Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series submitted by undergraduate students at Loyola University Chicago from a course called ENVS 363: Sustainable Business Management.
Bigger is always better. As a business major, this is what has been drilled into my head as a recipe for success since the beginning of my studies. The more you have, the more buildings, the higher consumption rates, the increasing production rates, the more stuff in general, is what our economy needs to flourish to its highest potential. As a freshman, sitting in my Economics 201 class, I was introduced to the concept of GDP, or gross domestic product, and how it is calculated each year to measure in monetary terms everything a country produced that year. But more importantly, I was told how a higher GDP indicates an overall successful economy.
Recently, through the assistance of my Sustainable Business Management class, I learned how far from true my original introduction to GDP was. A short video called The Story of Stuff  explained how the economy we live in today uses a system called the “Materials Economy,” where we extract natural resources from our planet, produce materials from them, then distribute these materials to the general population where they are then consumed and disposed of. This system is a linear system on a finite planet; therefore, our economy is in great danger of self-destruction. If everyone wanted to live like Americans lived, we would need three to five planets to support the lifestyle.
Ever since World War II, our society has been trying to boost the economy in extreme ways. Many Americans are unaware of how and to what extent our natural resources are used. For example, many US residents do not know that is takes more than 250 gallons of water to produce one cotton shirt and that we lose 50,000 acres of trees per day across the globe due to deforestation so we can produce paper, furniture, and houses. The average gold wedding ring creates nearly 20 tons of hazardous waste, and the United States alone releases more than four billion pounds of toxic chemicals each year. In summary, we cannot keep producing, consuming, and disposing at the dangerous rates that we currently are.
Another film that led me to these conclusions was called The Story of Solutions. Our economy, and all those who operate within our economy, have been trained to focus on what is newer, faster, and lower in price. This mentality strayed us away from what is more fair, healthier for the people and the planet, and safer. GDP does not just include what makes life better, like more schools, roads and malls; GDP includes the things that do not necessarily improve life, such as more jails and more coal, but it is all computed the same in regards to annual GDP. Our warped view that always increasing our GDP leads to higher qualities of life is not an accurate belief, and our economy needs to shift before it is too late.
Therefore, what we need to do is focus on changing for the better, including emphasis on better health and better education. This begins with educating people about economic growth, the effects on future generations, and the important part that individual people and businesses can play in bettering society. People need to realize that less is more, and that increased consumption does not lead to happiness. If US citizens realize they need to replace what they take in regards to natural resources, and use our resources more efficiently in order to provide equivalent resources for future generations, we are taking an important step in the direction of economic sustainability.
Changing the economic system and saving the planet can seem like a problem too big for one individual to solve, or even to contribute to, but the idea that one person or one family will not make a difference is a popular thought that is leading to a crisis. It is crucial that we adopt a sharing economy. Being a college student living in the city of Chicago, I have realized what part I can play in this movement. I take Uber and Lyft, as opposed to having my own car. Everyone in my apartment building shares one washer and dryer, because it is unnecessary for all of us to have our own. I ride around town on Divvy bikes because there is no reason to produce 100 bikes for everyone on my block, when we can all share one. Not only does this preserve the resources we have and eliminate some unnecessary production of goods, it builds a strong community. Now, imagine if everyone adopted these sharing habits, and all of the time, money, energy and resources we could save. That sounds like the economy I want to live in.
Overall, the first step to creating a successful economy without continuous economic growth is educating people on why we need to sustain an economy that does not focus on economic growth. Once people understand the consumption rates we are currently responsible for, and how that will impact the US and future generations, they need to understand how we can change. This change will begin by shifting from more to better, and sharing our resources to protect our planet. The movement has to start small, but once it takes off, big impacts will be made. Always remember to respect your planet, no matter what your college economics class told you.
 The Story of Solutions: With Annie Leonard. Free Range Studios, 2013.