What is sustainable living?
Sustainable living is about making conscious lifestyle choices that are beneficial to yourself, the environment and society in both the short and long-term. Minimalism at its core includes a lot of sustainable choices, whether it’s zero waste, a simple diet, or choosing brands that are good for the planet.
When you consider the term sustainability you likely think it means making a bunch of dramatic changes in order to protect the environment. You’ve probably heard or read fear-inducing news about how dire the climate change issue is and felt compelled to act.
Except perhaps it wasn’t exactly clear what you should be doing — and you had a lot of other more pressing issues on your mind. So even with the best intentions you may have put your sustainable living commitment on the back burner.
And you are not alone because despite the ongoing global discussion about the importance of sustainability, it seems hard to bring about change. That’s because many of us (non-scientific laypersons) are either confused about what sustainable living actually means, or feel the bar has been set too high to adopt it in a meaningful and consistent way.
As a response to the confusion around what to do, in this guide we present a simple 3-step sustainable living framework plus easy examples of ways you can integrate this concept into your day-to-day.
Table of Contents: Sustainable Living Guide
- Why is sustainable living important?
- Sustainable living 3-part framework
- Sustainable living: nurture yourself
- Sustainable living: contribute to your community
- Sustainable living: protect the environment
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Why is sustainable living important?
The simplest definition of “sustainable” means to support and sustain and, without getting too technical, there are two reasons why you should adopt this mindset:
- everything is connected so everything you do has an impact on others and the earth
- resources should be respected and managed thoughtfully as they are not inexhaustible
No matter if you consider just yourself, your community or the entire world, your actions have effects that you should be cognizant of.
The more you become aware of these cause and effect relationships, the more you will appreciate and respect them and be more apt to make decisions that have positive (vs. negative) outcomes.
That’s really what it comes down to.
Now, if you apply a sustainable mindset specifically to the challenges of climate change and other environmental topics, it means recognizing (and doing something about) the fact that:
- the earth’s resources may be finite and human consumption patterns could be rapidly diminishing them
- human industriousness may be disrupting the earth’s natural balance causing all sorts of adverse conditions
Now whether or not you believe that mere humans can single-handedly disrupt the earth (that’s survived for billions of years) is for another discussion.
We acknowledge the naysayers and skeptics but for purposes of this guide, let’s accept what seems to be a global consensus (give or take a few outliers) that what we do does have an impact on the earth.
Sustainable living framework
Instead of focusing on the extreme and exerting an exhausting amount of will power to make change, we’re advocates of small, easy-to-adopt, repeatable actions.
Some of the most remarkable athletes, writers and scientists adopt a similar approach to tackling the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that stand between them and their aspirations.
So they aren’t demoralized, they simply put one foot in front of the other, reach for the low-hanging fruits, and slowly build confidence and strength as they conquer one challenge after another.
Likewise, our sustainable living framework values making small but significant steps in three areas to live more consciously:
- nurture yourself and your family (personal)
- contribute to your community (local)
- protect the environment (global)
And you should do all three with a consideration of both the present and future implications of your actions.
One way of doing this is by periodically asking the question: will this help or harm myself, my community or my earth — now or later?
Ways to nurture yourself in a sustainable lifestyle
Nurture is a short way of saying survive and thrive. To do this consciously means that you improve your personal well-being in a way that doesn’t have an adverse effect on society or the environment.
There are two quite popular examples that show how you can nurture yourself in a sustainable minimalist way: start biking and eat better.
Biking for sustainable reasons
Biking is becoming a global trend particularly amongst younger generations. That’s because there are other incentives besides the obvious physical benefits.
One significant benefit is the financial incentive. A well-known personal finance blogger, puts it this way:
Any mileage you put on your bike instead of your car saves you about 50 cents per mile in gas, depreciation, wear and maintenance. Even just replacing a few errands by bike that you normally would do by car could add up to more than $1,000 in savings per year.Mr. Money Mustache
Second, biking is an easy way to play a part in offsetting the impact of climate change while directly contributing to your personal health.
No, taking your bike to work is not a magic wand that will instantly solve the climate change issue, but it certainly is an excellent contribution to the cause.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), not driving your car for as little as two days per week reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1,590 pounds (721 kilograms) per year. The reduction is twice as much if you don’t drive your car for four days out of the week.
The happiest people in the world (i.e. the Danish) were in on this secret well before it became a worldwide trend.
They consistently rank first in happiness according to the World Happiness Report and it’s not just because of their minimalist style or Hygge philosophy. They also get a nice boost of endorphins because they cruise around all day on their bikes.
Now if for whatever reason biking isn’t for you, then consider walking more or renting a scooter (Bird is leading the charge on cutting down traffic and vehicle-related environmental toxins with its electric scooter rental app and service). The impact is similar and the key takeaway is to find a win-win.
In this case it’s being more physically active and reaping added benefits (e.g. monetary savings) while simultaneously helping to improve environmental conditions.
Eat food that is good for the planet
Eating is obviously necessary to survive but what you eat also has a great deal to do with your ability to thrive.
