The top 5 lifestyle stories in 2016

Responsible consumption was on the rise this year as TripAdvisor quit animal tourism, disposable coffee cups were discussed by the British government, and companies started producing and selling more sustainably. Here are the lifestyle stories people cared about in 2016.

starbucks disposable cups
Disposable coffee cups are difficult to reycle. Image: Luiz Filipe Carneiro Machado Follow, CC BY-NC 2.0

Matters of sustainability and the environment were given extra air time this year at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to mixed results, while travel giant TripAdvisor took a stance by halting all offers surrounding animal tourism. Coffee lovers had less to rejoice over as the true cost of producing and drinking coffee came under scrutiny.

Here are the top lifestyle stories in 2016.

1. Conscious consumption and responsible production

In line with the Sustainable Development Goal number 12, 2016 saw the continued rise in conscious consumption and responsible production.

For instance, Swedish brand Fjällräven has launched a special Re-Kånken line of backpacks from plastic water bottles, tyre company Michelin adopted a zero-deforestation policy for its rubber sourcing, while active wear brand Patagonia promised to donate 100 per cent of its proceeds from Black Friday sales to grassroots environmental organisations.

But the fight is far from over. Latest reports have found that slave fishing boats from Thailand have simply moved farther out at sea, the nefarious reach of irresponsible palm oil continues to taint even companies like Nestle and Unilever, while undocumented refugees have been found on the factory floors of fashion brands including ASOS, H&M and New Look in Turkey.

At the same time other businesses are promoting a whole new model of consumption - that is, the very anti-intuitive stance of getting consumers to consume less. Buy Me Once, for example, is an online store that stocks items such as clothes and items that with an emphasis on quality and durability that, true to its name, wants to help consumers halt the endless cycle of buying and disposing.

After all, being a responsible business does pay off: Researchers have found that consumers want more environmentally friendly options and will pay more for carbon offsets, and are increasingly aware of the difference between “fairtrade” and “natural” products.

2. Storm in a coffee cup

Coffee is the lifeblood of the modern-day worker, but at what cost? The bitter beverage and its peripherals have been at the centre of many sustainability-related conversations this year.

Disposable coffee cups were a hot talking point in the UK, when the scale of wastage was made clear in the media: some 7 million coffee cups are used every day, but only one in 400 is recycled, contrary to what coffee chains were saying.

Although a minister mooted the idea of a tax on coffee cups to discourage their use, the idea was rejected. Environmental groups have called for consumers to switch to reusable coffee cups instead. Instead, Starbucks UK launched a trial for a fully recyclable coffee cup while Costa Coffee launched an in-store recycling programme.

Australia faces a similar problem with coffee cups and one company is aiming to get a specialised coffee cup recycling facility built in Australia, using - ironically - technology imported from UK company Simply Cups that turns cups into new plastic compounds.

Burgeoning demand for coffee means coffee production will need to increase three-fold by 2050 in order to meet the world’s insatiable thirst for coffee. This could entail encroaching on the last remaining tracts of tropical rainforest as farmers expand their farmlands. Changing climate patterns in coffee-growing countries such as Vietnam could halve the area of farmland conducive to producing the beans.

3. More animal friendly, sustainable travel

Awareness of sustainability issues in the travel industry was on the rise this year as consumers look to more socially conscious and environmentally friendly ways to travel including ecotourism.

The good news: Travel website TripAdvisor and booking service Viator stopped selling tickets to wild animal attractions including elephant rides and swim-with-dolphin experiences. Local authorities have banned tourists from entering glaciers in the China’s Xinjiang region to slow the rate of shrinking due to changing temperatures and will only be allowed to admire the glaciers from afar.

Here’s the bad news: Sherpas have warned that climbing Mount Everest is becoming more dangerous than ever thanks to climate change, which scientists have linked to the increased frequency of avalanches and ice falls. China wants to build the world’s highest ski resort near Lhasa, Tibet, much to the confusion and consternation of locals and environmentalists. There is little snow at the proposed location and there are concerns over Beijing’s transparency in the matter.

Non-governmental organisation WWF has found that half of all UNESCO World Heritage sites are threatened by industry and is urging industries to stay clear of these areas for oil and gas exploration, mines, unsustainable timber production and overfishing.

4. Apps-olutely sustainable 

Smartphone technology has enabled sustainability initiatives across the world. 

Finland’s Froodly app highlights soon-to-expire supermarket products and offers shoppers discounts, while Food Cowboy in the US matches food companies with extra produce to charities. On the other hand, organic waste will be sent to composters and biogas generators.

In Singapore, hawker-turned-programme Tan Jun Yuan launched the app 11th Hour and made it possible for dining establishments to repurpose their surplus inventory and make a quick buck at the same time by offering last-minute deals.

The frenzy around Pokemon Go, an augmented reality app played on smartphones, started researchers thinking how the technology could be used to support conservation efforts.

But technology can also be abused: Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC has found Facebook groups using the social media platform to sell animals illegally including the white-handed gibbon and Sunda slow loris within Malaysia.

5. The mixed bag of Rio 2016

Home to Copacabana and the world’s most riotous carnival, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro came under the spotlight this year as the venue of the 2016 Olympic Games, the first-ever in Latin America. The Brazilian government had pledged to make the Games - the biggest sporting event of the year - an environmentally friendly one, but results were mixed.

Waterways were still toxic, air pollution continued unabated, and pledges to improve the conditions of the favelas or the city’s poorest neighbourhoods have been conveniently forgotten.

But while the government did not live up to all of its promises, there were visible signs that it was trying. Extra food from the Olympic Village was collected, cooked and distributed to the needy in a project against food waste.

Another highlight was the participation of the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team under the Olympic flag in “tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees in overcoming adversity and building a better future for themselves and their families”, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Commenters have pointed out that if London, which had promised a zero-waste and zero-carbon Games in 2012, was unable to meet its sustainability targets, it would have been surprising if Brazil did.

This story is part of our Year in Review series, which looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of our 12 categories.

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