deficits refer to importing biocapacity through trade. Germany has a biocapacity deficit of 204%. Greece is at 196% and Thailand only at 111% (Global Footprint Network et al., n.d.). This shows that while Germany seems to be miles ahead, it actually isn’t. At least, not considering every sustainable aspect.

The point I want to emphasize is that no matter where you live, you probably do more harm than good for our planet. Sometimes I get the impression of sustainability being a race between nations. If you lead, you can rest and don’t need to improve and change anymore. The sustainable superiority, like I just exemplified, is a false impression though. In today’s industrialized and technological times, there is almost no way of actually being that far ahead in the race that you can rest. Only maybe if you leave our current society behind and will start self-sustaining and not relying on external resources. Maybe a race for sustainability is not the worst idea. We will need a lot of change if future generations shall live in similar luxury as we do. There still is the question of whether future wellbeing and the same luxury can even exist together or whether cutting down on our privileges is necessary.

If nations, like history has shown plenty of times, will strive for power when seeking the opportunity to be superior, why not for the superiority of sustainability? Racing, changing to a less harmful environmental impact, will help to save our planet. We just need to accept the hoax of sustainable superiority, since, for now, we all need way more resources, water, and land area and produce way more waste than our planet can handle and provide (Global Footprint Network et al., n.d.).

Sure you can learn from other countries and what they might do better, you should even. Do not rest on this though. Like the packaging comparison hopefully showed, settling on one aspect of comparison and calling it a day gives a false impression. We need to stay critical and seek improvement. We should welcome achievements and change but don’t rest on that.

Author and Editor: Lea Annikki Kaiser


Earth Overshoot Day. (n.d.). Pledge 3: Is your country an ecological creditor or debtor? Become a natural resource expert. Earth Overshoot Day. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from https://www.overshootday.org/portfolio/creditor-debtor/

Global Footprint Network. (n.d.). Section 1: Introduction. Global Footprint Network. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from https://www.footprintnetwork.org/content/images/uploads/Part_III_Technical_Document.pdf

Global Footprint Network, York University, & Footprint Data Foundation. (n.d.). Open Data Platform. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from https://data.footprintnetwork.org

To Good To Go. (n.d.). Food waste in numbers. Too Good To Go. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from https://toogoodtogo.org/en/blog/food-waste-in-numbers

Wackernagel, M., & Rees, W. (n.d.). Ecological Footprint. Global Footprint Network. Retrieved January 18, 2022, from https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/

WWF. (n.d.). Ecological Footprint. WWF. Retrieved January 19, 2022, from https://wwf.panda.org/discover/knowledge_hub/teacher_resources/webfieldtrips/ecological_balance/eco_footprint/

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