5 things you DON’T have to give up to be sustainable

TowelI recently saw a little bit of an Oprah show on sustainability. What really struck me was a moment where the guest was talking about low-flow showerheads and Oprah laughed a little and said she wouldn’t give up her strong showers. I think a lot of people see living sustainably in a similar way, as a form of deprivation. Every once in a while when I talk to other people about living more sustainably, they start asking me about what I’m giving up.

I think this is a really damaging impression of sustainability. In my view, sustainability isn’t about giving things up but about focusing on what’s really important to you. I’ve made some changes in my life, although not all of them remain a part of my routine (making soap is just not my thing). At no point, though, have I had to give up anything I really cared about. I’m just prioritizing a little differently.

So here are the things people seem most worried about missing if they start living more sustainably but that you don’t have to give up. I certainly haven’t!

  1. Hot showers – I still thoroughly enjoy hot showers, especially now that we keep the thermostat lower at night. I don’t take showers every day and I keep them short when I do take them (5-10 minutes). We could be more efficient still if we had a gas water heater or a tankless water heater, so there’s plenty of room to improve without having to give up my hot showers.
  2. Your friends – About a month ago, there were a lot of comments on No Impact Man about how living sustainably is necessarily lonely because what you’re doing is so different than what everyone else is doing. I don’t agree. Not only do my old friends still hang out with me, I’ve made lots of new friends by going to the farmer’s market and trying out new things. Even those who think living sustainably is a bit weird have fun coming over to make soap or eat a local meal.
  3. Meat – A lot of vegetarians tout the reduced environmental impact of their diet. I’m not convinced. Although it does take more plant matter to feed a cow than if I were to eat it directly, cows can eat a lot of things that I can’t. It’s also much easier to raise animals without changing the landscape significantly than it is to grow most plants. You don’t have to clear-cut forests to raise pigs. To me, the more important thing about my food is that it’s grown locally and sustainably. It’s entirely possible to do this with animals as well as plants. I do admit that I eat less meat than I used to, but that’s more a result of economics (good beef is more expensive than factory-farmed stuff) than a belief that meat is inherently bad.
  4. Your free time – I see this complaint with other lifestyle changes, like frugality or dieting, as well. It does sometimes take more time to go to the farmer’s market than the grocery store or to darn socks rather than buying new ones. It’s all about priorities. I enjoy going to the farmer’s market more than going to the grocery store, so I don’t mind spending more time on it. If you don’t, then skip it and figure out other areas where you can make an impact. For example, maybe you don’t feel like you have enough time to cook real meals every night. You could have friends over once a month to spend a day making freezer meals, which can be a lot of fun. Or, if that’s not your thing, you could start a dinner club with some friends and spend one night a month cooking and three nights a month eating meals others have prepared. The possibilities are endless!
  5. Electronics – Lots of the materials used to make computers and other electronics are really nasty. However, there are now lots of ways to recycle them (like the new partnership between GreenSight and Costco) and I feel they can improve your life enough that it’s worth it. I do think about the impact of the things I buy, but I weigh that against my life as well. I always buy laptops, which reduces my energy use, and I use power strips to reduce “phantom” energy use. I get enough out of my laptop (and Wii) that I’m willing to make some sacrifices in my sustainability.

So far, living more sustainably has consisted of looking closely at various aspects of my life and starting to cut out parts that don’t fit in with my values. Nothing I’ve given up has been worse than the things I’ve given up for other reasons, like deciding that I wanted to start my own business. I think the trick is to just start thinking about things more holistically. When you do that, you can make better decisions about what’s worthwhile for you and what isn’t. In general, it’s a painless process. Ocassionally, I’ll push myself and try something that’s outside of my comfort zone. If it turns out to be worth it to me, I stay with it. If not, I know I’ve given it a shot. I’d wager that most people could double their sustainability just by trying out something new without affecting at all the things that are really important to them.

I’m curious about what other people have worked around. What are some things that you aren’t willing to give up? Are there any things you were surprised to find could be done better with little effort?

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6 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Missy Keenan said,

    February 20, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

    For me, going Green has been a fun process for getting me out of my rut and causing me to be more conscious, think before acting/buying, learn some new things, try some new things.

  2. 2

    Will said,

    February 21, 2008 @ 5:08 am

    That’s great! I think people need to hear more stories of how going green can be fun, so I’m glad I’m not the only one enjoying it. 🙂

  3. 3

    Alder said,

    February 21, 2008 @ 8:01 am

    A good example of something sustainable that actually works better is bringing cloth grocery bags. Once I got over the problem of remembering to bring them, I really liked the way they work. I don’t have to worry about them ripping, the handles are sturdy (and I can loop them over my shoulder! so much easier to carry), I don’t overbuy because I want all the groceries to fit in the bags I brought, the baggers pack them more efficiently for some reason, and when I get home, I don’t have a sea of plastic to deal with. Everyone wins!

  4. 4

    Linnea said,

    February 21, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

    At the Metropolitan Market here in Seattle, they sell reusable bags that are, ultimately, 100% recyclable. It’s a great way to spend a dollar.

  5. 5

    Will said,

    February 22, 2008 @ 12:54 am

    Yeah, cloth bags are great. I hear that some grocery stores even give a small discount if you bring your own bags.

    Around here, Bloomingfoods has the best bags. They sound very similar to the ones you’re talking about, Linnea.

  6. 6

    Zee said,

    June 5, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    Tankless water heaters are good way to save some money but solar water heating is much better. And if you make your own solar water heater, like batch or passive system it is much better. If you live in the warmer area of NA you could replace up to 70% of the standard or conventional way of water heating.

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