Understanding the Sustainable Lifestyle

By Steven Cohen

A sustainable environment and economy are possible only if they provide support to a sustainable lifestyle. This is a way of life that sees material consumption as a means rather than as an end and attempts to ensure that consumption has as little negative impact on the biosphere as possible.


What is a lifestyle? It’s a peculiar word, but it is what people do with their time: work, recreation, entertainment, travel, social life, family life, religious life, education/learning, hobbies, and so on. It also includes the setting within which they undertake these activities – where someone lives, where they work, where they play, and where they pray (if they pray). What does lifestyle have to do with sustainability? It’s not simply what you do, but how your lifestyle impacts natural systems.

It is clear that sustainable urban systems lead to a sustainable environment and economy only if they provide support to what we might call a sustainable lifestyle. This is a way of life that sees material consumption as a means rather than as an end and attempts to ensure that the materials consumed have as little negative impact on the biosphere as possible. Definitions of sustainable living in the literature generally refer to using as few resources as possible, reducing carbon footprints, and reducing environmental damage.1,2 The United Nations Environment Programme defines sustainable lifestyles as “rethinking our ways of living, how we buy and what we consume but, it is not only that. It also means rethinking how we organise our daily life, altering the way we socialise, exchange, share, educate and build identities.”3

Environmental advocates often focus on individual behaviour and say we need to develop lifestyles that consume less and do not damage ecosystems. On a worldwide basis with billions of people aspiring to higher levels of material consumption, individual reductions in consumption in the developed world will have little real impact. But I have hope that we can and are changing the nature of consumption just as we are changing the nature of work. To be clear, we cannot survive without food, air, water, clothing and shelter. But due to automation we need fewer people to make and manage those things.

As we examine the sustainable lifestyle, it is not only about what we are choosing to consume, but where we are choosing to live. Globally, more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, with 54 percent of the world’s population residing in urban areas as of 2014.4 These ideas of closed systems of production and consumption are central to the concept of the sustainable city. As the mechanisation of agriculture reduces rural employment and as the Internet communicates the appeal and seductiveness of urban lifestyles, more and more of the world’s population is moving to cities. Cities are culture hubs with dense populations, which means resources can be reused and shared easily and effectively.

  Please login or register to continue reading...

About the Author

Steven Cohen is the Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.


1. Regenerative Leadership Institute. 2007. “What Is Sustainable Living?” RLI Blog, February 17. https://www.regenerative.com/sustainable-living.

2. Winter, Mick. 2007. “Sustainable Living: For Home, Neighborhood and Community.” Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing.
3. United Nations Environment Programme. 2011. “Visions for Change: Recommendations for Effective Policies on Sustainable Lifestyles.” http://www.unep.fr/shared/publications/pdf/DTIx1321xPA-VisionsForChange%20report.pdf.
4. United Nations (2014) “World Urbanization Prospects 2014 Revision.” Department of Economic and Social Affairs. http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/highlights/wup2014-highlights.pdf.
5. Belk, Russell. 2010. “Sharing.” Journal of Consumer Research 5: 715–734. doi:10.1086/612649.
6. Hirshon, Lauren, Morgan Jones, Dana Levin, Kathryn McCarthy, Benjamin Morano, Sarah Simon, and Brooks Rainwater. 2015. “Cities, the Sharing Economy and What’s Next.” National League of Cities. http://www.nlc.org/sites/default/files/2017-01/Report%20-%20%20Cities%20the%20Sharing%20Economy%20and%20Whats%20Next%20final.pdf
7. Matzler,K., Veider, V., & Kathan, W. 2015. “Adapting to the Sharing Economy.” MIT Sloan Management Review. http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/adapting-to-the-sharing-economy/
8. Bond, Andrew T. 2015. “An App for That: Local Governments and the Rise of the Sharing Economy.” Notre Dame Law Review Online, 90 (2): 7796
9. Steg, Linda, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Kees Keizer. 2015. “Intrinsic Motivation, Norms, and Environmental Behavior: The Dynamics of Overarching Goals.” International Review of Environmental and Resource Economics 9: 179207. doi:10.1561/101.00000077.
10. Miller, Dale T., and Deborah A. Prentice. 2016. “Changing Norms to Change Behavior.” Annual Review of Psychology 67: 339361. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015013.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.