As we have discussed about a plant based diet, discuss, many of the prevalent illnesses in 21st century Western societies directly link to unhealthy eating habits: obesity, diabetes and depression, just to name a few. What is just as alarming is that the love for fast, processed foods fuels multi-billion dollar industries that are also wreaking havoc on the environment.
Living consciously, then, must also address how you eat. As what you eat directly impacts your health as well as the health of the earth more broadly. But it need not lead to fad diets and aggressive changes to your lifestyle that you can’t keep up. Here are three basic principles to try and incorporate:
Cut Processed Food
This is where the bulk of the problems originate in the food industry. Packaged, processed, and genetically modified (GMO) foods contain ingredients that cause harm to the body in many different ways (some may even argue that these aren’t real food).
Moreover, the manufacturing of these foodstuffs aren’t sustainable and release toxins and waste into the land, water, and air that harm humans as well as wildlife, oceans, forests, and more.
Try to integrate more fresh and certified organic foods into your meals instead. We’re a fan of the plant-based diet which prioritizes vegetables, fruit and whole grains. An easy way to do this is to make small tradeoffs at the grocery store and build on this habit over time.
For example, instead of reaching for the soda bottles get a Sodastream to make sparkling water at home and then use the juice from fresh fruit (lemons, berries, oranges, cucumber) to add flavor.
Eat Local Food
If it’s possible, opt for foods produced closer to home rather than on the other side of the planet. Not only will you know where your food came from, you can support your local economy and end up consuming food that is much more nutritious.
In the U.S. food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table and this emits massive levels of greenhouse gases throughout the course of shipping.
Plus, generally foods from a local farmers’ market aren’t wrapped in layers of packaging. You usually have to bring your own bag or basket which eliminates unnecessary waste.
If you aren’t sure where to find the nearest farmers’ market in your town, use the Eat Well Guide. This is an online directory of fresh, local, and sustainable food in the U.S. and Canada including farmers’ markets, restaurants, grocery stores, family farms and more.
Reduce meat intake
We know this hits a sore spot for many people. It’s hard to turn down a good barbecue, so the struggle is real. But let’s address the facts first then discuss what to do about them.
Meat, love it or not, causes your digestive system to go into overdrive in order to digest it. It is tasty but it is heavy and incredibly hard to break down in the body. On top if that, the antibiotics fed to cattle get passed right back to you when you consume them.
Because of this, researchers have found that meat is directly linked to many of the aforementioned lifestyle diseases (including cancer).
Additionally, agriculture accounts for 92% of freshwater use with one pound of beef requiring 2,500 gallons of water to produce. Compare that to a pound of potatoes which requires 40x less water.
Plus, cows single-handedly generate 20% of the total global methane emission. That’s an absurd amount of energy and resources being used as well as toxins being released just to have a steak for dinner.
Still, it’s easy to disregard all of these facts because meat tastes so good. It may seem like too much will power to adjust your mindset and habits in order to reduce meat intake.
But there’s a super simple approach to doing so: just flip the proportion of meat to non-meat on your plate. Instead of 50-75% of your plate being devoted to meat, swap it. Allocate 50-75% to fresh produce and grains and the rest to meat.
This little trick works well for as you aren’t forcing yourself to totally give up something you love. It’s so much easier than suddenly proclaiming yourself as a vegetarian.
Many Mediterranean and Asian societies — known for having healthier, longer lives — use this tactic. In these regions meat is consumed in small proportions as almost a garnishment to the meal. They still get the flavor but cut down on all the adverse effects.
Sustainable living: contribute to your community
As mentioned, sustainable living is made up of conscious decisions and informed choices. Two ways you can be thoughtful as it pertains to your community is by spending with intent and giving to sustainable efforts within the communities you are a part of.
Spend thoughtfully and locally
While it is extremely convenient to be able to choose from millions of products when shopping online or in a supermarket, it also means that you probably don’t know anything about where these items come from or how they were produced.
In the Western world, the average person spends hundreds if not thousands of dollars every month. That is a lot of economic power and you have a right to wield that power in a more conscious way.
You can spend with intent by choosing to patron more businesses that are established in your city, state or country. The premise is that the closer they are to you, the more verifiable information you may be able to gather about how they operate. And the more you can exert influence on how they operate.
On top of that, funneling funds into the local economy helps stimulate economic activity which is a win-win for everyone who resides within that particular economy. It helps the businesses thrive which allows them to employ local citizens who then have the means to continue supporting the businesses. It’s quite a virtuous cycle.
Now, of course in modern times we are all globally connected and it is likely that you are a member of communities or networks that transcend physical proximity. So you may feel compelled to support businesses that aren’t near you too.
That is perfectly acceptable and there are a number of resources that can help you gather information so you can make informed choices about how you spend no matter if the business is near or far.
Certified B Companies (B Corps) balance profits with social and environmental impact, helping investors and consumers tell the difference between truly socially responsible companies and companies with just great marketing.
B Corps maintain an in-depth legal structure that “expands corporate accountability so they are required to make decisions that are good for society, not just their shareholders,” according to the non-profit.
Green America supports businesses that have adopted green practices, are growing their local economies and pay suppliers fairly.
