If you’ve never heard the term “imperfect environmentalist” it’s time to add it to your mental dictionary (or your actual dictionary if anyone still has one of those).
In my opinion the phrase is a tad redundant. Imperfection should be considered an innate part of being an environmentalist. There shouldn’t be a separate term for it. Somewhere along the line though, people decided that if you claim to be an environmentalist you must never touch plastic, drive a car, or wear anything except beige hemp. And that’s simply not true.
Being an imperfect environmentalist means you care about the planet. You’re conscious of how your actions impact the earth and you do your best to reduce that impact. “Your best” will look different for everyone.
For some people it’ll look like being vegan but driving a car. For others it’ll look like composting but using single-use plastic. It’ll look like taking the actions that make sense for your life and not taking the ones that don’t.
Perfect environmentalism on the other hand only has one look: overwhelm. Trying to be the most flawless steward of this planet is impossible, and it will cause you stress. Ultimately, under the pressure to be perfect, many people will simply give up altogether. Giving yourself permission to be imperfect helps us avoid crumbling and encourages others to participate in environmentalism however they can.
Why are small sustainable steps and imperfect environmentalism important?
Millions of people taking an imperfect approach to sustainable living will have a drastically larger impact than hundreds of people living a perfectly sustainable lifestyle. Seriously, studies support that notion.
For instance, if everyone in the United States reduced their consumption of beef, pork, and poultry by just a quarter, it’d save about 82 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. If every retailer sold one million used items instead of new it would displace 414.8 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.
Those two actions: reducing (not eliminating) you meat intake and shopping secondhand could have huge impacts if everyone did them. And that doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of other things that can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
So small sustainable steps do matter. And they’ll matter even more if we all do them.
Plus, trying to live more sustainably can spark conversation about the climate crisis, and conversation is key. While your reusable straw may not single-handedly end climate change, it could be the catalyst for a discussion with friends about the importance of eliminating single-use plastic. That discussion could inspire your friends to take action, write letters, or attend a climate strike—all steps that move us in the right direction.
Ultimately, small sustainable steps serve two main purposes: they can have large impacts if everyone does them, and they can inspire others to take action. So don’t beat yourself up for the changes you can’t make, instead champion yourself for the ones you can, and know that they are having an impact.
But what about the role of large corporations in climate change?
The argument against taking individual actions is the well circulated statistic that 100 companies produce 71% of greenhouse gas emissions. To many, this headline may as well say “Consumers Bare No Responsibility in Climate Crisis.” Unfortunately, that’s not completely true.
While systemic change within governments and corporations is needed to make the necessary progress, no one is going to make those changes unless individuals demand it.
So choose the more sustainable choice when you can. This signals to businesses that you don’t want to spend money on items or brands that damage the earth. We call this “voting with your dollar.” And if you can’t vote with your dollar (because I totally get it, sometimes sustainability is more expensive and as a result not accessible to everyone) then use your voice.
Write letters to companies, call your local government representatives, vote, sign petitions, get on your soapbox, and make it known that climate action is important to you. Corporations will eventually take a serious look at solutions, but only if there is demand for it.
How to start being an imperfect environmentalist
Now, after all that, I hope you’re still interested in being an imperfect environmentalist. To get started, think small. I say this not because I don’t want you to dream big. But because I want sustainable living to be, well—sustainable for you.
If you try to overhaul your life all at once it’ll be overwhelming and eventually, you’ll burn out. If you make small changes one at a time, you’ll be able to maintain them.
So, look at your life, and pick one area to begin with. Maybe you love fashion. Start there. Make your wardrobe more planet-friendly. Once you’ve become comfortable with that, expand. Examine how you can reduce waste in your kitchen, or how you can save electricity. If you need some sustainable swap ideas, I’ve got some for you.
Do what works for you, and always keep learning. Read about climate change, follow people who educate others on the topic, join a local climate activism group, and most importantly, always remember to be just as kind to yourself as you want to be to the planet.
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