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I used to think sustainable living meant I had to change the way I live. But the more I tried to change my behavior, the more I realized that habits are hard to change. This simple sustainable living guide will show you what to do so your actions have a big impact on the environment. Not your pocketbook and lifestyle.
First things first:
- You don’t need to move to a hippie commune – unless you want to. If you do, let me know how it is, I’m always up for new ideas!
- Environmental issues are not your fault – Industrial pollution and ineffective policies are to blame for climate change and environmental issues. Not you or your great-grandpa Bob.
- Stay true to yourself – You don’t have to change who you are or how you live to live sustainably. Changing who you are for anyone or any cause is highly unsustainable. Been there. Done that. It doesn't work.
- Live and let live – It’s not our responsibility to change how other people think, act or live. Peace man. Seriously.
- Go big – Influence large scale change by supporting policies and companies that make a big impact. Think systemic change. Not individual change.
Sustainable living basics
Now you know it's not your fault, and moving to the forest won't solve these problems. What can you do to live sustainably and still thrive in a society that seems obsessed with stuff, travel and all things fossil fuels? Here's what to focus on for a big impact with minimal effort:
- Sustainable policies – Support simple yet powerful policy changes that help our economy, society, and planet thrive.
- Sustainability-minded companies – Buy from companies changing the old way of take, make, waste.
- Individual sustainable living – Consider a 1% improvement mindset for living sustainably. I do have sustainable living tips, but take only what works for you. Leave the rest.
I cover a whole lot in this sustainable living guide. If you prefer bite-sized nuggets of information and the latest on sustainable living and circular economy products, sign up for the newsletter. When you do, you'll also receive my free Simple Guide to Sustainable Living for Busy Families which covers sustainability for homeowners and parents in particular.
Why is living sustainably important?
Before we go further, it's important to understand why sustainable living is so important. This geological period of time is called the Anthropocene. This means we are living in a period of time dominated by the human species. We've increased the human population by about six billion people in the last 100 years. Now that's a major impact!
Our dependence on fossil fuels is having an unprecedented impact on our planet through climate change. Our consumption habits have created environmental damage on a scale never before seen in history. So living sustainably is one of the most important things we can do. But our society is not set up for sustainable living. In this guide, I'll explain how to impact positive change starting with policy changes. Then I'll move on to simple sustainable living tips you can easily phase into your life.
Put a price on carbon
A group of 45 economists including fed chairmen (including former Federal Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, Janet Yellen, and Paul Volcker) called for a price on carbon emissions as the best solution to slow climate change in 2019. And economist William D. Nordhaus won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in economic modeling and climate change.
“The economics of climate change is straightforward. Virtually everything we do involves, directly or indirectly, the combustion of fossil fuels, which results in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere,” Nordhaus explains in The Climate Casino. “The problem is that those who produce the emissions do not pay for that privilege, and those who are harmed are not compensated.”
That's why my number one sustainable living tip is to tax negative externalities like carbon emissions. I know we can't do this without politicians, but politicians do listen to their constituents. So let your representative know that you are for a carbon tax. Ideally, all countries would put the same price on carbon.
UN Sustainable Development Global Goals
The Global Goals is an international plan to reduce inequality, poverty and tackle climate change that most countries, including the United States, has signed on to. There are 17 sustainable development goals in the plan. Each goal is separate, but all are interconnected, because you can't end climate change without ending poverty and giving all children an equal right to education.
The Global Goals are the world's most comprehensive sustainable living plan. A few of the goals most related to sustainable living in the United States are affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and production, and climate action.
Right to repair
Other policies such as the European Union Right to repair act that passed in March 2020 require companies to take large appliances back for repair beyond the warranty. This policy is aimed to help consumers keep appliances for longer, in effect keeping them out of landfills. It also encourages manufacturers to design products to last longer, rather than for planned obsolescence.
I know you came here for a sustainable living tips, and not politics or business news. I promise I'll get to the things you can do as an individual a little further down, but I just need to go through the business part first.
