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The Link Between Health and Sustainability


By Virginia Marsh

Will the next generation accept the concept of "healthy planet, healthy people" more easily, thanks to brand education campaigns?

In 2003, Glenn Albrecht, an Australian academic, coined the phrase "solastalgia" to describe the personal distress caused by negative environmental change. A pioneer in studying the relationship between ecosystems and human health, his research in drought-blighted communities identified "Earth-related" mental illness, caused by the severing of healthy links between individuals and their home territory.

Many consider climate change the defining issue of our age because of the damage inflicted on the planet. Far fewer, however, consider sustainability in terms of human health. As far back as 1946, the fledgling World Health Organisation re-defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” At the time, the definition was controversial for its broadness. Today, with increasing evidence that many factors influence a person’s health, it resonates more than ever.

Yet an influential 2009 report by The Lancet, the UK medical journal, and University College London, said that even though climate change was “the biggest global health threat,” there was ignorance and apathy about its impact. “Health professionals have barely begun to engage with an issue that should be a major focal point for their research, preparedness planning, and advocacy,” the report said.

Well before widespread awareness of climate change, concern about the environment fuelled a move to organic produce in western societies. Consumers sought to protect both the planet and their health by eating food that had been less intensively farmed, and subject to fewer chemicals. This, in turn, gave rise to other "environmentally friendly" products, such as detergents.

“People would go into these [health food] stores to buy food and see our detergent,” says Tom Domen, an innovation manager at Ecover, the Belgian company that pioneered plant-based cleaning products. “They opened up the market for us.”

Formed in 1979, Ecover’s mission was avowedly green: it aimed to reduce the amount of phosphates flowing into the waterways. Only later did it emphasise hygiene and the efficacy of its products. Last year, it restated its mission as "making a healthy and sustainable lifestyle easy." The link is not tenuous. Protect waterways, and you protect lives.

The link between health and sustainability is beginning to resonate in the mainstream, too. Unilever, the consumer goods giant, for example, has called its 10-year corporate strategy The Sustainable Living Plan. In it, "health and well-being" sit alongside "reducing environmental impact" and "enhancing livelihoods."

Nonetheless, for consumers, the most compelling argument for using green products remains concern over the environmental legacy, says Professor Simon Knox, a branding expert at the UK’s Cranfield School of Management: “They are not yet making the connection that green products are good for us as an instrument of health.” A key issue is the dearth of research. According to the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health, there are approximately 100,000 industrial chemicals in use worldwide, only 3,000–4,000 of which have been evaluated for their human and environmental toxicity. This multidisciplinary centre, established last year within Exeter University’s medical school, claims to be the first to have a research focus on the relationship between the environment and human health.

It seems likely that the next generation will accept the concept of "healthy planet, healthy people" more easily – thanks to education programmes. Take Eco-schools, which operates in more than 50 countries, teaching youngsters about healthy living, alongside issues such as biodiversity and litter. Some new brands, such as Innocent Drinks, owe their success to these savvy youngsters. Its colourful labels tell children how to reach their "five a day," while also promising to plant trees in developing countries, if they convince their parents to buy more of its products…

“People want to do the right thing,” says Andy Redfern, founder of the online retailer, ethicalsuperstore.com. “The feeling that you have gone the extra mile and shown commitment can be very positive from a mental health point of view.”

Green Futures is the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures.

Photo: Kzenon / shutterstock

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