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The Six Rs of Sustainability: what are they? 
Blog...The Six Rs of Sustainability: what are they? 

The Six Rs of Sustainability: what are they? 

Net zero trajectory
woman recycling cartons at recycling bin
What are the six Rs of sustainability and how can they help us achieve a more sustainable lifestyle?
woman recycling cartons at recycling bin

In today's world most people are aware of the risks and consequences of climate change and the depletion of our natural resources, and most people want to do their part to protect the environment by living a more sustainable lifestyle. But it’s not always easy to know where to start. This is where the 6 Rs of sustainability come into play - they represent a sustainable lifestyle framework to help us reduce our environmental footprint and live a more sustainable lifestyle.

👉 What are the six Rs of sustainability and how can they help us achieve a more sustainable lifestyle?

First up, what do we mean by sustainability?

The word sustainability is often thrown around a lot. We hear about sustainable fashion, sustainable food and sustainable lifestyles on almost a daily basis. The media, companies, the government - it seems like almost everyone is talking about it. But what does it actually mean? 

The Brundtland report - ‘Our Common Future’ - published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) introduced the concept of sustainability. The report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Since its publication, there have been countless definitions of sustainability, and it can be applied to a variety of situations, for example sustainability is not just used in terms of environmental impact, but also with regards to economic and social issues. An definition that encompasses all of these aspects is: 

Sustainability consists of fulfilling the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care and social well-being.

What are the 6 Rs and where did they come from?

The 6 Rs of sustainability are a useful framework that aim to help us reduce our environmental impact and improve sustainability. Many people have already heard about the 3 Rs: this is the principle of reducing waste, reusing and recycling resources and products in an effort to cut down on the amount of waste we throw away. 

Well the 6 Rs is derived from this concept and offers a more thorough framework. It incorporates the 3 Rs, and adds some additional actions. Let's take a look at the 6 Rs and what this actually encompasses in more detail. 


Consumption is at an all time high - whether it’s meat, fast fashion, or the burning of fossil fuels. For too long we’ve lived as if the earth's resources are infinite, but it’s not the case. Natural resources are limited and we need to preserve them for future generations. 

According to the UN Environment Programme “The extraction of and processing of materials, fuels and food contribute half of global greenhouse gas emissions and over 90 per cent of biodiversity loss and water stress.”

This is why the first R, and the most important R, is rethink. The concept of rethinking asks us to question our habits of consumption and to consider how this might impact the environment. A useful question to ask yourself is “do I really need that?” 

Examples of how you can apply this to everyday life include: asking yourself if you really need to take the car or if you can find a more sustainable way to get to work such as walking, cycling, taking public transport or carpooling. Another example is asking yourself whether you really need that new jumper you saw in the shop the other day, or if you can repair and reuse the ones that you already have at home? Or, if you find yourself in a supermarket, you might ask yourself do I need to purchase this item that’s wrapped in plastic packaging or can I find the same item without all the waste? 

On a larger scale, Rethink can be applied to society at large. It requires us to consider the way that our business and economy operates, and to ask ourselves if they are compatible with sustainability or not. 

bike against white wall


Refuse is the second R, and the next step after you stop and rethink. Refuse simply asks us to stop accepting the things that are harming our environment. 

On an individual level Refuse encourages us to stop purchasing and consuming things that we do not need. It asks us to consider whether the item is necessary or not, and if it’s not, we should avoid purchasing it or consuming it. Examples of how you can easily apply this to your life include saying no to things like single use plastics, disposable coffee cups, plastic straws and single use plastic water bottles. It’s easy to achieve if you just make sure that you have sustainable alternatives - for example take a metal water bottle, or reusable coffee cup to work every day. 

person holding reusable coffee cup


Reduce comes from the 3 environmental Rs, and is the first in the trio (reduce, reuse, recycle). It’s the concept of reducing the amount of stuff that we use, buy and already have. It encompasses the concept of consuming less = wasting less. 

