Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely. It relates to the auto industry as much as the environmental movement and it wears many faces. People are often quick to equate sustainability with green development, but it’s not that easy. Environmental preservation is undoubtedly a linchpin of sustainability—however, it’s just one piece of the puzzle.

At its core, sustainability is the synthesis of three factors: society, economy, and environment. Each element may be individually sustainable yet unquestionably influence the others. If your economy grows, your culture will change. If your culture changes, your environmental practices will shift. If your environmental practices shift, your economy will transform. And round and round it goes. It’s a little like running a three-person relay race—each person has individual autonomy, but is surely only one part of the team. If you want to win you must work together.

Video: Costa Rica Sustainable Practices

In this sense, sustainability seeks to do three things: 1) Protect the environment and restore ecosystems; 2) Allows businesses and local economies to operate profitably in the present and into the future; 3) Support social improvement and protect cultural identity.

That said, discussions on sustainability do often boil down to environmental issues. That’s because neither economic production nor human life could exist without clean air, fresh water, and fertile soil. We must protect these resources if our economy, society, and culture are to flourish. In effect, the principles of sustainability refuse to sacrifice the future for the present; they allow us to meet current needs without compromising the resources of later generations.

Travel plays an important role in all this. Put simply, you do not travel in a vacuum—your choices as a consumer have a direct impact on the areas that you visit. Every step you take and every dollar you spend has real and lasting power. Deciding to travel sustainably is kind of like taking the Hippocratic oath—first, do no harm. The places you hike, the businesses you frequent, and the locals you meet all influence the fabric of a given destination. If you want to travel sustainably, you must first learn what that means.


Some Background

These days Costa Rica is known as a global leader in sustainability. It produces nearly 93 percent of its electricity from renewable resources and conserves around 30 percent of its national territory. All that makes sense when you consider that this tiny country, which is about the size of West Virginia, holds some 5 percent of the planet’s total biodiversity.

Costa Rica is currently on track to be one of the most sustainable countries in the world – it’s working to become the first carbon-neutral country by 2020 – but this hasn’t always been the case. Consider the following fact: in 1940, 75 percent of Costa Rica was covered in forests, but by 1987 that number had dropped to just 21 percent. This rapid deforestation was the result of an economic climate that valued changing “unproductive” land (i.e. forests) into “productive” land (i.e. agriculture).

Video: The Rise of Ecotourism in Costa Rica

By the early 1990s, however, Costa Rica’s leaders began to realize that this was a poor investment. The soil became infertile after a few years and left the farmers (and their associated markets) scrambling for income. The once precious natural resources, which provided clean air and water for the citizens of Costa Rica, were degenerating rapidly and putting people out of work.

After analyzing the economic benefits of retaining healthy ecosystems (tourism, health care, recreation, etc.), the Costa Rican government began to implement policies encouraging conservation. It established national parks, promoted ecotourism, and encouraged organic agriculture. This began the marriage between the environment and the economy in Costa Rica and put the country on track to become increasingly sustainable.

The Three Circles of Sustainability

As we’ve already seen, each element of sustainability is an outgrowth of the others. For this reason the subject must be tackled holistically.

We do not exist in isolation. The products we purchase, the food we eat, the cars we drive—all of these make an imprint on the world around us. Our planet’s resources are exhaustible and it’s important to understand the ways that our choices influence the environment.

Environmental sustainability seeks to do just that. It is a way of interacting with the natural world without destroying or degrading it. It can be as simple as organic agriculture or as complex as renewable energy. It involves cleaning up brownfields sites and preventing pollution. It incorporate composting, recycling, and water conservation. It supports reforestation and biological reserves, carpooling and riding your bike to work. Environmental sustainability is literally anything that helps, or at minimum does not hurt, the environment.

The environmental choices we make inevitably impact our economy. Business itself depends upon the resources of healthy ecosystems – clean air, fresh water, fertile land, and ample biodiversity. These are known as “natural capital.” An economy that pollutes its natural capital won’t last very long.

Economic sustainability is the ability to support a defined level of economic production indefinitely. It allows the average GDP and per capita income to steadily rise. It provides a stable tax base that is sufficient to operate community services and generate consistent capital growth. In a sustainable economy, businesses have steady profitable growth and total shareholder return. Economic sustainability ensures that an economy not only survives, but evolves.

Economic sustainability values quality over quantity. Maximizing short-term profits doesn’t always equate with long-term value. For this reason, businesses may work to achieve slow but steady growth; this helps increase the number of available jobs. By providing better employment opportunities, economic sustainability keeps the number of people living beneath the poverty line low. This links it to socio-cultural sustainability.

