This Earth Day, let’s embrace the full spectrum of sustainability

April 22, 2019 Carrie Sabin

“Protect the environment and fight for social equity”—those ideals drive our sustainability director and match the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

 

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with natural beauty. As a child, I felt a real connection with nature—the plants, the animals, everything. I still feel that deep bond, and it’s why I’m so passionate about protecting our environment and fighting climate change. I’m quite zealous about doing my part. I pick up trash whenever I encounter it, I work hard to minimize my carbon footprint, I volunteer on habitat restoration projects, and I’m that person who is always rescuing recyclables that people have erroneously thrown in the garbage.

And yet, environmentalism is just one element of my passion. My childhood was memorable for another reason: I attended elementary school during the early days of racial integration in my home state of Florida. I saw the inequalities and discrimination firsthand. But more importantly, I saw the kind, goodhearted people who didn’t let hate stop them from doing the right thing. Early on, I decided I would recognize my privilege and speak up for marginalized populations.

I also spent part of my childhood living in Mexico, where I attended an international grammar school in a big city. My family lived in a tiny, primarily Indigenous village where I developed strong relationships with my neighbors and will never forget their warmth and generosity. Practically every day I was faced with the dichotomy of access to educational resources, transportation, healthcare, and work opportunities between my friends at school and my friends that lived in the village.

 

The Perico Preserve in coastal Manatee County, Florida.

 

After college, I returned to Mexico to work on an anthropological research study. Once again, I found myself living in a small Indigenous village, just as I had as a child years before. This time, I was actively studying the impact of outside forces (such as modernization) on developing economies. Before outside influence, the people of these villages worked hard to carefully shepherd their local environment, because they had to—their way of life directly depended on it.

_q_tweetable:Real sustainability marries environmental action and social justice._q_In Mexico, I watched as waste management became a huge issue. The introduction of plastics and other modern materials and goods vastly increased the amount of waste, beyond what traditional methods could handle. Previously, waste management techniques had been connected to sustenance techniques and organic decomposition. After modernization, valuable farmland needed to be used to create waste piles. With less farmland and an increased desire for consumption, many were forced to leave the village to get jobs, which ended up introducing more plastic products. You could argue that the standard of living was improving but at what cost to the environment and social fabric?

These formative experiences had a huge influence on my choice of career. I realized I wanted to achieve two things with my life: protect the environment and fight for social equity.

 

Blueprint for a better future

Years later, long after I’d established my career in sustainability, the United Nations created a blueprint for a better future: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a series of 17 interconnected goals that governments, non-governmental organizations, and corporations voluntarily pursue to address large global sustainability issues. The SDGs resonate with me on a personal level because they recognize that sustainability is only possible when society achieves an equitable distribution of social, environmental, and economic benefits.

Stantec supports the SDGs as part of the United Nations Global Compact, an association of businesses who understand the importance of sustainable development to their own long-term viability. The SDGs align with Stantec’s values, but we also support them because our investors and clients are increasingly vocal about their desire for us to operate in a way that addresses the challenges facing the world: climate change, inequality, health, peace, and more.

 

The Calgary Composting Facility in Calgary, Alberta. The city's goal is to divert 80% of landfill waste by 2020.

 

Two streams, one purpose

I’m proud that Stantec supports the SDGs because it shows that Stantec understands what I learned all those years ago: real sustainability marries environmental action and social justice. The two topics are deeply intertwined—you can’t succeed on one side without the other.

For example, take SDG Goal #6: Clean Water and Sanitation. In the developed world, we might think of this as exclusively an infrastructure/environmental challenge. But in many countries, access to clean water is also an issue of gender equality. Where infrastructure doesn’t exist, it is the women and girls who spend long days obtaining water for their families. That’s their life. But when there is access to clean water, that time can instead be spent on getting an education or starting a small business—suddenly, that free time becomes an opportunity for personal growth, with all the beneficial effects that spring from it.

Or, think of a modern city like Calgary, Alberta with its new Calgary Composting Facility that reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfills, conserves water, cuts emissions, and creates jobs. One sustainability project helps meet several SDGs!

The structure of the SDGs shows the big picture of the challenges and opportunities facing us. And each goal applies to the entire world, whether you live in a developed or developing economy.

Stantec can choose to lead or follow on sustainability. So far, we are leading. Last year we won an SDG Leadership award and were recognized as a leader in the fight against climate change by CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure project) when we received an A-class rating.

Here’s what I ask of my colleagues, my friends, and my family. Recognize the goals. Make them part of your mindset. Be aware that the interaction between environmental protection and social development leads to success. This Earth Day let’s embrace the full spectrum of sustainability.

 

For more on Stantec and how we support the SDGs, see our annual Sustainability Report.

About the Author

Carrie Sabin

Carrie Sabin is our environment and sustainability program director, managing our corporate sustainability commitments. She has 26 years of experience in sustainability, community engagement, and operations management with more than 12 years managing projects with staff from around the world.

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