What Does It Mean to ‘Live Sustainably’?

living sustainability

My name is Tassia, and I’m a drain on the environment.

There, I said it.

My sheer existence is harming the environment. 

We’re living in a world where connectivity is digital, where smartphones are necessities, where computers are essential, where we use (usually destructive) energy every minute of every day.

I’ll never be able to negate my carbon footprint, not even by planting trees every month of the year, recycling every bit of plastic I see, walking everywhere.

It’s just not possible for me.

I’m a writer by day (and by night!), so my laptop is always humming, burning energy.

I work from home, so my lights are always on (my house is particularly dark).

I even have a pet, which is pretty sinful by sustainability standards – although, as a cat, Buffy is significantly less of a strain on the environment as a dog.

And yet, despite all this, I consider myself to be a person who lives sustainably.

‘Sustainable’ is a buzzword that’s been thrown about a lot over the past few years, with no sign of retiring any time soon.

But, there is no such thing as a perfect specimen of sustainability.

Partly because it’s evolved to mean something completely different than its original definition.

The primary definition of “sustainable” in the Oxford English Dictionary is expectedly vague:

  1. [That] which conserves an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.

‘Avoiding’ is not prevention. It’s also incredibly subjective.

Can I physically do more to live more sustainably? Yes.

Would that negatively impact my life? Yes.

I live by a ‘reasonably sustainable’ way of life. I do what I can, without causing harm or discomfort to myself, and without impeding my work.

I believe that we, as a society, can do a little each, to minimise our impact on the environment, although we can’t negate the damage we’re individually doing to the environment, nor can we absolve ourselves of our responsibility in the destruction of the planet through the climate crisis.

The vast majority of the damage done to the environment isn’t by the hands of us as individuals, it’s by international corporations.

After all, it’s just 100 companies around the world that have caused over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 (source: The Guardian) – the majority of which are petrochemical or coal mining companies.

So, I hate to be the bearer of bad news (like, the worst), but unless those 100 companies make a change (let’s not hold our collective breaths), we’re pretty much doomed.

That being said, we can do some things to lessen our load on the environment, even if it does just make us feel a little bit better.

So, with this delightful, cheerful, positive introduction, let’s dive into what ‘living sustainably’ means for me, a realist.

First, I’d recommend WWF’s Footprint Calculator to highlight some areas you can reduce your impact on the environment.

Not to brag, but I’m doing better than the UK average (definitely bragging).

But, as you can see, there’s still room for improvement.

So I’ll break down what I’m already doing to live more sustainably, along with a few ways I can further reduce my carbon footprint, and a public pledge to stick to those changes.

These might look simple (and they are), but this is all about realistically living more sustainably – because it’s nothing if not sustainable, in both meanings of the word.

Composting

I’m lucky enough to live in an area where it’s easy for me to recycle my food waste. All it takes is for me and my partner to put any food waste (carrot tops, scabby bits of avocado, gone-off veggies…) into our food waste bin (or ‘pig bin’, as we’re calling it). Then, at the end of each week, we take it out to the kerb and it’s collected by the binmen. Simple.

However, I understand that it’s not that easy for everyone to recycle their food waste – not every council in the UK has a food waste recycling scheme. If this includes you, my suggestion would be to start a conversation or petition with your local authority to create a food waste scheme. Think of the extra green points!

Drinking water from a reusable bottle

Yes, I judge anyone I see drinking water from a plastic bottle. I am that petty. Unless someone has a really convincing reason why they’re not drinking water from a reusable bottle. There are so many places that will allow water refills, it’s cheaper, more sustainable, and you can make it a fashion accessory. So if you’re not drinking from a reusable bottle, what’s your excuse?

Researching my preferred brands and companies

Before I buy anything from a company I’ve not bought from before, I research their environmental and sustainability policies (as well as their ethics policies, to keep an eye out for any human rights violations). With the internet age making information readily accessible, usually, everything I need to know is right there. If it’s not – if a company doesn’t have a sustainability policy – I steer clear. Sustainability should be a priority for any business, Yes, even you, Etsy sellers. I love you, but you need to get sustainably savvy. Even if it’s just for marketing! 

A word of warning: a great number of companies (here’s looking at you, Amazon, for burning millions of unsold products every year (source: Greenpeace)) are adept at greenwashing. What is greenwashing? It’s essentially when businesses claim that products, systems, or policies, are environmentally friendly while disregarding their other environmental impacts. Or claiming products are ‘green’ (an annoyingly vague word that’s not regulated or held to any standards), then, in fact, they offer no benefit to the environment.

I tend to go about researching the eco-friendliness of different brands in two ways: via the Good On You app for clothing, the Eco-Age website for other brands, and doing a simple search online for “[brand name] environmental”. Then I’ll get news stories about how good (or bad) they are, along with their environmental policy (should they have one).

