What is sustainable living?
Sustainable living is a lifestyle that aims to reduce one’s environmental impact, in ways that are sustainable both for the Earth and for the person. So while pledging to never run your faucet again may be sustainable for the planet, it probably wouldn’t be sustainable for you personally (or for your friends who would be subject to your poor hygiene).
There are endless ways to live sustainably, including: reducing your use of resources, composting, relying on clean energy sources, reducing your consumption of single-use plastic, eating less animal products, shopping for clothing and other items sustainably, buying local, and more.
Sustainable living vs. zero waste: What’s the difference?
Sustainable living and the zero-waste movement have similar goals and many similar lifestyle patterns, but are a little bit different. Those trying to live sustainably aim to lower their overall environmental impact in a variety of ways, while the primary focus of those living zero waste is typically to reduce the amount of trash they produce, namely single-use plastic.
For example, someone whose primary goal is to live zero waste and produce zero trash may be comfortable eating meat that was purchased without any plastic. But someone aiming to live a well-rounded, sustainable lifestyle may consider the bigger picture (aka the massive environmental impact and ethical concerns of animal agriculture) and opt for a plant-based meal instead, even if it is packaged in plastic.
Many proponents of the zero-waste lifestyle have taken to calling it the low-impact movement instead, to help shift the focus beyond trash and plastic, and towards lowering one’s overall impact. All that being said, the terms zero-waste lifestyle, low-impact lifestyle, and sustainable lifestyle are often used interchangeably, since they have the same fundamental goal: to lower one’s environmental impact.
How to get started living more sustainably:
There are numerous ways to start living more sustainably — and a sustainable lifestyle looks different for everyone. Areas where you can reduce your impact include:
Eat a plant-based diet.
Animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs are the highest-impact foods on Earth. To lower your diet’s footprint, consider transitioning to a vegan diet, or at least eating more vegan meals. Along with this, it’s important to focus on wasting less food, buying locally-produced food, and composting.
Compost your food scarps.
Instead of sending food scraps (that includes things like vegetable peels, avocado pits, and spoiled leftovers) to landfill, start composting. Composting is the process of returning anything that comes from nature to the earth, and letting it biodegrade into soil. Setting up a compost bin is super easy if you have a backyard, but it’s also possible if you live in an apartment or in a city with no yard.
Reduce your single-use plastic use.
Take a page out of the zero-waste lifestyle, and have a look through your trash to get started. Whatever items are clogging your garbage can, research plastic-free alternatives that you can buy instead. Follow our tips for low-waste grocery shopping, take advantage of your local bulk bins, and when you run out of something (whether it’s a food item, a personal hygiene product, or disposable items such as napkins or paper towels), look for reusable or sustainable alternatives.
Take eco-friendly transportation
If you drive a gas-powered car every day, consider alternatives with lower emissions if they are available to you. For example, try walking, riding a bike, taking public transportation, carpooling, or investing in an electric or hybrid car when you need a new one. Additionally, many environmentalists have given up flying in airplanes (such as Greta Thunberg) due to the high environmental footprint, so consider traveling by train instead of by air when possible.
Revamp your shopping habits.
The most sustainable form of shopping is not to shop at all — and the second most sustainable form (and more realistic form) of shopping is shopping secondhand. Before buying anything new, check out your local thrift store, websites and apps like Poshmark, Craigslist, or eBay, or your local Buy Nothing group on Facebook. When it comes to items that you can’t buy secondhand, seek out companies that make products from natural or recycled materials while following sustainable business practices.
Why is sustainable living important?
With climate change becoming a more serious problem every day, it’s now more important than ever for people to do their part to reduce their environmental impact. Demanding lawmakers and corporations institute laws or policies to help with that is extremely important, but lowering your personal impact can make a huge difference as well.
What impact does sustainable living have?
The average American produces 4.9 pounds of trash per day, according to the EPA — that comes out to around 1,788 pounds per year. So by transitioning to a zero-waste lifestyle, you could literally save thousands of pounds of trash from going to landfills, where it would emit harmful greenhouse gases.
By eating a vegan or plant-based diet, every year, you can save: 401,500 gallons of water, 14,600 pounds of grain; 10,950 square feet of forest, 7,300 pounds of CO2, and 365 animal lives, according to the Vegan Calculator.
While it may seem like small changes such as going zero-waste or vegan won’t really make a difference, looking at those statistics make it clear that sustainability lifestyle changes can be powerful.
How can sustainable living fight climate change?
Sustainable living is all about reducing our individual environmental impacts, which ultimately is done by utilizing less resources and less fossil fuels. As more and more people (and even more importantly, corporations and governments) start living more sustainably, the less fossil fuels they will burn. And since burning fossil fuels releases carbon into the atmosphere and causes the Earth’s temperature to rise, the less fossil fuels we burn, the smaller our environmental impact will be.
It's possible to live sustainably while on a budget.
Living sustainably often gets a bad rap for being expensive — but if you do it right, you could actually end of saving money. Things like shopping in the bulk section, only buying seasonal or local produce, shopping secondhand, reducing food waste, taking public transportation, and using reusable napkins, containers, etc. can actually be more affordable than the alternative, and therefore save you money.
There are endless sustainable living blogs and vlog channels.
The internet is filled with blogs that can help you live more sustainably.
For lifestyle zero-waste tips, check out the blogs Going Zero Waste, Trash Is for Tossers, and Sustainable Sabs. For tips on zero-waste cooking and on lessening food waste in the kitchen, check out Zero Waste Chef and Max La Manna. To learn more about sustainable fashion, check out the blogs Adimay, Eco Cult, and Old World New.
Check out these sustainable living books.
Books about sustainable lifestyles include: Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste Home, Kathryn Kellogg’s 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, Jay Sinha and Chantal Plamondon’s Life Without Plastic, Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free, Ashlee Piper’s Give a Sh*t, Marci Zaroff’s ECOrenaissance, Shia Su’s Zero Waste, and Green Matters' very own book, Green Living.
Watch these sustainable living documentaries.
To learn more about sustainable food production, check out Cowspiracy or Kiss the Ground. For more info on the fast fashion industry, watch The True Cost. And to learn more about reducing your personal impact, there’s No Impact Man.
Sustainable living may even take you off the grid.
Basically, living off the grid means to live without power from the electric power grid, which typically comes from fossil fuels. Houses that are off the grid typically generate their own energy via things like solar panels, and they use that energy to power their electricity, phone line, heat, and more.
Some people choose to take that further by digging a well for their water or collecting rainwater so that they don’t have to rely on the city’s supply; by growing a garden so that they don’t have to drive to the store; or even by purposefully choosing a house in a location engineered toward an off-grid lifestyle, as explained by Outfitter.
How to promote sustainable living:
As you get more invested in living sustainably, you may find yourself feeling more and more passionate about your evolving lifestyle. Take the knowledge you’ve learned on your journey — whether that’s statistics about climate change, tips on eco-friendly living, or plant-based recipes — and make an effort to share it with your community.
It’s easy to post about it on social media or chat about your new lifestyle when hanging out with friends and family. You can also take things to the next level by promoting a low-impact lifestyle at your school, office, or community, whether that’s by helping to institute recycling or composting, working with leaders to institute more sustainable policies, or by giving a presentation to your peers about living sustainably.
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