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The S Word

It started as a whisper. First the adults started saying it. Only in small groups.  Biting their tongue before they were sure that it was okay. That people would understand. What is it anyway? Kids say it, too. Some of them learned it at school. Now it’s on everybody’s tongue. Everybody’s Facebook feed. Everybody’s Instagram captions. Companies big and small are saying it, too. The whisper has turned into a scream…and it might be losing meaning.

I’m talking about (are you ready to hear it again?) “Sustainability”. A few years ago the word was just another one of those terms at the end of a business student’s syllabus and somewhere in the middle of a company memo. It was at most as niche as “stocks” and on the opposite end of the interest and excitement spectrum as “sex”. Sustainability. A few documentaries, some viral photos of seahorses and turtles, and a good amount of celebrity endorsements later, the little aside has grown into its own. Sustainability started showing up not just in undergraduate syllabi but in university degree offerings. Not just as a side comment in company memos but as the reason for company-wide product and operational redesigns. It’s even the very foundation of some companies today (ours included). Sustainability went mainstream and we started hearing about it more and more whether or not we were ready.

The rise and reach of sustainability remind me, if you’ll allow the likening, of the rise and reach of some religions. Sustainability, too, is an idea meant to improve the lives of other people, care for the environment, and promote certain values and ways of living. Indeed today sustainability has also seemed to gather a prudent following intent on imbuing just about everyone and everything with these values. Sustainable clothing, sustainable dining, and yes, sustainable travel. Deviations from these values are judged, sometimes rather quickly, as sins. Is that a plastic straw? Why don’t you buy something locally made instead? Are you sure that’s fair-trade? Sustainability is turning into Sustainabilism. Under this pressure many individuals and businesses were quick to convert – or at least it seemed so on the surface.

Sustainability became a badge to wear proudly on one’s chest even if and when that pride did not come with understanding. A sign of the cross murmured at an incomprehensible speed and executed with micro-actions of the hands. A penance completed in haste following a forced confession. It is used and said so often that many times it stops at just that – using and saying, no real learning or doing. Sustainability conferences decorated floor to ceiling with balloons. Meetings to discuss sustainability culminated in packed lunches complete with plastic utensils wrapped in more plastic. Sustainability programmes where the biggest takeaways were photos and the biggest change was a change of clothes. Sustainable products which have no sustainable component save the label. Metal straws in all the colors of the rainbow delivered to your door on the same day you ordered them and then stuck into plastic to-go cups you’re drinking inside the cafe and posted with #sustainableliving. (Okay you get the point.)

Sustainability became a badge to wear proudly on one’s chest even if and when that pride did not come with understanding. A sign of the cross murmured at an incomprehensible speed and executed with micro-actions of the hands.

That an idea meant to improve the world is receiving the traction it’s receiving is of course a good thing. I’m not about to argue that we stop saying this particular S word as often as we do. I’m saying we should be smarter each time we say it. I’m saying we should scrutinize each time we hear and read it. I’m saying we save it from becoming a fad. Each time we allow it to be used with no meaning we’re inviting more people to think of it as just that – meaningless. Just something to say. To be part of some club. To make a sale. To please. To be with the times. Some people might fall head-over-heels at just the sight of the word but others have plainly (and understandably) gotten quite sick of it.

If you’re already passionate about sustainability, bring it to people in ways that they’ll appreciate. Don’t be so ready to shame actions that are “unsustainable”. Don’t shove sustainable ones down people’s throats. Ridicule and coercion are themselves unsustainable paths to sustainability. They’re not helping the cause, and they’re certainly not helping your reputation. In simpler words – chill out, bruh.

In 2015, when we had just started, none of the trees we planted grew. They were the wrong trees planted in the wrong areas. We were so eager to make a difference that we missed out on what should have been basic research. We’ve learned what trees to plant and where, as well as many other lessons, since.

If sustainability is something that interests and inspires you, I invite you to feed that interest and inspiration slowly. Read some articles. Watch some YouTube videos. Study products, campaigns, and organizations before you support them. The idea is not a cute t-shirt hanging on sale in a rack waiting for you to buy it to wear once and forget forever. If you like the fashion reference, think of sustainability as a new pair of glasses that should change the way you see, well, everything, or a pair of shoes that influences the way you make your way around the world. Saying you’re sustainable takes one second, but actually being sustainable takes much, much longer.

If all the talk about sustainability is making you sick and uninterested, if the word is slowly losing meaning for you, well, I’m not about to force it on you and go against my own advice. I will say that the way you encountered it the first (few hundred) times were maybe not the only ways to encounter it. There are many ways to “be sustainable”. Not all of them are annoying (some of them are, admittedly) and maybe in the future some of those not-annoying ways will seem smart to you.

Sustainability has become the S word that we are either saying too much and/or can no longer even hear. Let‘s not scream so much. Whisper again. Think even more. Let’s make the S word mean something.

Sustainability in what we wear, what we buy, and how we travel are the topics of Life Stories La Union: Sun x Surf x Sustainability, an event by WTN: Where To Next?, MAD Travel, WVN Home Textiles, and Things That Matter. Learn more and sign up here.

About the author

Romano is a project manager, content creator, and public speaker for MAD Travel. You may reach him through romano.santos@madtravel.org or on Instagram as @romanohimself