Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The Brundtland Report
‘Sustainability’ may be a bit of a buzzword today, but I was intrigued to find out that it only came to prominence after the United Nations Brundtland Report in 1987. The report identified the need for three pillars – to balance economic development with environmental protection and social responsibility.
Fast forward a third of a century, and according to the Office for National Statistics’ Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (2021), 75% of adults in the UK said they were worried about the impact of climate change.
With a statistic as high as this, you might be surprised by the lack of immediate action seen in our day-to-day lives. Although, when anxiety and helplessness emerged as some of the common themes surrounding the topic, then perhaps it’s… not so surprising after all.
With major global problems like plastic pollution, food waste and climate change that threaten the long (and even short) term future of our planet, it’s easy to see why people may feel concerned yet apathetic, troubled yet at a loss as to what impact they can have as individuals.
As many of these powerful books about sustainability attest, we shouldn’t get caught up in trying to achieve perfection. Collectively, even the smallest of efforts can pave the road to revolution.
Best for Era-Defining Manifestos
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson | Skip to review
- The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace | Skip to review
- No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg | Skip to review
Best for Challenging Normalised Systems
- How to Break Up With Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo | Skip to review
- This Is Vegan Propaganda by Ed Winters | Skip to review
- Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle | Skip to review
Best for a Hopeful Future
- Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart | Skip to review
- Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard | Skip to review
- It’s Not That Radical by Mikaela Loach | Skip to review
Best for Taking Personal Action
Here are the 12 best books to add to your sustainability reading list in 2023
Sustainability is a broad topic that encompasses everything from global warming to the impact of fast fashion – right down to the food you choose to consume.
This selection of books will arm you with the knowledge you need to feel well-informed about all aspects of sustainability.
1. Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?
What is it about: Arguably, the green revolution started with Silent Spring – widely acknowledged as the most important environmental book of the 20th century.
60 years after its release in 1962, it remains as powerful and hard-hitting as ever in its documentation of the environmental harm caused by the widespread use of chemical pesticides (particularly DDT).
Carson’s text is backed up by a huge amount of scientific research, but don’t panic – it’s a far cry from inaccessible or overly academic. As with anything that challenges the status quo, it was initially met with a huge amount of resistance from industry and big businesses. Thankfully, it persevered to shape government legislation, as well as inspiring generations of environmental activists for years to come.
2. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (2019)
It’s worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in the anthology of comforting delusions.
What is it about: Described by The Washington Post as “this generation’s Silent Spring,” I will be completely honest with you – if you’re looking for a feel-good kind of book… this is not the one. Quite frankly, it’s terrifying.
Whilst I am all about solution-finding, I think that cold hard facts have their place too. Fleshed out from his 2017 article by the same name, The Uninhabitable Earth is the stirring wake-up call that is needed to jolt you out of your comfort zone. So buckle up for a multitude of apocalyptic scenarios – droughts, floods, wildfires, plague, economic crises, political instability – because it’s already worse than you think.
3. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg (2019)
I want you to act as you would in a crisis.
I want you to act as if our house is on fire.
Because it is.
What is it about: If you haven’t heard of Greta Thunberg, then… you must’ve been living under a rock! That said, it’s crazy to consider that only as little as 5 years ago, no one knew her name.
It was in August 2018 that the then 15-year-old Swede decided not to go to school one day, an action which ended up being the catalyst for a global movement to take action against the climate crisis. Since then, she has gone on to inspire government legislation and has even been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
This small but mighty text is an important collection of her major speeches – from UN conferences to mass street protests. And the true beauty of it is that it’s simple, powerful and accessible. So, if you’re not sure where to start, then this would be a great basic introduction to the topic.
4. How to Break Up With Fast Fashion: A Guilt-Free Guide to Changing the Way You Shop For Good by Lauren Bravo (2021)
The truth is, fashion needs us more than we need fashion. Without thousands of thirsty shoppers emptying their racks every week, companies will be forced to take stock and do things differently.
What is it about: If you’ve read my post on the problem with fast fashion, then you’ll already have an understanding of why the fashion industry is a completely unsustainable model. And, if you’re interested in reading more on this subject, then Lauren Bravo’s recent book would be my go-to choice!
The tone strikes a fine balance between serious and funny, down-to-earth yet never preachy. The author refreshingly declares herself a previous fast-fashion addict and acknowledges that she’s far from perfect. Use this book to break your fast fashion habits once and for all!
5. This Is Vegan Propaganda (And Other Lies the Meat Industry Tells You) by Ed Winters (2023)
Going vegan really is our best chance to save the planet.
What is it about: If you’ve noticed the rise in popularity of plant-based diets and felt intrigued, then you may be surprised to find out that it’s not just animals and your personal health which can benefit from veganism – it’s the planet, too.
I am a huge fan of Ed Winters (known on YouTube as Earling Ed), a vegan spokesperson and activist who has already done so much to make veganism more mainstream and challenge our normalised food system.
While this book does include conversations around morality, ethics and health, it is also very much a book about sustainability and the huge (yet often hidden) environmental footprint of the meat and dairy industries. According to Winters, we can all work towards a more compassionate, sustainable future, simply by being more mindful of the food we choose to consume every day.
6. Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (And You) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again by Lucy Siegle (2018)
Sometimes fighting a threat is particularly difficult simply because it’s under your nose and in your own home, and so becomes oddly familiar.
What is it about: Lucy Siegle is a journalist and eco expert who is turning her attention to our unhealthy relationship with plastic.
