A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainability

Introduction

Over the past year, my interest in sustainability, minimalism, the environment, etc. has grown more and more intense. Today, I will share with you some of my thoughts as well as ideas on how to start living a more conscious lifestyle! I will try to link as many resources to people who have inspired me to become more sustainable.

If you asked me to close my eyes and think of what a sustainable person looked like, I would think of a white woman in her mid 20’s with wavy brown hair, who carries around a reusable water bottle, makes her own shampoo from rolled oats, and eats vegan. The fact that this is the image of sustainability plastered across media is a problem. BIPOC cultures have been practicing sustainable habits for most of history, yet they are the ones who are being most affected by environmental changes.

I want to encourage people to change this narrative. Sustainability should not be something that is not associated with a high cost of living. It needs to be something that is accessible to all peoples. I would like to see sustainable brands that consider people of all different types of racial minorities, economic statuses, disabilities, people with families, and also men!

A Short Disclaimer

As a disclaimer, I would like to state that I too am only starting my journey. I am imperfect, I use a lot of products that are not reusable, eat meat, etc. It is completely OK to not be 100% sustainable, honestly it is probably overly ambitious to set that as a goal. Sustainability, minimalism, essentialism are mindsets rather than aesthetics. They are not fads, nor trends, these are lifelong challenges that we need to constantly be acting upon.

In this article, I am going to focus less on the exact swaps you can make to become more sustainable, and more on the mindset you should have to start this journey. I want to erase the myth that being sustainable is expensive and that it means you need to buy 100 mason jars, shop in bulk and buy expensive clothing from Reformation. To start, here are the three goals I’ve held onto for the past year that have really motivated and pushed me to make better decisions on a day to day basis.

3 Simple Goals

  1. Buy less stuff.
  2. Take care of your stuff.
  3. Educate yourself.

If you notice, none of these goals are very specific, but they can be applied to all different parts of life.

1. Buy less stuff

My number one tip to saving more money and being more sustainable is to just buy less stuff. The logic is pretty straightforward, the less stuff you buy, the less trash you create, and the more money you save. Personally, I think that this is something everyone should be doing. In a traditional sense, it does not fit the “aesthetics” of being a sustainable person with a bamboo toothbrush, reusable cutlery and a compost bin, but the impact you make by buying fewer things every year is so incredibly large.

For some people, buying less stuff is easy. However, the transition can actually be very difficult for many. Some of us may love buying lots of clothes, others electronics, others home decor. I’ve found that asking yourself a set of questions before you buy something is really important.

Why am I buying this? Do I really need it, or do I just want it? Did I buy this because an influencer told me it works? Do I already have something that is kind of like it? How long is it going to last me?

As someone who enjoys buying clothes, and has shopped at fast fashion stores for many years, I will explain in a little more detail about how I’ve reduced my shopping habits, and ways to become a more conscious consumer. Although my examples are more specific to fashion, these ideas can be translated to all different categories of spending.

2. Take care of your stuff

Level 1: This is probably a controversial statement, but I think that if you are starting off, buying from fast fashion stores may still be OK— but only if you commit to using that piece of clothing for a really long time. Fast fashion practices are extremely unethical, but in terms of sustainability, the major issue lies in the fact that we throw away these items in a year or so. If you can honestly commit to holding onto that item for 4–5 years, and wearing it regularly, that’s a really great start. If you take care of your stuff, you don’t have to replace it as often, leading to less waste, and more money saved!

Level 2: Obviously, fast fashion is not the best, so I think a level up from this would be to buy secondhand. Since a lot of thrift shops are probably closed right now, online resale stores like Poshmark, thredUp, Depop have great clothing options. A lot of YouTubers I watch have their own accounts where they resell the clothes they get. These websites are generally pretty affordable. Utilize your friends! Encourage hand-me-downs, clothing swaps, etc. I will talk a little bit later about how we need to change the culture of buying reused things, but I think there are plenty of opportunities to get creative here.

