Blog – Posted on Monday, Apr 19
20 Must-Read Books on Sustainability in 2021
Good things might not last forever, but it’s in everyone’s interests that planet earth does. With concerns about our current climate emergency mounting, sustainability is an ideal we must find ways to attain, one little step at a time. Solutions exist: now they need to be put into practice.
If you’re looking to learn more about sustainability, this list of 20 must-read books will educate, concern, and inspire you to take action, as well as empower you to enact and demand change. Remember, knowledge is power!
1. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
What if instead of working to limit waste as much as possible, we could revise our systems of production so that waste doesn’t happen in the first place? That’s the question posed by this seminal environmental work, written by a chemist and an architect who share a passion for sustainable living. Drawing ecological principles from nature, the two writers question our current methods of production and show how improved design could revolutionize the way we make things, by making them more durable. This thought-provoking, idealistic nonfiction book thinks outside the box and leaves the reader hopeful for change.
2. The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health by Annie Leonard
We live in a consumerist society. In fact, our society is so deeply saturated by consumerist values that it’s often hard to disentangle our minds and thoughts from a culture that keeps pushing us to buy new things. That’s where this book comes in. Annie Leonard’s book The Story of Stuff, is based on a popular short animated documentary by Leonard, and takes an unflinching look at the materials used in the production of consumer goods. Highly critical of these wasteful practices, The Story of Stuff is an eye-opening book that distils some core environmental values with clarity and passion. Reading this book provides the awareness and actionable steps necessary to enact change.
3. A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough
At 94 years old, David Attenborough has seen some of the enormous changes of our planet happen first-hand. In this sincere and sobering ecological memoir, Attenborough reflects on how we allowed things to get this bad, and reminds readers of the interconnectedness of the natural and human world. But even after witnessing the devastation of the planet’s wild places, the author believes that the human race has the ability to change its current trajectory. We can only hope that his wisdom, also shared in a Netflix documentary by the same title, will touch many hearts and inspire them to take action.
4. Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree
This fascinating case study of re-wilding farmland offers a spark of hope for the planet’s future. Isabella Tree and her husband run a farm in West Sussex, UK, and this book tells the story of their pioneering efforts to re-wild their land after intensive farming practices left it economically unsustainable. Allowing nature to take over, the couple witnessed something incredible happen. In less than a decade, their farm was blossoming with life, and is now a space that hosts diverse wildlife: ponies, butterflies, birds, you name it. Simultaneously practical and inspirational, Wilding highlights an often forgotten fact: that sometimes the best thing you can do is step back and allow nature to take the lead.
5. Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki, trans. by Eriko Sugita
Influential declutterer Marie Kondo told people to get rid of everything that didn’t “spark joy”. Fumio Sasaki has taken that maxim and turned it up a notch. This radical book, part self-help guide and part memoir, makes the case for minimalist living as both a mindset and practical approach. Sasaki tells the story of his own move to minimalism, and while not everyone will be ready to take things as far as he does, the book remains a thought-provoking meditation on our over-reliance on objects, and the freedom that might be gained by lightening our loads.
6. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by Ernst F. Schumacher
Originally published in 1973, this manifesto, written by an economist, disrupted most people’s assumptions about what economics is and can do. While most people associate the field with growth targets and profit margins, Small is Beautiful applies economic principles to show how we can create a more sustainable world in the long term by prioritizing human needs over large corporations. This classic work on sustainability which is unfortunately still relevant is infinitely wise, and warmly recommended.
7. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
When acclaimed novelist Jonathan Safran Foer became a father, he suddenly started to see the food he ate from a moral perspective. This sparked an investigation into the origin of the food he consumed. One thing that particularly shocked him and made him choose to become a vegetarian was the harrowing farming conditions within which animals destined for human consumption are reared. But that’s not to say that this sombre book is ever preachy. Instead, it respectfully asks the reader to listen and make well-informed choices about their own lifestyles.
8. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution ― and How It Can Renew America by Thomas L. Friedman
In this book, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Thomas L. Friedman shows how intricately linked climate change and globalization are. If there is one take-away point, it’s that there’s no time to waste: what we need to save our planet from greenhouse gas emissions is an immediate overhaul of our current energy sources and a green revolution that sees technology and green energy lead the way. Notable for its honest assessment of America’s contribution to a global issue, this is a book that communicates the urgency and complexity of climate change, and reminds readers that they need to act now.
9. Climate Justice: A Man-Made Problem With a Feminist Solution by Mary Robinson
Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson turns her focus to the female grassroot activists fighting different manifestations of climate change in this urgent call to arms. Wondering what the future will hold for the world her grandchildren live in, Robinson speaks to everyday women doing their bit when their communities are badly affected by global warming. From Uganda to Mississippi to Malawi and Mongolia, the fierce optimism Robinson encounters in these women becomes a source of hope. At the same time, Climate Justice is a bitter reminder of the fact that vulnerable communities will be the first to bear the brunt of rising water levels and a changing climate.
10. Third Culture Kids of the World: Exploring Sustainable Travel Mindsets by Priyanka Surio
Using her identity as a “third culture kid” — someone who grew up or spent part of their childhood in a country that isn’t their parents’ homeland — as a starting point, Priyanka Surio asks questions about how we can travel more sustainably. Being a global nomad for whom travelling and globalization are an integral part of her identity Surio also asks how travelling changes people, and offers a guide to reducing their footprints when they venture to new communities.
11. Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land by Leah Penniman
Farming While Black traces many of today’s sustainable and eco-friendly farming practices back to African wisdom. In response to the fact that less than 2% of farmers in the USA are currently African-American (compared to 14% in 1920), Leah Penniman’s guide aims to empower Black people to reclaim their place in the food system and their connection to the land. Covering everything from making a farm business plan, to urban farming, crop planning, and raising animals in a humane and sustainable way, this book looks to the past to set a roadmap for the future.
12. Wear No Evil: How to Change the World With Your Wardrobe by Greta Eagan
Need a place to start your journey with sustainable fashion? Greta Eagan’s got you covered. This book will expose the secret exploitative ways in which the fashion industry operates behind the scenes. To break free of fast fashion habits, Eagan recommends choosing brands based on their “Integrity Index”, which she suggests as a metric of ethics for each brand. Complete with a directory of eco-fashion brands, this invaluable resource is a statement piece which will allow you to truly revolutionize your wardrobe.
13. One Pot, Pan, Planet by Anna Jones
Once you’ve cleaned out your closet, it’s time to turn your attention to your fridge and pantry. Anna Jones’s One Pot, Pan, Planet is an extraordinary cookbook that offers a treasure trove of vegetarian recipes to start off your sustainability efforts with something delicious. But Jones’s book doesn’t stand out simply on account of its flavor bursts: it does more than that. The whole book is mindful of making the most of seasonal and local produce, and provides ingenious ways to use up leftover vegetables that would otherwise go to waste. Even if you’re not vegetarian, incorporating some of Jones’s recipes into your weekly meals is a great step toward making your life more sustainable.
14. The Responsibility Revolution: How the Next Generation of Businesses Will Win by Jeffrey Hollender and Bill Breen
Another must-read book about business sustainability, The Responsibility Revolution is an actionable handbook to transforming your organization into a sustainability leader. The authors correctly argue that “less bad” is not the same as “positively good”, and aim to make the path to a better future clearer for everyone. Based on interviews with leaders from multiple industries, this book asks businesspeople and entrepreneurs to take responsibility for their work and its consequences, and shows them how to go about it.
15. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
This inspirational book combines memoir and recipes to narrate a year during which Kingsolver and her family committed themselves to local and seasonal eating habits. Joyfully and sensitively, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle brings the fun back into eating, combining practical information about the politics of food and growing your own ingredients in your garden, with heartwarming anecdotes. Inviting you to take a seat at their table, you’ll feel right at home reading this book, and leave feeling enlightened.
16. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
First published in serial form in 1962, Silent Spring has now attained legendary status among environmental literature. This is the book that first alerted the public to the problematic use of harmful pesticides like DDT. Once Carson sounded the alarm, a wave of pressure from the public, forced changes in agricultural laws, and successfully established a ban against DDT. Silent Spring empowers readers to use their own voices to do good and acts as proof that books can, and do change the world.
17. Live Green: 52 Steps for a More Sustainable Life by Jen Chillingsworth
If you feel like you’re not lacking in inspiration, but might need a step-by-step roadmap to changing your life, Live Green is the book for you. Providing a list of 52 steps to take toward living more sustainably, Chillingsworth urges you to implement change gradually, week by week, in order to see small changes incrementally add up to something larger than yourself. Covering subjects like food shopping, natural beauty, building a capsule wardrobe, and making your own eco-friendly cleaning products, this handy book is one you’ll keep returning to again and again.
18. So You Want to Know About the Environment by Bijal Vachharajani
This beautifully illustrated book was written for children, but its simple delivery of factual information can be useful for anyone who wants a clear introduction to the discussions happening around climate change and our current fight for sustainability. Explaining everything from food and water waste to pollution and global warming, this is an important book to help you raise eco-conscious children who will love and respect the natural world.
19. Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
Speaking of young people who love the natural world: 15-year-old Dara McAnulty from Northern Ireland made headlines in 2020 when he won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing with this lyrical, thoughtful, and introspective coming-of-age memoir and meditation on the biosphere. McAnulty shares how nature became his “life-support system” after he was bullied for his autism/Asperger’s at school. Written with wisdom and sensitivity, this wonderful book will touch your heart with its observations of wildlife and the changing of the seasons. After you turn the last page, you’ll want to step outside and simply breathe among the trees.
20. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard
This fascinating business memoir, written by the founder of Patagonia, explores the dichotomy between corporate greed and unsustainability on the one hand, and the ability to enrich the lives of individuals, on the other. Torn between these two warring notions, Chouinard outlines how an awareness of an inherent contradiction lies at the heart of his innovative leadership: “I wanted to create in Patagonia a model other businesses could look to in their own searches for environmental stewardship and sustainability.” From the founder of one of the world’s most environmentally conscious brands, this visionary book suggests ways for businesses to put values over profits — though from a consumer's point of view, it may be both simpler and more effective to just not buy unnecessary stuff.
Hungry for more green books? Head to our list of books about climate change and the environment for more classics and innovative titles alike.