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Small steps, big goals: Building sustainable change

Every day I am confronted with questioning patterns that I learned and evolved over the years, while redefining what is appropriate and how I can and want to act in today’s fast-paced world. And whilst I quite enjoy the new habit of challenging the status quo and the whole ‘we have always done things this way‘ narrative, I sometimes wish that some things could stay as they are. Just to make them easier. But apparently, life is not a piece of cake and that’s why I am finding myself in the situation of unlearning the perfectionism that I so desperately tried to adopt during the years spent at school and university. This is a story on how I discovered that perfectionism isn’t all that helpful all the time and how I found a way of dealing with imperfection in a world full of crises.

Pushing for perfectionism in academia

Ever since I started my studies, I have learned many valuable and useful lessons about life. Not only methods and facts about a scientific field or how science works, but also just general lessons about myself and life. I started studying in 2019 – right before the COVID-19 pandemic – in Lueneburg, a town near Hamburg, Germany. Leuphana University is a sustainability-oriented institution with the very first faculty of sustainability in Germany. Besides Economics, Engineering, Cultural studies and Sustainability Studies, they offer an individual study program. It acts a little like an open Liberal Arts Program where you can choose your own individual interest for which you can choose courses from other study programs. This program allowed me to focus my degree on digitalization and sustainability and all its challenges and opportunities. But this program also taught me to critique literally everything. I learned about the weak spots of planetary boundaries and other widely spread concepts, what could be improved in my own work and what should be criticized about society and our way of living. And there is a lot to critique and improve – especially when it comes to what we could and should do better in terms of sustainability.

Learning to let go

When I was looking for a student job, it was important to me to do something that had an impact. I started working for Voelkel, a company that produces organic juices, lemonades and other beverages. The juice is not what brought me to the company though, it was their commitment to doing things better – for the people and for the planet. I am a part of the marketing team and work as a web designer and web developer, trying to contribute to making the web more sustainable. In the small team responsible for the website and the entire marketing team, I was welcomed with curiosity for sustainable web development that was not part of their agenda before. But (and this is a big BUT), however „green“ or sustainable a firm is, it still operates within the system of capitalism. And so does Voelkel. It depends on profit and growth to be able to survive. That is why every investment and every change that costs the company money and resources is thoroughly evaluated. When I first started to work here it felt like a reality check for my idealized point of view on sustainability. I had so many ideas and visions, but it felt a little like an uphill battle. In an established company like Voelkel, it is not always easy to convince people to turn things upside down for the sake of sustainability. So I decided to start with small steps – another thing I’ve learned from university: when things get overwhelming and seem impossible to reach, start with small steps. Being completely new in the office environment, I searched for inspiration in my colleagues. It turned out that well prepared presentations and visualizations are very important. And just like that we started improving the environmental footprint of our website – in small steps. I had to realize this way that trying to make things perfect often leads to not being able to do anything.

3 things to remember

  1. Don’t be discouraged when others are not as enthusiastic or convinced. Make your argument and consider formulating concrete and measurable goals to make your vision more tangible for others.
  2. Take small steps. They might bring you further than taking on everything all at once. It is better to make smaller steps in the right direction than no steps at all.
  3. Make meaningful change. Keep in mind that the path to sustainability can be very different for different people, but remember that you are going for the same goal. If everyone is contributing just a little, we can get closer to sustainability than you might think.

How do we get to the finish line?

Reaching sustainability is such a complex task for humanity, it might seem to you like we can never get there. And we might not. But we can work together to get us as far as we can. Small steps go a long way and it is important that we don’t give up, that we stay engaged and encourage others to do the same without pushing for perfection. And don’t get me wrong, it is important that we have people in this world that question and critique everything. It will allow us to keep moving. It helps us define new goals after we completed the previous ones and keep us on the right track. But it shouldn’t stop us from moving. It shouldn’t hinder us in starting out and trying to do better. Even if it’s just a little better.

Kim Lea Rothe is a student at Leuphana University, Lueneburg, Germany. She is working in sustainable web development and has a research focus in digitalization and sustainability, its challenges and opportunities for society and sustainable development. Recently she started  exploring complexity studies with a strong focus on the relations between technology, humans and nature.