The first time I thought about my impact on the planet in a real way was in college. What I mean by “real way” is this wasn’t just an “I’m in first grade, its Earth Day and we’re talking about extinct animals” moment. It was a “this is a truly serious problem and we should be talking about it year-round” moment.
I was working on a semester-long case study on sustainable fashion. It was ironic because most of my studies in fashion merchandising up until that point had been focused heavily on fast fashion, and not because of its flaws, but because of its ingenuity.
My professors spoke about fast fashion and omni-channel retail with a sense of admiration. They were going to change the fashion industry forever. It wasn’t until my final year that there seemed to be a sentiment that perhaps this change wasn’t for the better.
As I began watching documentaries and reading about how my love for an ever-evolving wardrobe could impact the planet, I began to realize that this was just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Our society had an overconsumption problem that encompassed far more than just fashion. I proceeded to do what a lot of people do when they come to this realization—I vowed to change my own habits. I believed that buying sustainable brands and throwing away fewer things was all I needed to do to be part of the sustainability movement.
As I sit here now, six years later, I have a vastly different perspective. I wish I could go tell 20-year-old me everything I know now about how to approach sustainable living. Of course, I can’t though, so I’m going to tell you instead. Hopefully it’ll help jump start your journey to a more planet-friendly lifestyle.
12 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Sustainable Living Journey
1. It’s more about how you shop than where you shop
There’s an eagerness amongst new sustainable living enthusiasts to find out where to shop. However, the real question should be, “how do I shop?”.
Creating more sustainable buying habits will have a much longer lasting impact than having a working knowledge of the most eco-friendly brands. Learning how to buy less, use what you already have, shop intentionally, and shop secondhand are skills I would recommend developing before you worry too much about where you’re buying from.
Ultimately, big box store or fast fashion items that are used frequently and for a long time, are more sustainable than “planet-friendly” items that get used rarely and are eventually forgotten.
2. The most sustainable thing is the thing you already own
Many of the things you need to live more sustainably are already in your home. Think about it—rags, silverware, tote bags, all of these things have disposable alternatives that we frequently turn to. Simply cleaning with rags instead of paper towels or taking silverware on the go to avoid plastic utensils are excellent steps toward a less wasteful lifestyle that don’t involve buying anything new.
Then there’s our closets. Many minimalist wardrobe enthusiasts have an itch to get rid of every fast fashion piece they own. However, to create the least amount of planetary impact, it’s best to keep what you have, even if it’s not made sustainably. Find new ways to style the pieces that are already in your closet. Then intentionally add new pieces as the need arises.
There’s also one device that is probably sitting in your hand right now that can help you live a more planet-friendly lifestyle—your phone. Your can use it to search for local low waste Facebook groups or Buy Nothing Groups, sign petitions, call out greenwashing brands on social media, and follow creators that will provide you with more ways to take climate action.
Related: How To Be Eco-Friendly on a Budget—A Guide to Affordable Green Living
3. There is no right way to approach sustainable living
Everyone has different priorities. My lifestyle as a 20-something dog mom living in a city is vastly different than a 35-year-old human mom living in a quaint suburb or an 18-year-old college student living in a nondescript dorm room.
For me, sustainable living could mean shopping secondhand, taking public transit, but still eating meat. For our suburban mom it could mean packing lunches in reusables, cleaning with plastic-free products, but driving a car everywhere. For the college student it could mean being vegan, attending climate strikes, but buying fast fashion.
Don’t let anyone tell you (and definitely don’t let yourself believe) that your way of living sustainably is wrong. If you’re trying and doing better once you know better, then you’re doing it right.
4. Don’t try to do it all
That brings me to my next point, don’t try to do it all. Buying sustainable clothing, eating plant-based, finding furniture secondhand, being politically active, phasing plastic out of your life—it’s a lot. If you try to do it all you will become overwhelmed and eventually you won’t want to participate in any aspect of sustainable living.
Pick one or two areas you’re passionate about, whether it be fashion, food, home decorating, deciphering Taylor Swift theories, and figure out how to make that category of life more planet-friendly. Once you feel you’ve mastered it, move on to the next, but don’t force yourself to perfect everything all at once.
5. Voting matters
Most of my life I have strayed away from politics and honestly, I still don’t enjoy engaging in conversation about it. My balanced Libra soul does not like the conflict. That said, it can’t be denied that politics plays a huge role in the fight against climate change.
In order to get climate legislation passed, we need leaders in power who are climate champions. The way we put these leaders in power in the U.S. is by voting. So if you’re eligible, get registered, get smart on the candidates and make sure to cast your ballot every Election Day.
6. Sustainable living is a privilege
I was very oblivious to this one at the start of my journey. The truth is, being able to purchase from sustainable brands, having access to healthy, vegan foods, and having the time to research climate solutions are all privileges. Sustainable brands are often expensive and inaccessible for lower income families. Secondhand fashion (and most of the fashion industry in general) does not provide many options for the plus-sized community and food deserts are most prominent in BIPOC and low-income communities.