Level 3: If and when you do have the money to splurge on sustainable, ethical brands, you should definitely do that! Companies like Everlane, Girlfriend Collective and Reformation advertise the production of their clothing, and are pretty transparent with all their processes. Yes, these items are really expensive, and ultimately, I would probably suggest Level 2 over Level 3.

Level 4: I’m still figuring this level out, but learning how to fix your existing clothing, or even making your own clothing is probably the most sustainable thing ever. For example, if your shoe gets a hole in the sole, take it to a cobbler instead of throwing it out and buying a new pair. Invest in a sewing machine, watch some videos, and get fixing!

3. Educate Yourself

It seems like there are new online brands popping up every other day. As consumers, we need to be aware of what we are buying. For example, wholesale clothing companies like Shein, Romwe, Zaful, etc. are notorious for producing extremely cheap clothing and upholding inhumane labor standards. Raising awareness about these brands should be on everyone’s radar. I would recommend Hasan Minhaj’s Fast Fashion video as a great starting point for learning more about the companies that contribute to this environmental disaster.

The Impact of Consumerism

We need to also consider educating ourselves on consumerism and how it impacts every aspect of our lives. Over the past 50 years, companies have utilized the media and advertising to make us feel like we are not good enough. It has made us continually think that if we buy something new, it will make our lives better, when in reality, the thing that you are buying is probably mediocre. For years, the idea that having a bigger house, more clothes, more material things equates to more happiness has been drilled into our brains. None of these statements are true, they are simply marketing ploys created to get us to spend more money.

When I first started off, the main argument I had in my head was: “I like buying clothes, skincare products, etc. because it helps me express myself”. It’s true, clothing is an art form, we use it to represent who we are. However, you can express yourself and be sustainable! Sustainability and minimalism does not mean that you can’t buy anything, it just means that when you do buy something, you are buying something that you will commit to taking care of.

A lot of these industries have created “trends” to make it feel as though the only way to express ourselves is to buy into the trends and use them as our “style”. In my opinion, style is a lot more about how you carry yourself, and how you take care of your body and mental health. The clothes, skincare, makeup, etc. should just enhance your natural self!

Another argument I had with myself was: “I wore that dress to a party once, I can’t wear it again, people will notice!”. I can’t really tell you how to get over this particular argument, but I am pretty confident when I say that no one will notice that you wore something twice. “But then on Instagram when I post a picture of my outfit, people are going to recognize that I’m wearing the same dress!”. Again, most likely, people will not notice. I’m not saying you should wear the same dress to three parties in a row, but becoming more comfortable wearing outfits multiple times is really essential in the journey of becoming more sustainable. This idea that we are not allowed to re-wear outfits has been created by Instagram influencers and celebrities whose job it is to market these pieces of clothing and these companies. This idea has somehow leaked into our everyday lives and is simply not sustainable.

I have written a full article on consumerism, so I will not elaborate too much. I think we should research the products we buy and consider what value they bring to our lives.

OK, I’ve read everything, but I don’t really know where to start.

1. Make a budget!

An example of a budget

With the three goals in mind, I think the first step is to really understand what waste you are producing, and what you are buying. Something I’ve been doing recently is writing down all of the products I interact with that are not recyclable or reusable. When I started my journey, I found that making a “budget” of sorts was very helpful. Essentially, I wrote down every item I spent my money on, how much it cost, and what category it was in. There are several apps that will do this for you from your credit card purchases, but I have found that manually entering each item made me painfully aware of how I spend my money. This is less of a “budget” and more of a way to track my expenditures.

2. Make some swaps!

Cute info graphic of some common swaps you can start incorporating

Once you are aware of how you are spending your money, it is a lot easier to figure out how you might want to make swaps.

For example, if you find yourself always using cotton balls and makeup wipes to remove your makeup every day, this could be a good place to invest in a reusable wash cloth. There are so many easy swaps to make like this. Also, be aware that Greenwashing exists, and that some of these swaps are actually just another effort made by companies to get you to buy more stuff. Here is a link to a great video about dangerous “zero-waste” swaps that companies claim to be beneficial.