Not sending greetings cards

This is actually a pet peeve of mine. I’d much rather someone makes a £1.50 donation to a charity they associate with me than send me a birthday or Christmas card. And don’t even get me started on making children write ‘Thank You’ cards. Get them to send a ‘Thank You’ video – much quicker to do, more personal, and no unnecessarily dead trees!

Did you know that each year, we send over a billion cards to each other (source: WiseGeek). Since one tree can produce about 3,000 cards (source: GWP Group), that means that, for greetings cards alone, we hack down around 300,000 trees. So send a video instead of a card!

Shopping local and small

I try to avoid shopping with multi-national corporations where possible. But I am only human, living in a Western society of immediacy, luxuries as necessities, and same-day delivery. Sometimes, the call of Amazon is just too easy not to deny.

That being said, I do research (probably over-research) a lot of my purchases, to see where I can find exactly what I’m after. Sometimes, it’s from Amazon. More often than not, it’s from Etsy, or direct from a small business. Sadly, though, most small businesses don’t achieve the same amount of love from search engines (almost as if Amazon and Google are in cahoots…), so they’re significantly harder to find. Which is one of the reasons why I’m absolutely enamoured with TikTok at the moment. The algorithms for TikTok are much more personal than other social media platforms, and I’ve found several small businesses from whom I’ve bought random things. So head to Etsy or TikTok to find new small businesses to support – for the environment, to make small business owners happy, and to stop lining the pockets of billionaires.

Shopping secondhand

Thankfully, the stigma of thrift-shopping isn’t as ‘gross’ as it was in the noughties. Admittedly, a lot of the more environmentally-sound manufacturers do sell their products at quite the premium – since, for now, the processes to manufacture eco-friendly products are more complicated and expensive. So I find shopping second-hand a more budget-friendly option to help the environment.

Sure, there can be a lot of tat at a charity shop, but it’s all relative! Personally, I love using the Vinted app to find second-hand clothing, and car-boot sales for when I just feel like ‘shopping’.

Gifting experiences rather than ‘things’

This was, unfortunately, a change I first made in the Christmas of 2019 – I bought thoughtful, carefully planned-out experiences for my family. Wine tastings, theatre tickets, racing days.  Then, the pandemic struck, and a lot of those experiences I’d spent good money on were pretty much wasted. I’d tempted fate, and accept at least 70% of the responsibility for Covid-19.

But I’ve not let that dissuade me! After all, there’s no wrapping, the memories last much longer than a physical present, and they can mean so much more than another bottle of wine or hastily-bought pair of socks. So why not gift your loved one tickets to a concert, a stay-cation in your country, spa day, or a class so they can develop a skill? It shows you’ve put real thought into getting them something, and who knows, maybe you’ll get to tag along, too!

Actively choosing not to learn to drive

Yup, I’m 31, and I haven’t taken a single driving lesson in my life, nor do I have the desire to. I am an undeniably lazy person, and I know that, had I learned to drive, I’d drive 5 minutes up the road to save myself a 15-minute walk. Yes, I’m that lazy.

I’m no saint, of course (not that you’d got this far with that totally unfounded notion), as my partner does drive, and I do request some journeys from him, like visiting my family once a month, popping out for a Big Shop, or taking a day trip to Glastonbury. 

There’s also no denying that the pandemic has put a dampener on my use of public transport, as well – pre-Covid, I was an avid bus-user and train-traveller, preferring trips by train to voyages by car, revelling in the near-meditative state of looking wistfully out of a bus window with a moody playlist in my ears. However, after a frankly terrifying train journey a couple of months ago (when masks were requests rather than mandates), where I was part of around 5% of passengers on an over-sold train who chose to wear a mask. As someone who caught Covid in October 2020 and still hasn’t recovered, the virus scares the crap out of me. I hope that, soon, I’ll have the confidence to return to my love of public transport.

Minimising meat

Sorry, vegans and vegetarians, but I just can’t stick to that full-time. But I do understand that the carbon footprint of the animal agriculture industry basically outweighs that of “every car, truck, bus, ship, aeroplane, and rocket ship combined” (source: UN Environment). So I’m opting for imperfect veganism. It’s better to have thousands of imperfect vegans than just one die-hard vegan, right?

Now, onto the changes that I’m pledging to make – ways I can be better. Remember, there’s no such thing as perfect, only better. And if we want to make sustainably sustainable changes, a little-by-little approach has far higher chances of actually sticking.

So here it is, warts and all – me admitting my faults, owning up, accepting responsibility, and making more changes (where’s my medal?):

I, Tassia Agatowski, pledge to:

  • Turn off electronics rather than putting them in standby mode.
  • Not buy new palettes of makeup before I’ve finished using the ones I have.
  • At least try shopping at a zero-waste shop – the first time is the hardest!
  • Switch to more showers – just one bath a week.
  • Go plogging (litter picking whilst jogging – or, in my lazy-ass case, walking – slowly).

So will you join me in living more sustainably? What changes will you make?

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