top of page

A Brief History of Sustainability

Throughout human history, our lives have been undeniably linked to the natural environment. Understanding the patterns, seasons, and potential dangers of nature has allowed humanity to thrive on this planet. From gathering fruits, vegetables, and other nourishment for sustenance, to seeking protection during storms and natural disasters, humans have relied on a deep-rooted connection with the planet for day-to-day survival. When modern technology became central to western society’s daily lives, it became easier to dismiss. This connection with nature can often seem more like a choice rather than crucial to supporting our life on the planet. Rather, we still need it as a means of survival. So how did the modern sustainability movement as we know it begin, and how has it transformed us as a society?

Defining Sustainability

According to the EPA, “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” The University of California Los Angeles sustainability department takes this definition one step farther by stating that “Sustainability is the balance between the environment, equity, and economy”. When we look at sustainability, we must look at two integral and interconnected factors; the natural environment and humanity. Sustainability seeks to connect us more deeply to nature, and claims that we cannot function as a species or society without also being in connection with the natural world.

How Did Sustainability Develop in the US?

Human practices negatively impacting the environment have been questioned as far back as 500 BC, when Greek philosophers such as Plato and Strabo expressed concern about activities like mining, logging, and farming.

Prior to the colonization of America, indigenous communities throughout the land maintained - and still maintain - deep connections with the natural environment. When the continent was colonized in the 17th century by Europeans, the sentiments of most individuals inhabiting what would become the US were focused primarily on innovation, exploration, and exploitation. It wasn’t until the US Industrial Revolution that questions began arising more earnestly in the general population about our use of resources and resulting consequences to the environment. As early as 1912, publications were released espousing the potential dangers of fossil fuels on our atmosphere. Industrialization had already begun putting a strain on water and land cleanliness and greenhouse gas emissions. As modernization and science innovation grew, so did our dependence on environmental exploitation to keep up with demand and a booming population. With the lives of so many people improving dramatically through new technologies, our relationship with nature became more tenuous. Those that raised concerns about sustainability were often silenced in favor of modernization.

The 1970s saw a resurgence of environmentalism with the “hippy” movement. In 1972, “sustainability” was first coined through the definition we now frequently use, placed in context with a series of leading magazine articles, called The Blueprint of Survival. That same year, the first UN conference discussing the impacts of human activity on the environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden. This conference placed environmental concern as an international priority and opened critical dialogue on the interconnection between industrialization of nations, pollution, and human health and wellbeing. This spurred legislation back at home in the US related to environmental concern, with the recently-founded EPA (established just two years prior in 1970 by president Nixon) spearheading a new era in connection with human and environmental health.

Since the 1970s, sustainability has been the catalyst for arguments between those more environmentally-inclined and those seeking to remove sustainability from the conversation altogether. Practices such as corporate greenwashing have further complicated our relationship with sustainability as a society. One thing remains clear: the history of our relationship with nature hasn’t been an uncomplicated one.

Our Modern Sustainability Movement

Today, the sustainability movement has again taken front and center stage as concerns about climate change, rising temperatures, melting ice caps, and extreme weather events hover in our collective minds. We’ve seen steadily increasing shifts in consumer habits and how our society is reacting to these worries. More and more, large corporations are committing to engaging in environmentally-conscientious practices, and individuals are adapting lifestyle habits to address this societal direction. A resurgence in the eco-conscious movement has meant more options to connect with and respect our natural environment. And the more that we as a society lean into these new habits and structures, the better chance we have at mitigating the worst of the damage yet to come from the climate crisis.

What can you do to participate in the sustainability movement? Check out our blog post on corporate vs. individual responsibility to find some tips and tricks, and - as always - be gentle with yourself while making lifestyle transitions. Sustainability has had a long and complex history in this country fraught with other incredibly interconnected issues such as exploitation, colonization, and unchecked capitalism, but as society shifts towards lending a more compassionate space to nature, we have the opportunity to lean into this and be better stewards - for us and for generations to come.

Shop Plastic-Free With Us!

At Summit Sustainable Goods, we take extra steps while vetting products to ensure that all our zero waste household care and personal care products are truly environmentally friendly and oriented around true sustainability. We work with our suppliers to make sure all the products we sell are truly safe for the environment and your body - because we believe that you and mother nature both deserve the best. It’s just another way we live into our values of being as environmentally and ethically conscious as possible.

Where can you find our curated selection of high quality and sustainable products? You know we’ve got you covered! Check out our website at or visit us at a local pop-up around town. (Info available through our website or socials.) Want to follow our journey and learn about future zero waste events and happenings? Adventure with us by signing up for our monthly email subscription or follow us on Instagram or Facebook to keep up-to-date on all things Summit.

Much love,

Carrie, founder



bottom of page