My point is that it’s important not to judge or shame people who can’t make certain sustainable lifestyle changes. Likewise, if you find that you can’t make some of those changes because they’re inaccessible to you, you shouldn’t feel bad about it.
That said, if you find yourself in a position of privilege, you have a responsibility to use that privilege to create change. I’d encourage you to spend your money with ethical brands, raise up the voices of marginalized communities, and push yourself to make the more sustainable choice even when it may be inconvenient for you.
7. Remain hopeful amidst climate doom
The news surrounding climate change is often very negative. There is a lot of talk about what is wrong, while the talk of solutions tends to be very sparse. While it may sometimes feel like the world is literally crumbling and there is nothing you can do, that’s simply not the truth.
Now, I’m not suggesting you subscribe to toxic positivity when it comes to climate change. Things are not good, we can’t ignore that, but there’s reasons for hope. We have the solutions to climate change. Improvements are being made everyday, we just have to keep pushing for more. However, if you do feel a bout of eco-anxiety coming on, try out these stress-relief tips to restore equilibrium.
8. Everyone has a role to play in the journey to creating a healthier planet
I used to feel like an outsider in the climate community because I lack a formal environmental education. What I’ve learned though is that if you’re not a climate scientist, if you didn’t receive a degree in environmental studies, if you aren’t an expert in climate change, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to help or that what you have to say isn’t valuable. Everyone has a role to play when it comes to protecting our planet.
Think about how you can use your skills or circumstances to create change. Educators, communicators, organizers, content creators, introverts, extroverts, risk takers, homebodies, everyone has a way that they can contribute to the solution. Tapping into those talents and bringing them all together is how we’ll create a harmonious solution.
9. We need individual action *and* systemic change
There is a notion amongst some of the climate community that individual action doesn’t matter. The idea being that large corporations and governments are the ones contributing the most to climate change, therefore they’re the only ones that need to change, not your average, everyday person.
While it’s true that yes, we do need systemic change, you don’t get to that point without the pressure of your average, everyday people. Businesses react to consumer demand. Politicians react to what the people want. If consumers aren’t demanding sustainable practices, we’ll never see change at the top. If we’re not shifting our lifestyles to reflect an appreciation of our planet, if we’re not asking for climate legislation, we’ll never see it.
Related: Small Sustainable Steps Matter—Here’s Why You Should be an Imperfect Environmentalist
10. The climate crisis has a disproportionately negative effect on marginalized people
Climate change is an intersectional issue. The Global South and BIPOC communities feel the effects of climate change far more than the developed world. Women, feel the effects of climate change more than men. The elderly and the disabled are disproportionately affected too and yet, these groups have a much smaller seat at the table when it comes to climate solutions.
Solving climate change means listening to Black and Brown voices. It means fighting for racial justice and gender equality. For example, when women are in positions of power regarding climate solutions, we’re more likely to see climate legislation get passed. Shifting power away from the privileged and wealthy to the marginalized groups of people who are dealing with the impacts of environmental changes day in and day out, is a critical piece of the puzzle that is the climate crisis.
11. Recyclable packaging and carbon offsets don’t make a brand sustainable
There is a big difference between a brand that is not perfect, but is transparent about its shortcomings and a brand that is using their sustainability efforts to get you to buy more from them.
At the beginning of my journey I was very susceptible to greenwashing. I truly believed that any brand using recycled materials or creating “conscious collections” (*cough cough* H&M) was doing good things for our planet. It wasn’t until several years into my sustainable living journey that I realized how much more there is to it.
I’m not going to dive into the nuances of greenwashing here (if you want to read about it check out this post), but the overarching theme is that if overconsumption is at the core of a company’s business model the business is inherently not sustainable. Yes, even if it advertises a slew of “green initiatives” on its website.
12. Sustainable living is a journey that shouldn’t be rushed
Finally, we’ve made it to point 12, and that is creating a more sustainable lifestyle takes time. You cannot learn everything overnight. I hope what I’ve had to say has perhaps accelerated your knowledge, but there is always more to take in. Don’t let the anxiety of feeling ill-equipped or like you’re not doing enough stop you from trying.
Experiment with plant-based eating, composting, thrifting, activism and all the other components of low waste living at your own pace. Taking small steps will enable you to create long-term habits. On the other hand, attempting to change everything in one day or one month will cause you stress, making it more likely that you won’t want to participate in the sustainability movement at all. And like I said before, everyone has a talent to contribute to solving the climate crisis, so don’t let anxiety or doomism keep you from sharing yours.
If you enjoyed reading about what I wish I knew earlier in my eco-journey and are craving more sustainable living tips, then sign up for The Eco Edit! You’ll be joining hundreds of other pro-planet enthusiasts who are passionate about bettering the world through small, sustainable steps