A few years ago I roamed the supermarket for something to eat. I was hungry. Back then, I was fully vegan and environmentally conscious. As I scoured the store for what to buy I must have picked up and put back a hundred products. This one had honey, and the vegan community told me I wasn't allowed to eat that. This one had palm oil, which I knew was a big environmental issue due to monoculture. Can't buy seafood, obviously, because of all the slavery issues. After almost an hour, I left the store with one lettuce. One lettuce. On which I chewed while I walked home, pondering what was wrong with me. And then I remembered that lettuce was a huge driver for water issues in agriculture and I just broke down from all the guilt.
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I struggled with eco-anxiety. So caught up in the dangers of climate change, animal and human welfare, that I was unable to make choices. Now, years later, this isn't a problem for me anymore. I've learned to 1) be imperfect, 2) choose my mental health over the planet's health, 3) take small steps towards a sustainable lifestyle instead of making big lifestyle changes.
If you feel overwhelmed or you struggle with how to move towards a sustainable lifestyle, here are some of the small steps you can take, divided over the home, food, buying, beauty & care.
But first, some general tips about changing your lifestyle:
- Baby steps: instead of implementing everything at once, choose one change, implement it over a month or so, before you move to the next.
- Connect habits: if you want to start flossing, you add flossing to brushing your teeth. It's easier to add one habit to an existing one, than it is to start one out of the blue. So when you go to the groceries, add bringing your own bag to the habits of making a grocery list, grabbing your keys, and locking your door - all things you are likely used to doing.
- Practice self-compassion and kindness: forgive yourself for imperfections and enjoy your life. Your lifestyle has a tiny impact on the climate, so choose what sacrifices are worth it. Big meat fan? Don't go fully vegan, but instead implement meat-free days throughout the week. Then when you buy meat, buy organic, local and with a certificate for quality of life. Fully enjoy it and be proud of yourself - as you should be!
Purge the preach: when you are making improvements, you don't need to shove it in other people's faces. Not everyone is ready, or willing. The community can be rough about what you should and shouldn't do, but all that negativity and judgment doesn't make anyone's life better - or greener. Preaching your lifestyle just makes you look like an insufferable know-it-all.
- Less is more: a lot of companies try to sell you things that are sustainable or that you NEED for a sustainable lifestyle. You don't NEED a lot to be sustainable. Buy less, use less. A sustainable lifestyle should be cheap, not expensive.
Small Steps for Sustainability Checklist
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1. Your home
- Turn off lights and appliances - unplug them, even!
- Turn the heating down to 18-19 degrees celsius.
- Install smart thermostat radiator valves (STRVs) to control the temperature per room.
- If you have a smart thermostat app, create an 'away', 'night' and 'day' program.
- Buy second-hand furniture.
- Restore old furniture rather than throwing them out.
- Rent - instead of buying - appliances and tools.
- In summer, close doors and windows. Put screens down if you have them. Use ventilators instead of air conditioning.
- Use simple green soap.
- Use soap nuts instead of washing tablets.
- Use plastic-free toilet paper, like The Good Roll. One roll lasts a long time!
- Set the washing machine and dishwasher to eco mode.
- Remove garden tiles and replace with soil and plants: you'll help the bees, mitigate heat and regulate rainwater.
- Speaking of water: get a rainwater collector for watering your new garden!
- Buy loose tea leaves rather than packaged tea. Why does each bag need individual packaging? And why extra plastic around the paper container? Ugh!
- Nespresso? Get compostable or eco coffee cups.
- Plan to eat two meat-free days per week more than you already do.
- You can plan the same for dairy.
- Buy local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. In the Netherlands, where we live, loads of lettuce and avocado is imported. Healthy? Yes. Sustainable? No. These products are shipped all across the world, and often again for packaging. Instead, find out what is produced locally. In our case, loads of apples, cabbages and delicious strawberries.
- Decrease food waste: leftover fruits can be made into jam, vegetables can be fermented or pickled, old bread into croutons, and scraps into vegetable broth.
- Start gardening! Even on your balcony or small back garden you can grow delicious herbs, strawberries and more. You'll save money, help the bees, increase biodiversity and gain some self-reliance. Find easy to grow plants here, and a guide to planning your garden here.
- Buy less. To keep from impulse buying, always wonder whether you need or want something. Set yourself a maximum for want-items. If I make a big purchase, I let the thought simmer for about a month. Then, I reconsider. If I still want it badly, it's a buy!
- Buy second hand.
- BYOB: bring your own bag.
- Scoop and pot! Bring glass jars for coffee beans, rice and other scoopables.
- Buy fashion to last. Instead of buying cheap and loads of items, shop more durable items that you can easily fix.
- Check brands. Some brands are more sustainable than others. Patagonia brand focuses on durable items and repairs rather than replacements.
- High life impact: I rather buy one high-impact product than ten small-impact products. Instead of getting a bunch of flowers I got these lego flowers to brighten up the room, for example.
4. Beauty & Care
- Ladies: get a safety razor! They last forever and are much more sustainable. Worried it'll be a bloodbath? I was too, and I couldn't have been more wrong. It works the exact same way as disposable razors (it just takes a bit longer because you lather up).
- Decrease your products. You don't need a lot of skincare. Most essential is sun protection. Near everything else is just marketeers selling you expensive stuff you don't need.
- If you are a make-up user, there are sustainable and vegan brands nowadays. Pick a look that works for you, and stick to it. So instead of having dozens of products that dry up and need to be thrown out, you use your lipstick until it runs out and then you can pick a new look if you want to!
- For feminine hygiene: consider the diva cup or period panties. I've used both. For a heavier flow I would combine them. For a lighter flow I use the latter and they work great for me.
- Skip the blowdry.
- Try shampooing less (and/or use a natural shampoo bar!), or not at all. Read this great short hair experience, and this great long hair experience.
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What else can I do?
Are you itching to do more? Or just looking to do something with other people? There are so many activities you can perform to help the planet!
- Join a beach clean up. I volunteer every year at this one in the Netherlands. It's great! (Also, you can come say hi! 😄).
- Go plogging! Bring a bag, gloves, and one of those pinchy things on your daily walk.
- Join your local environment groups.
- Start ride sharing, get a bike, or walk.
- Become a sustainable tourist.
- Get into politics!
That's it! I hope you can find something on this list that you can, and want, to do to help the environment. And what do you do for a sustainable lifestyle? What would you like us to add to this checklist?