The answer is: YES, it can. In many ways.
As with everything in life, the devil lies in the details. First, let me explain what is meant with sustainable in this context. I am not talking about economical sustainability (while I do think and hope that all our businesses are sustainable). I am talking about how you as a photographer can choose to be sustainable and have your business consider sustainability measures.
So, what does a photographer need to work? Cameras and lenses, obviously. While the production of those cameras and lenses is mostly beyond our control in regards of sustainability, the quality is key. Most manufacturers in the professional sector have high quality materials, so with good treatment, lenses can last almost for ever without losing too much of the quality. Cameras too, but it might be necessary to replace shutters after a few years, as those are the most vulnerable parts.
With this said, it is absolutely no problem to purchase your cameras and lenses second hand. There are many established shops offering checked and revised but previously used hardware.
It is not important to have the newest/biggest/best camera on the market – important is that you can handle it and know the technique and train your skills. Even the best camera can take awful pictures if the photographer has no idea of composition and how the camera works.
Nowadays you would maybe call that “vintage”, I call it “pre-loved”. Of course, you can also buy your material from online flea markets specialized in photography equipment (like Facebook), but you need to double check the offer and functionality maybe. Same of course goes when something is broken. Don’t buy a new one, get it fixed (unless that is really not possible anymore). It goes without saying that you need a good insurance for your camera equipment, that covers cases like that.
If you care for sustainability, likely you will also attract or want to attract clients in this sector. For example, as a wedding photographer, you can make a business knowing all the rental or second-hand bridal shops in your area to advise your clients. But of course, a wedding is not only the dresses. It is a battle of decoration material, catering, games and give aways. But also here, there is always a sustainable option. Maybe you can share the flower arrangements in church or at the reception with the next wedding at the same location, or you can rent the flowers. You can choose recycling paper to print your invitations or do them online only. You can choose to not do balloons, lanterns or anything else that goes up into the skies and ask your guests to not throw paper/glitter confetti. Even in the food sector, you can ask the caterer to work with organisations like foodsharing or charitable food banks so any leftovers will still be used and not thrown away. And who gets married nowadays without a photo booth? Hundreds of photos printed out directly after taking the photo. Most of them maybe not perfect so you have to try again and again… Also here, there are other options. You can choose to have a photo booth that sends the images into an online gallery and give access to all your guests, so they can order a download/print of only the ones they really like.
But all those things are mostly not the photographer’s decision, we can only give tips. What we have in our hand is the decision about materials we use for print products like photo books, prints etc. The sustainable way is to choose a local, climate neutral printer who offers all these products on recycling or eco paper. Your clients will not know the difference, as those papers are totally equal in quality. You can also choose to add a CO2 compensation to all your products and deliveries or have the products delivered in an ecological fashion (locally, courier etc.).
How is it with travelling for your jobs, you ask? Whether you are a destination wedding /elopement photographer or an NGO documentary photographer (I am both), travelling is part of the job. But also here, there are more sustainable options for everything. Depending on the location (or client), you will need to take a plane, as there is no viable option by train or long-distance bus. So, the least you can do is to reduce waste during these travels by bringing your own reusable bottle, cutlery and cups to not use the plastic cups/cutlery on the plane. For shorter distances you can even bring your own food and refuse the wrapped stuff on the plane. CO2 compensate your flight and of course use your bottle and cup also at your destination, you get the idea.
What about Studio photography? Me too, I have a studio for new-born or portrait photography, and it is expected from us to have plenty of material and props at hand for that. But also here, there is a more sustainable way. You can get studio equipment (lights, light stands, posing props etc.) second hand from one of the many photographer groups on Facebook (for example). Or if you get them new, try to get them locally. For new-born clothing maybe ask a local tailor or your mom to knit or sew them for you (and pay her of course) or get them second hand. Every once in a while, you can sell your props and get new ones, to freshen up your images. Of course, also the material of the props is important. I always choose natural materials. I often use decorations that I collect on my trips outdoors – like pine/fir cones, shells, nuts or leaves. And I use reusable materials, made from wood or organic cotton – so you can wash and reuse them.
The same goes for styled shoots of course. A means most photographers use to build their portfolio. The most sustainable way is to look for local vendors for a collaboration. Or at least you can rent out their materials, clothes and props for the shoot.
The list would go on and on. The most important thing on the way to being a sustainable photographer is to ask yourself the same question with every endeavour: How can I make this better/healthier/more sustainable?
And last but not least: There is a big benefit or side effect from all of this. Well, actually two!
For one, you will feel much better, knowing you actively make a difference. And second: you even save some money by buying second hand or renting material.