Consumer Reports is an independent non-profit that conducts thorough tests of all types of consumer goods to help consumers get the best value as well as to spare them negative surprises.
The Better Business Bureau gathers data about the integrity and performance of thousands of businesses across North America, championing companies that deliver results in accordance with high standards and are highly customer-oriented.
They also offer direct support to consumers by providing trusted ratings and handling complaints or difficulties with unscrupulous businesses.
Trust Pilot is a powerful free review platform where consumers can see and provide business rankings, which of course forces these businesses to improve in order to retain consumer trust.
Buying Fair Trade products helps workers and farmers in developing countries earn a decent living and secure a better life. Fair Trade USA audits the global supply chain and certifies products as being fair trade.
The Good Guide app is a green and ethical shopping guide that has a database of over 75,000 products and their environmental and social credentials. All you need to do is scan a product and it will tell you whether or not it is worth buying.
We’ve provided a sustainable brand directory at the end of this guide if you’d like to find and support consumer brands that are dedicated to more conscious production.
So no matter what communities you are apart of — whether you want to focus on those in close proximity or you consider yourself a global citizen — spending with intent raises the standard and keeps both individuals and businesses making decisions that are in the best interest of all.
Give to sustainable causes or charities
Another way to offer support is by giving to worthy causes that you care about or believe in. No matter if it’s supporting someone’s crowdfunding efforts on Kickstarter or partnering with a reputable organization like Charity Water, your gifts go a long way.
Protect the environment
Part of a life lived consciously means looking beyond yourself or your immediate surroundings and being more aware.
Not to be preachy, but it is important that we all consider the earth and play a part in protecting its beauty to ensure it remains liveable, rich, lush and flourishing for generations to come.
But you don’t have to go to the extremes to contribute. Did you know that you could help the planet right here and now — from the comfort of home?
Below are two easy tips, recommended by the United Nations, on how to green your home, cause less climate-unfriendly emissions and use less energy and water.
The basis of human life is water. The average adult body is made up of 57-60% water and 71% of the surface of the earth is water.
Yet only 1% of it is fit for human consumption and, perhaps due to its perceived abundance, most people don’t realize just how precious water is.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a leaky toilet you put off fixing can easily waste 200 gallons of water per day. And the average 5-minute shower uses an incredible 15-25 gallons of water.
These are just a couple of examples of how seemingly tiny acts of wastefulness can have a bigger impact than what they seem.
Just paying a little bit more attention to your use of water isn’t difficult but can contribute to gallons of water saved as a result. Here are a few easy, low-cost tips:
Take shorter showers and eliminate baths if possible (as relaxing as it may be one bath uses over 50 gallons of water). Plus use low-flow water fittings for your shower head (less than $20 and a 5 minute installation).
Fix leaky faucets and toilets which is usually a quick DIY project or inexpensive plumber job and it will also help with your space’s Feng Shui. Bonus points if you convert to a one-flush vs. dual-flush toilet or use the lower flush lever which uses less water.
It is amazing the things we can do with energy. A solar panel in Ecuador allows a family to cook without having to make a fire while being operated and maintained from some engineer’s laptop in Germany.
However, the downside to all of the many wonderful ways that we use energy is that cause and effect become disassociated. Physical distance along with long and complex supply chains, means that we have no clue where things come from, how they work and how much resources are expended in managing them.
For example, when you plug your iPhone into an outlet to recharge you give no thought to where that power comes from. Of course, we don’t suggest overthinking every bit of energy you use but sometimes considering what you take for granted is a path to living more consciously.
That’s because humans use a lot of energy (in the U.S. it’s almost 100 quadrillion Btu which is an unimaginable figure) and it may not only be rapidly depleting certain resources but — depending on the type of energy used — is also having negative effects on health.
According to the American Lung Association, 50,000 people die in the U.S. every year from air-pollution-related causes (and among the leading air polluting industries is the one that powers your iPhone, the electricity production sector).
So being just a bit more thoughtful about energy use not only lowers your utility bill but can alleviate major health conditions while also protecting the earth. Here are a few practical pieces of advice:
If available, get your electricity from renewable energy sources such as wind, sun, water, and biomass, all of which generate electricity with less environmental impact. To see if your energy provider offers green-power options, visit energy.gov.
If you can’t completely change your energy source, then purchase appliances and electronics with the Energy Star certification (also searchable on energy.gov) which could substantially reduce your utility bill.
Make your home more energy efficient (and save money) by periodically checking and tweaking major sources of energy. For instance:
- clean your air filters so your central air system doesn’t have to work overtime
- get a programmable thermostat so you don’t waste energy when you don’t need it
- tackle electricity “leaks” like televisions and other electronic equipment by unplugging them or putting them in sleep mode
The Native Americans of the Iroquois tribe had a powerful principle to guide their actions. It was a forward-looking value called the 7th generation principle that stated (in summary):
In all of your deliberations look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the past and present but also the coming generations. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do. Instead ask yourself, what about the seventh generation? What will they have?
If we all adopted this as a core value and asked these question periodically, we’d be able to make sustainable living choices effortlessly.
Image by Benjamin Holtrop for Minimalism.
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