What do we mean by sustainable living?
Sustainable living means living in a way that does not impede the ability of future generations to live. The UN refers to the need for three core elements to be in harmony: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. In short, we have a finite amount of natural resources, and we need to use them wisely.
It doesn’t mean we can’t ever buy new things; for starters, food, water, energy to heat our homes are essential. It does mean you have choices about the stuff you are buying and can become a more conscious consumer.
How do I start
It’s easy to get in a tail-spin when you suddenly realise plastic lurks in every corner of your house; when every cleaning product or personal care product seems to contain a zillion hazardous chemicals; or when you clock how full your refuse bin is every week. So, don’t try to do it all at once; start from where you are and break it down. Jen Gale spoke about this on the podcast, and referred to chunking, breaking one area down into chunks repeatedly until you get to a doable chunk and start from there.
For me, I try to take a closer look at a product when I am about to run out of it and need to replace it (unless it coincides with loads of other stuff). When looking at the options available, perhaps consider these questions:
- What is this product made of? It is a material that can be reused, recycled or composted? Are any of the materials/ingredients potential pollutants or harmful to animal/plant life?
- Where is it made/produced? If it’s on another continent, how is it transported (flying is the least optimal in terms of carbon footprint)?
- How is it made? Is it made ethically, where people are paid sufficiently and work in respectful conditions? Ethical Consumer is a helpful resource for this.
- Once I am finished with it, where will it go?
Beware, quite often, there can be opposing forces; for example, you find a deodorant free of less favourable chemicals, but it’s packaged in plastic. Or, you purchase toothpaste tabs, only to find they arrive in supposedly compostable plastic (but only in composters with high temperatures). Maybe, you thought your carrier bag mountain wasn’t too bad, being paper bags, only to discover a paper bag contributes three times as much carbon dioxide as a plastic bag (don’t panic, keep them in use, whatever they are made of!).
Jen makes a good point regarding waste, in stating there is “no away”. I found once I started to picture landfill as the endpoint of unwanted items I was happily throwing away in my general refuse bin, it did focus my mind a bit. I don’t fixate on it; it could drive you slightly mad, but I am more mindful. What can I do to avoid putting stuff in the bin? Can I find an alternative route for no longer needed/wanted stuff? Friends, family, Freecycle or Freegle – the latter being online places to find new homes for your things in your local area. Can it be recycled in some way? The number of products with the ability to be recycled is increasing; there are even legal places online that you can sell your used knickers on – blimey, who knew?! Perhaps you can upcycle, especially if you are the crafty type (I am not!)? Then you can also ask yourself, do I need something new in the first place?
In essence, it’s about moving in a more sustainable direction, making incremental steps as and when it suits you. Trying to make changes on everything you purchase in one go would blow your mind, so take one item at a time. Go for the low hanging fruit, as they say, where it seems that you can make a swap easily. For example, switch your energy provider to one with a renewable energy supply (this is super easy to do nowadays online) or buying frozen berries when they are out of season, rather than fresh ones flown in. Also, don’t get uptight about the perhaps less sustainable items you already own or use. Going out and replacing everything will hike your carbon footprint up, defeating the object. So, if you have a perfectly good plastic washing basket, you don’t need to go out and get a beautiful seagrass one to replace it. Keep things in service, whatever they are made of, for as long as you can.
Before you know it, you will become tuned in to the choices and power you have rather than buying what you’ve always purchased from the usual shop you go to. Some purchases will take you down alleys you hadn’t expected. I, for example, previously drank decaffeinated tea, using tea bags, and for quite some time had been smugly placing my used tea bags in our home compost. I had no idea that there could be plastic in tea bags. When I started to look into alternatives, I discovered the processes used in decaffeination, and somehow the use of organic solvents methylene chloride and ethyl acetate, or carbon dioxide (heated under pressure) put me off, so I’ve ended up now purchasing caffeinated tea leaves. I have to say I do rather love the process of making tea with a pot – simple pleasures.
Many resources are available online to help you achieve sustainable living. For instance, Jen Gale’s book, The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, is jam-packed with helpful ideas. We have power and can use our money to reflect our values!