3. Be aware of marketing!

Another type of awareness that is important is realizing what content you may be consuming. Like I said before, we are constantly being sold something. From Instagram ads to YouTube influencers to email subscription lists, advertising is omnipresent. The more aware you become of subtle marketing ploys, the less keen you will be to buy things. Over the past few months, I’ve realized how subtle and effective marketing has become, and it is dangerous!

4. Surround yourself with good influences!

Actionable items to become less influenced by marketing could be simply unsubscribing from mailing lists, or changing up your influencer network. Additionally, try to get your friends onboard. “You are an average of the five people you spend the most time with”. If this is true, you are probably more likely to have better sustainability habits if your friends have the same mindsets. Having a support system for lifestyle changes is so important! It’ll keep you really motivated.

Here are a couple of YouTubers I enjoy watching who promote imperfect sustainability rather than the complete zero-waste movement. From what I’ve gathered, there are a lot of men who create minimalism content, and a lot of women who produce sustainability related content. This is yet another thing I would like to see changed. I’ve tried to list some more diverse voices, but just a personal observation I’ve made!

Abetweene — Makes really awesome DIY videos as well as What I Eat in Week videos. She’s also completely vegan!

Elena Taber — Another awesome YouTuber who promotes sustainability and still has a great sense of style.

Wear I Live — Jenny makes awesome content about being vegan, sustainable brands, and healthy living.

Sarah Therese — She practices minimalism and is a mom which is super cool.

Matt D’Avella — Probably the most popular YouTuber who talks about minimalism. He also has a great documentary on minimalism on Netflix!

Ronald Banks — I just started watching his minimalism content recently, but he makes some really great videos and they are all short and direct.

5. Don’t get rid of everything

When I realized that I wanted to become more sustainable, I initially thought that I needed to get rid of everything that was “evil” in my vicinity. De-cluttering can be productive, but if there is a product that you are currently using that you like, but is not sustainable, keep using it! For example, I currently have a plastic deodorant stick that I use. It is not sustainable, but when I do eventually run out of it, I am going to buy something reusable. Throwing that plastic stick away is actually completely against the sustainability mindset because you are throwing away something that already exists and thus creating more waste!

If you are thinking about getting rid of clothing or other items you own, consider selling them online or giving them to friends who might get use out of them! Donating clothes can sometimes be beneficial, but a lot of donated clothes end up in the landfill.

Everyone’s sustainability journey looks different

One of the YouTubers I watch emphasizes the point that you need to figure out how to incorporate sustainability into your own lifestyle. If you can’t consistently incorporate a sustainable change into your life, the chances that you will continue doing this change are low. Everyone has a different lifestyle, so your method of sustainable living might look very different from someone else’s.

The goal is not to be perfect, it is to be imperfect, but continuously growing! In the beginning, I felt like the changes I was making did not have an impact, but I’ve realized that the more people that change their mindset towards consumption, the more progress we will make to keep humanity alive.

I’ve noticed for myself that reading about sustainability, minimalism, etc. has made me become more mindful about how humans have treated the Earth, and the impacts of our advancements. It has made me so aware that all humans do live on this one planet Earth, and we need to focus on working together to really change anything.

Let’s be encouraging!

I’ve said this all throughout this article, but I think that sustainability, environmentalism, minimalism, any type of activism for that matter should be an encouraging and inclusive space. No matter where you are in your journey, you should always be encouraging of others who want to learn. I feel like all across social media I see a culture of shaming people for not doing things perfectly, but that should not be the point. I have made mistakes in my sustainability journey, and everyone will make mistakes too, it is normal! I’d like to end with my favorite quote about sustainability that continues to motivate me.

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” — Anne Marie Bonneau @ Zero Waste Chef

Thanks for reading! If you have any tips, articles or other resources that may be relevant, feel free to comment them down below. Good luck!

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