The social side of this primarily concerns social justice. Social sustainability respects the individual and supports equal opportunity for all. It ensures that diversity is honored and that human rights are protected. A sustainable society provides avenues for self-expression and debate—everything from voting to artistic endeavors to a free press is encouraged. A sustainable society also provides capacity building opportunities for its citizens; it has a strong education system and solid access to healthcare.

Cultural sustainability is a means of preserving and upholding the culture of a place. It might be an entire country, an inner-city neighborhood, or an indigenous group. Oftentimes in the rush and pull of modernity traditional customs are lost. Cultural sustainability seeks to resist this force and preserve the various aspects – the cuisine, artwork, legends, and values – that make a place and its people unique.


Sustainable Programs in Costa Rica

There are a number of sustainably minded programs in Costa Rica. They cover a broad range of categories, but most focus on achieving a synthesis between environmental, cultural, and economic health.

One of the best known programs is the Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST). This program is aimed at helping Costa Rican businesses take a long-term perspective on maintaining the country’s environment, culture, and communities. The CST program rates businesses based upon how well they comply with certain sustainable practices. It measures the interaction between the company and the surrounding environment; the operation systems and infrastructure of the company; the degree to which the company allows their clients to become active contributors in sustainable policies; and the way in which the company interacts with local communities and the general population.

Businesses receive a CST rating from 0 to 5. Higher ratings are given to businesses with better sustainable practices. This measurement allows consumers to make educated purchasing decisions and turns sustainability into something tangible. The CST program has done a great job making sustainability more mainstream in Costa Rica.

The Bandera Azul (Blue Flag) Ecological Program helps keep Costa Rica’s communities – and the natural areas that surround them – healthy, safe and clean. The program awards communities across Costa Rica with a “Blue Flag” when they meet certain requirements. There are categories for beaches, watersheds, forests, and towns. The program encourages environmentally friendly practices and active civic engagement.

The Blue Flag program helps Costa Rican communities manage their resources through environmental education, comprehensive health care plans, and proper waste management. It provides an incentive for people to improve the area where they live – be it through environmental awareness programs, reforestation practices, or river cleanups. The awards are given out annually and are a good way for travelers to decide what destinations to visit and support as consumers.

Video: Regenerating Costa Rica Rainforests

The Payments for Environmental Services (PES) program provides payments to landowners who maintain healthy, robust land. Landowners who adopt forest management practices that do not hurt the environment – and which help maintain the quality of life for local residents – receive direct payments from the government. These payments are for the ecological services that healthy land produces. These include maintaining clean water, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, conserving biodiversity, and providing areas for recreation and ecotourism.

The National Emergency Commission is a branch of the central government that coordinates the prevention of risks and the response to emergency situations. It raises disaster risk awareness, funds disaster preparedness programs, and provides emergency education across the country. The commission helps Costa Rica’s communities create strategic plans for reducing man-made disasters and responding to natural ones. In this sense, the National Emergency Commission helps Costa Rica prepare for an adaptable, sustainable future.

Tips for a Traveler

Sustainable travel minimizes the impact that visitors have on a destination. The following five tips offer a few simple and practical strategies to help you mitigate the harmful effects of travel.

  1. Reduce waste. Whenever possible, recycle and reuse products. Bring a durable water bottle and rechargeable batteries. Try to cut down on packaged materials and use water sparingly. Save electricity at your hotel by reusing towels, turning off lights, and shutting down the air conditioner when you leave the room.

  2. Go local. Support local businesses rather than international chains. Buy souvenirs from small vendors, dine at local eateries, and stay at hotels with regional ties.

  3. Respect culture. Show consideration for the traditions and customs of a region. Learn about what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t. Learn a few phrases in the local language and dress appropriately. Ask people before taking their photo.

  4. Practice environmentalism. Don’t litter, disturb wildlife, or hike off the trail. Choose activities that require little or no fossil fuel (biking, kayaking, horseback riding, etc.). Don’t buy products or food made from endangered species.

  5. Give back. Learn about ways that you can help the areas you visit. You might plant trees, clean up beaches, or volunteer at a local school.

Going Forward

Ensuring that the Earth’s seven billion people are properly fed, housed, and educated without damaging the environment is a colossal challenge. It will require ongoing dialogue and flexibility, groundbreaking conclusions and more than a little sacrifice. But at its core it’s not complicated. We live on a beautiful planet with amazing – but finite – resources. We must acknowledge the ways that our choices affect the Earth and its people.

Sustainability is bigger than one country or one action. It isn’t just going green or deciding to volunteer in your community. It’s wrapped up with local and global economies, human rights and cultural conservation. The future of our planet will depend on our ability to find a balance between a healthy environment, a strong economy, and a dynamic society. Together we can ensure that our current needs are met without compromising the viability of future generations.

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