As mentioned earlier, industrial polluters are to blame for most environmental issues, not individuals. Unless you were the CEO of an oil company and knew without a doubt that you needed to transition away from being an oil company and into being an energy company and lobbied the heck out of politicians instead of investing in R&D for clean energy. If you're that guy, it's your fault. But not all business leaders are bad.
In fact, Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World was the theme at this year's World Economic Forum. Even the CEOs of public companies are starting to recognize that they can't just take, make and waste the planet's natural resources.
This brings me to the circular economy.
Today's economy is built on taking from nature, making products, and then wasting it in a landfill. A circular economy keeps products and materials inside an infinite loop of repair, remanufacturing, re-selling, recycling and regeneration.
“A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.”– Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Read: What is a circular economy?
Circular economy basics
Ellen MacArthur – Ellen MacArthur is considered the leader of the circular economy and her foundation’s mission is to accelerate the circular economy.
Cradle to Cradle – Waste should be used as food for something new. This was a new concept when Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough wrote Cradle to Cradle in 2002.
Natural Capitalism – Natural Capitalism was written by Paul Hawkin, Amory, and L. Hunter Lovins in 1999, but the principles still hold true. The book calls for a new industrial revolution that does not harm the environment. It outlines how businesses can create jobs, grow the economy and still protect the environment. It explains how innovative businesses can thrive while still protecting the planet and creating products people want.
Repairing things that are broken, rather than replacing things with something new, is a simple yet powerful way of living sustainably. I know it seems hard sometimes. Sometimes it seems easier, and even cheaper, to replace a sweater with a hole or a pair of shoes the dog chewed the laces off. Believe me, I’ve been there. But I’ve also discovered an entire treasure trove of repair tips and secrets on Pinterest and YouTube from DIYers. There are people much craftier than me all over the world who are excited to show me how to sew my own face mask from upcycled materials (it’s kind of fun!) or fix a rip in my nylon jacket (it’s so simple) with a few things I can buy on Amazon.
Selling used clothes and things used to be for people who were excited for yard sales (I am not) or thrift stores (I get a little rush inside a Buffalo Exchange.) But the internet has opened up a whole new world of resale. My friends at SellHound make it super easy to find the best places online to sell almost anything using their Fetch Engine.
I don’t mean return it before you wear it. I mean return it after you’ve worn it. Sustainability-minded brands like Patagonia ask customers to return the stuff they don’t want in exchange for coupons and store credit. Then, those products are refurbished and re-sold again through their Worn Wear section of their website. On Worn Wear, you can buy used Patagonia clothing and gear.
Look for refurbished and upcycled
Refurbished and upcycled products used to be seen as inferior to things made from new materials. But in a circular economy, refurbished and upcycled products are just one more way to retain value in materials that would otherwise be wasted. You might be surprised at how many products could be made from textiles and materials that would have ended up in a landfill.
Circular economy products
Circular economy products are designed to reduce waste. You've probably heard the term zero-waste. Circular products are designed to reduce waste, such as plastic and transportation.
One of my favorite examples of circular economy products is the multi-purpose cleaning pouch from Grove Collaborative. Pour the cleaning concentrate into a glass spray bottle and add water from the tap. These 1 oz pouches use a lot less plastic than traditional cleaning products, which reduces plastic waste and transportation of products that are mostly just water. Plus, they get your kitchen counters just as clean as the toxic stuff from the grocery store.
Regenerative Organic Certified products
I'll explain regenerative agriculture more below, but for now, just remember to look for the ROC label. Regenerative Organic certified products are the future of organic. The label, a collaboration between the Rodale Institute and sustainable brands like Patagonia and Dr. Bronner's, still only has a few products. But I bet you'll be seeing this label more soon.
Sustainable living at home
Finally! The sustainable living tips you've been waiting for. Thanks for your patience. They range from super easy (like changing your air filters) to major investments (like going solar.) Do what works for your family and your budget. And remember, you don't have to do everything at once. Start slow and pace yourself.
Change your air filters
This sustainable living tip is so simple, and so often missed. Changing your air filters every quarter is inexpensive, and it helps keep your energy bill down. The easier it is for your HVAC system to pump air, the more efficient it is. Old, clogged air filters make it hard to push air through.