Terrifyingly, enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the world 4 times. And it’s said that by 2050, pieces of plastic will outnumber fish in the ocean if we continue at our current rate of production.
It’s easy to wait for huge change to come from government legislation, big brands and waste authorities, but this book is a powerful call to arms for you to take control of what you can – your own actions. By adopting the author’s practical approach of ‘reduce, rethink, refill, refuse’, you have more power than you know to make a difference.
Definitely one to make you rethink that plastic straw or takeaway coffee cup!
7. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (2009)
We see a world of abundance, not limits. In the midst of a great deal of talk about reducing the human ecological footprint, we offer a different vision. What if humans designed products and systems that celebrate an abundance of human creativity, culture, and productivity?
What is it about: Rather than the typical ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ trope, Braungart and McDonough challenge the current way in which we make things. The ‘cradle to grave’ manufacturing model is a relic of the Industrial Revolution – an outdated system that we still happen to be using today.
By redesigning our things to create value (rather than simply minimising waste), we can move from ‘cradle to grave’ to ‘cradle to cradle’. With real-life examples of how this concept can be put into action, this is an exciting read that is less about deprivation and more about innovation and circularity.
8. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard (2016)
What we take, how and what we make, what we waste, is in fact a question of ethics.
What is it about: A moving autobiography by Yvon Chouinard – founder of pioneering clothing company Patagonia.
This is a hopeful blueprint for how businesses can be profitable while still caring deeply for the natural world and their supply chains – a good book to read alongside Lauren Bravo’s above, for different yet complimentary angles on a similar topic.
If more brands followed this innovative leadership model, I’m confident we’d be well on the way to a better future. In the meantime, you can do your bit to shop more ethically with this list of my favourite ethical and affordable fashion brands.
9. It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action to Transform Our World by Mikaela Loach (2023)
We need to tell another story, one of coming together. One of a better world that is possible.
What is it about: I first came across UK environmental activist Mikaela Loach after watching her short documentary series ‘ReDress the Future’, so I was super excited to see her first book released!
If you’re interested in sustainability beyond the generic tropes of ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘global warming’, then Loach’s book focuses more on the economic and oppressive social systems that are the root cause. Tackling the climate crisis is in fact battling for climate justice – forcing us to look at the things we’d rather turn a blind eye to like capitalist exploitation of vulnerable communities, poverty, legal injustice and police brutality.
When we work towards a truly sustainable model, it involves racial equality and a radical rethinking of our capitalist structures. Written with real spirit and hope – this is a must-read in my eyes.
10. How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee (2020)
We could do with spending less time charging around earning as much as we can to buy things we don’t really need. We would do well to become better at enjoying what we’ve got – and to disentangle our self-esteems from our pay packets.
What is it about: Originally published in 2009, this groundbreaking book popularised the term ‘carbon footprint’. Recently updated for 2020, it’s still just as enjoyable, useful, and full of surprises.
Basically, this is your ultimate dictionary compiling the CO2 impact of everyday stuff and services – from bananas to electric bikes, swimming pools to space tourism. If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of our everyday choices and also larger infrastructures that dictate the way we consume, then this is the sustainability book for you. Seriously fascinating stuff!
11. The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Make Small Changes That Make a Big Difference by Jen Gale (2020)
We all know that stuff doesn’t make us happy (beyond that initial endorphin hit), yet we still seem to maintain the hope that it will. It’s that definition of insanity – doing the same thing again and again and being surprised when nothing changes.
What is it about: A sustainable life doesn’t have to involve drastic and swooping changes – as with most behaviour change that sticks, it involves the smallest of tweaks to your daily habits. If you want to do your bit for the planet’s future but feel overwhelmed with where best to start, then The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide will have you well on the way to a zero-waste lifestyle before you even realise it!
In this practical guide, Jen Gale provides down-to-earth and easy-to-implement tips. Whether it’s unsubscribing from tempting emails that encourage you to buy clothes you don’t need, or only using a mug’s worth of water in the kettle so as not to overfill it and waste water, there is a real treasure trove of sustainable hacks contained within the pages of this book!
12. One Pot, Pan, Planet: A Greener Way to Cook for You, Your Family and the Planet by Anna Jones (2021)
My books have previously been gentle in their approach to putting plants at the centre of your tables… I feel now it’s time to stress the changes we need to make. I want to make it clear that how we eat can actually help to shift the world we live in.
What is it about: One Pot, Pan, Planet includes plenty of inspiration for delicious meals that centre around plant-based whole foods (some recipes are vegetarian if you’re looking to ease into a plant-based lifestyle.
It also includes helpful information regarding your pantry essentials, meal planning, as well as zero-waste tips for minimising food waste. I particularly like that these are all one-pot meals that are perfect for batch cooking – a great source of inspiration for recipes if you’re using my weekly meal plan.
Fight the Good Fight Against the Climate Crisis with These Powerful Sustainability Books
Pursuing short-term gratification on an individual basis has a snowball effect when pursued collectively as a society. So while working towards a more sustainable life may sometimes feel hopeless – a drop in the ocean when it comes to the difference you can make – it’s desperately important if we are to change the trajectory in which our future earth is headed.
Sustainability may not be the sexiest topic that springs to mind, but it is essential reading to open up our eyes to the extent of the predicament we find ourselves in. It’s also crucial that we share what we’ve learned and start conversations with those around us.
To support more ethical and sustainable brands, don’t forget to check out my buying guides. And, if you have any book suggestions that I absolutely need to add to my sustainability reading list, then please do let me know in the comments below!