So how can you apply this on a daily basis to your own life? Well, it’s very simple: you could reduce the amount of water that you use - take a quick shower instead of that long soak in the bath, fill up the sink when doing dishes instead of just letting the water run, or eat the leftovers sitting in your fridge instead of ordering that takeout. There are heaps of ways you can reduce your consumption.

lady in shower


What does reusing mean? It means that instead of throwing away an item, you should think about the ways you can use it again. It could be that you repair the item and continue to use it in the same way, or maybe you can come up with a completely different use for it. Another option could be donating it to a local charity, selling it on ebay or finding a friend who will make good use of it.  

Giving new life to old objects means that we can cut down on the waste that ends up in our landfills. It also means that we don’t have to go out and buy a new item simply to replace it, which means saving money in the long run. 

Repurposing is also a great opportunity to get creative. Ask yourself what else you could turn the item into - maybe those old jeans could become a pair of shorts for the summer, or those jumpers could be made into some kind of quilt. There are heaps of great ideas and how to guides online, so why not take a look and find some inspiration.

quilt blanket


In line with Reuse, Repair asks us to fix broken things, so that we stop using natural resources to make new items. 

If something you own breaks, try to fix it. Or if you can’t fix it yourself, find someone or hire someone who can. There are lots of options on the high-street - for example shoe repair shops, leather repair shops, tailors who can sew that hole for you. 

Even things like our furniture and electronics shouldn’t be considered single use items. If your iphone battery is starting to fail for example, you don’t have to buy a completely new one, you could simply replace the battery instead. 

person repairing their bike with tool


This is probably the R that you’re the most familiar with. Recycling shouldn't be a new concept, but depending on where you live, this might be easier for some than others. But even if your local council doesn’t collect your recyclables that doesn’t mean you can’t do your part. 

Recycle is defined as the return of items to an earlier stage in the production cycle, for example raw materials. It should be something you do only in the situation where you really can’t reuse something. This is why it's the last of the 6 Rs. 

Recycling is very important because it reduces the resources we extract from the planet and reduces the amount of waste in our landfills, which ultimately means that the air and water around us is cleaner. 

So how do you recycle? Well, many locations offer roadside recycling collections, and even if this is not an option for you, there should be recycling facilities not too far. Sometimes your local supermarkets even offer recycling facilities - for example this is common in the case of electronic devices and batteries. 

It’s important to remember that even if we make the effort to recycle all of the items we possibly can, we still would not be able to achieve sustainability, so it’s important to consider all 6 Rs.

person holding their recycling in a bag

The three pillars of sustainability

Alongside the 6 Rs of sustainability, outlined above, there is an overarching concept of three pillars of sustainability. This is made up of people, planet and profit. Let’s take a look at these in a bit more details:

People - the social pillar

This pillar aims to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the larger group. This pillar requires that everyone, and not just the few, has the resources they need to live a healthy life. Which in practice means that everyone across the world has equal access to things like clean water, food, shelter, education and healthcare.

Planet - the environmental pillar

We need to take care of our planet and ensure that we’re using the Earth's resources in a way that is sustainable and minimises harm. This means that we need to work to protect the Earth’s biodiversity, to conserve natural resources, and also to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions which have adverse effects on the environment around us.

Profit - the economic pillar

This pillar posits that profit should not be the only priority of businesses, and that sustainability should also be a priority concern. Studies have shown that successful businesses of the future are those who balance profit and sustainability.

Final Thoughts on the 6 Rs of sustainability

Unfortunately human activity has proven itself to have a negative effect on the environment around us. From air pollution, to deforestation and the burning of the Amazon rainforest, there are devastating examples all around us. 

Thankfully, awareness of the impact of our actions on the environment is becoming more and more known and people across the world want to take action. The 6 Rs provide an easy framework for people to follow and adopt into their daily lives. We can all play our part by simply thinking a bit more about how much we’re consuming, and by adapting our behaviour so that we consume less and minimise our environmental footprint.

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here

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