Get a smart thermostat
This one is not as inexpensive as changing your air filters. However, Drawdown.org says upgrading to a smart thermostat can help save energy when programmed to turn off when you’re not home. If the future of the energy grid ends up being increasingly powered by renewable energy, smart thermostats may also help utilities and customers control when the most efficient times to run your appliances is. When we all turn on the TV, run the laundry and dishwasher at the same time, it puts a big load on the grid all at once. Smart thermostats could help even that out, but we’re not there just yet.
When you upgrade appliances such as your stove or cooktop, consider going electric. Why go electric? Because as the grid gets greener and powered by renewable energy, carbon-neutral cities are encouraging homeowners to phase out electric appliances.
If you live in an area where a home solar system makes sense, get multiple quotes from EnergySage to find the best price. But if you’re feeling hesitant to make a long term commitment to a giant appliance on your roof, call your utility company to ask where most of their energy comes from.
Some utilities are getting a good chunk of their energy from renewable sources, which means you might already be powering your home from renewable power. Alternatively, some areas have local community solar projects that are more efficient than a roof solar system. If that’s the case, you can use the budget meant for a solar roof for an electric car instead, or maybe a fancy induction stove? When researching home solar, it pays to do a bit of homework on what’s already being offered in your community.
Dispose of old appliances properly
“Substantial emissions reductions could be achieved through the adoption of practices to (1) avoid leaks from refrigerants and (2) destroy refrigerants at end of life, both after the adoption of alternatives to HFC refrigerants.”– Environmental Protection Agency
You may have read that HFC refrigerants in our air conditioners and refrigerators and freezers are major contributors to climate change. You probably can’t live without your refrigerator, and life without AC California becomes pretty miserable in the summer. So what’s a sustainability-minded family to do? Keep an eye open for more sustainable alternatives. I'll post an update here as more become available.
In the meantime, make sure you dispose of old air conditioning units and refrigerators properly by finding a Responsible Appliance Disposal Partner near you.
If you have a yard, you have a lot of opportunities to make a positive and sustainable impact on your local environment.
Plant native plants
Biodiversity sounds like something that only exists in the Amazon. It’s hard to imagine biodiversity in our own front yard. But a surprisingly simple thing you can do to live more sustainably is to plant native plants. Especially native plants that support local pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Plant drought-resistant plants
If you live in a drought-prone area like California or the Pacific Southwest, plant drought-resistant plants, even if they’re not native. Native plants are the best choice, but most nurseries have a limited selection. If you can’t find native plants, there are plenty of drought-resistant alternatives that are easy to find. A few of my personal favorites include lavender, rosemary, and Mexican sage.
Grow a vegetable garden
Gardening is not for everyone. Honestly, the idea of growing a vegetable garden before my youngest turned five years old felt like an exercise in frustration. When my children were little I was too tired to even keep houseplants alive. But now, my kids are older and we finally have the beginning of a fairly respectable vegetable garden. Even if you don't grow enough food to feed your family, it's a symbolic act in sustainable living.
Ah, sustainable food. Food is emotional! We eat what tastes good and feeds our souls and fills our bellies. We absolutely need to improve the way food is grown in America so less is wasted and transported for miles. If you want to influence the food system, here are a few things you can do:
You’ve heard this for years! Support your local farmers. Why? Because most food travels thousands of miles before it reaches your local grocery store. So buying locally produced food is one of the most sustainable things you can do. But what if your closest local farm is hundreds of miles away? Or if you love coffee, as I do, and it’s grown in a different country. Don’t stress.
This is where innovative companies have to come in to fill in the gaps. And sustainable policies can help these companies thrive. The future of local food may come from verticle farms or city rooftop farms. They’re already popping up in Europe and will hopefully begin to emerge in the United State as well. In the meantime, look for progress not perfection.
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Eat less meat
Here’s another sustainable living tip I know you’ve heard before. Eat less meat and animal products like cheese. Why? Because it takes 80% more land to grow the food that’s fed to factory-farmed livestock than to simply eat that food ourselves. But there’s another reason to cut down on meat. Most people in the United States eat twice their daily requirements of protein per day.
“The recommended intake for a healthy adult is 46 grams of protein a day for women and 56 grams for men,” according to “How Much Protein Do We Need?” By the New York Times. “Most American adults eat about 100 grams of protein per day, or roughly twice the recommended amount.”
Eat a Mediterranean diet
So there’s a good argument for eating less meat. But that doesn’t mean we all need to go vegan. Going from one extreme to the next isn’t exactly a sustainable way to live. So how should a sustainability-minded citizen eat? I'm not a nutritionist. I'm also a live and let live kind of a girl. So eat as you wish. But if you're looking for the most sustainable diet that's also been widely studied for it's health benefits, the Mediterranean diet would be it.
The Mediterranean diet is based on eating mostly fruits, veggies, nuts, grains, and beans. Eat fish a few times per week. Limit sugar and processed foods. Eat red meat and dairy in moderation. It's fairly simple and easy to stick to.
The importance of livestock
Meat and dairy are good sources of protein for people all over the world. Especially for kids that are already picky eaters, and people in developing countries without access to the culinary overload of choices we face in the United States and Europe. I know I'm going against party-lines by saying this. But if you take a look at the UN Global Sustainability Goals mentioned under sustainable policies, ending hunger is a top Global Goal. And livestock is an important source of income and nutrition for billions of people around the world.
“Livestock products not only provide high-value protein but are also important sources of a wide range of essential micronutrients, in particular minerals such as iron and zinc, and vitamins such as vitamin A,’ according to “Availability and changes in consumption of animal products,” by the World Health Organization. “For the large majority of people in the world, particularly in developing countries, livestock products remain a desired food for nutritional value and taste.”
This brings me to regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is all about healthy soil. You want healthy food? You need healthy soil. The added benefit to the planet is that healthy soil sequesters carbon. Which helps slow climate change. It also includes livestock as part of the system that helps make that soil healthy. I've covered this in much more detail in The future of organic looks like Regenerative Organic Certified products if you're interested in learning more about regenerative agriculture.
Ah transportation! This is a tricky one. If you live in the suburbs, as I do, you're pretty dependent on your car. But there are ways to reduce your environmental impact. This topic is so big and hairy I won't go into all the details. But for now, these are my simple sustainable transportation tips.
Telecommute when you can
As I write this, I'm in home quarantine due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I've worked from home for the last decade, so although it's different having my kids and husband home 24/7, interacting with people online is nothing new to me. I've always been a fan of video chats and I've attended several online conferences. Which might sound weird, until you've tried it. Once you get used to it, it feels like a pretty obvious way for people to connect without being in the same room.
Obviously not everything can be done online. Many jobs depend on human interaction. But I also see a surprising amount of time and pollution spent on commuting to meetings that most likely could be done virtually. This is a direct dig on my sweet and generally sustainability-minded husband who simply loves to drive. Which leads me to electric cars.
As mentioned in the section on sustainable living at home, cities are encouraging homeowners to phase out natural gas and go electric. The same goes for cars. Electric cars are the future, even though they're a small chunk of car sales today. So when it's time for a new car, consider going electric. Otherwise, consider walking more.
Walk and bike when possible
This brings me to the final sustainable living tip. Walk and bike when possible. I know it's the oldest sustainable living tip in the book, and I won't bore you with the details. You've heard it all before. Drive less. Walk more. Yes, it's true. Sometimes it's also hard to do, especially when you're carting around two kids and ten bags of groceries. Do your best and leave the rest.
The benefits of sustainable living
As you can see, the benefits of sustainable living are unique for every person. If you have kids, as I do, the benefit of sustainable living is knowing that I did what I could to leave the world a little better for them.
As you know by now, sustainable living is not just about individual actions. It’s about individual actions influencing all of society, with the goal of lasting systemic change that’s better for all people, the planet, and all the critters on it. So if there's one thing you can do to live more sustainably, it's to vote for a tax on carbon when you see it on the ballot. It's simple and sustainable. It will make a big impact.