This Earth Day, I wanted to take the time to talk about sustainable swaps for a reduced carbon footprint — but first, a note:
Individual action is not enough to reduce climate disruption, and in fact addressing climate disruption is almost entirely a top-down matter. There is no ethical consumption, but some options are greener than others. Consumption is impossible to avoid at this point, but we can always be better.
Becoming more aware of your carbon footprint is beneficial in so many ways. You can feel a tad better about yourself, reduce your spending, and increase your creativity! As an environmentally-conscious efficiency aficionado, I adore figuring out how to live a more sustainable life. So let’s jump into some swaps!
Reduce, reuse, and then recycling
Before I jump into specific swaps, let’s talk about recycling. Recycling has an undeserved great reputation—especially considering it’s third in the phrase “reduce, reuse, and recycle”. Many items tossed in recycling cannot actually be recycled (also known as wishcycling.) Even recyclable items cannot be infinitely and entirely recycled. Recycling items also require labor and other resources, which many places forego in favor of dumping.
Because of this, I much prefer to push the messaging of reducing consumption and reusing items and clothing wherever possible. This is one of the easiest ways to save money, and my wallet is happier and heavier after pursuing it so intensely. Also note that buy-nothing groups, Craigslist, and other second-hand sites are great ways to find the things you want/need AND save money + the environment!
This article will focus on specific ways to reduce consumption, reuse items, and find ethical products.
Truthfully, I’ve never needed to buy jars in the store. Mayonnaise, jam, pasta sauce, and other food jars are easily washed and reused, and are quite sturdy while often being cheaper than the mason jars of the world — not to mention they come with food to start! I rarely throw away a good jar, and use them for things like spice blends, left overs, and drinking glasses. I’ve even repurposed old spice jars to hold my supplements in a uniform and aesthetically pleasing manner! I label my jars on the bottom with masking tape and sharpie.
One barrier to this that I’ve found is the adhesive on many jars. Fortunately, I’ve found a few ways around these unsightly label remnants.
- Hot water — soaking a jar in hot water is an excellent way to dissolve and remove paper labels. Pouring boiling water inside a jar to heat the adhesive from the inside also makes it easier to peel off.
- Goo-gone — for the sticky remains. A little goes a long way, and I’ve found I can dip a toothbrush in a bit of goo-gone, brush the label, and rub the label off quickly.
- Wire sponges — A little abrasion goes a long way in removing labels. Rubbing labels with steel wool/rough surfaces is great for removing labels.
And related: all of my meal prep containers came from a restaurant that had some of the best curry AND reusable containers. It’s a win for me, my wallet, my stomach, and the planet.
Thrifting and reselling
Fashion is one of the greatest polluters of our time, especially with the rise of ultra-fast fashion brands like SHEIN. Shopping hauls adding up to hundreds of articles of clothing that get worn maybe once or twice are eating the planet. That said, buying and using clothes until their end is generally a net good. If these brands are what you can afford, then (responsibly, ethically) have at it.
Thrift stores are also a great alternative. Admittedly, thrifting is a lot of work, but it’s honestly worth it. The time that goes into making clothes is worth the time to look for the ones that you like and that fit you. Second-hand markets like Poshmark and Depop have exploded and risen to near-market rates in some cases, but they still can be great opportunities. They give access to more variety, reduce landfill waste, and allow people to cycle their own closets.
As a previous shopaholic, I’ve managed to keep my closet manageable with one policy: one in, one out. After I KonMari’d my closet, I maintained my efforts with that policy. Now it’s three years strong! This policy also helped me like my closet more and say no to shopping urges.
Using clothes until their end
On that note, the art of mending clothes though is one that I think most of us need to improve. Minor holes, rips, and stains can be remedied with time and a little effort. Buying clothes I really like has also made me more willing to put in the effort to mend them. So I look better, I feel better, and the planet is better off.
If and when I have textiles that I can’t donate, use, or sell, I like to use For Days take-back bag to give the clothes a new life! The cost of the bag is offset by “closet credit” that can be spent on their eco-friendly clothes with surprisingly good quality.
Minimal hair manipulation and styling products
Once upon a time, I used to get Brazilian blowouts that literally sealed formaldehyde and other chemicals into my hair. A lot of hair products are not quite this damaging, but still many essentially deposit chemicals into our bodies and water supplies. I still use products in my hair, but far fewer and with much lower environmental impact. Locs have been a godsend for me in multiple ways.
Similarly, many hair instruments use plastics, metals, and manufacturing processes that damage the environment. Hair dryers, straighteners, and wands use plastic and are nearly (if not totally) impossible to recycle. Much like with clothing, we can use and invest in these products responsibly. That usually means buying fewer, higher-quality instruments, and sometimes doing small repairs before you give up on them.
Rebalancing your investments to align with your values
One of my more-recent sustainability efforts has been re-balancing my portfolio to align with my values. Previously, I’ve invested in funds that put profit above the planet, but I’ve recently discovered that there are funds that can profit both me and the planet.
One creator that has a lot of resources on personal finance is Kara Perez, founder of We Bravely Go (Instagram.) It was through one of her many free events that I learned about investing with your values. These websites allow you to find funds and ETFs that allow you to diversify your portfolio while divesting from companies promoting causes like deforestation, fossil fuels, militarism, private prisons, and gender inequity.
Additionally, most people can bank with a bank that’s better for the environment. Just four American banks are responsible for one-quarter of fossil fuel financing (Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citi.) Perez has another excellent post specifically about banking sustainably. The easiest and likely best option for most is a local credit union. Personally, I bank and have all my credit cards with Capital One and invest with Schwab. They’re likely guilty of greenwashing, but at least they’re not the worst. The bar is low, but sometimes we gotta limbo for Mother Earth.
Meal planning, prepping, and freezing food
With over 30% of food in the United States getting tossed out, food waste is a pretty significant contributor to climate change. One way I’ve been able to reduce my food waste is to meal plan. When my life was more stable, I did meal plan and prep on a weekly basis. Now with my life more up in the air, I tend to plan for a couple days at a time. Still, I always have a few basic plans in rotation based on the time of the year that I can’t go wrong with.
Honestly, the biggest reducer of food waste in my life has been shopping with a list. Because my shopping list is based on a meal plan, I know what I’m actually capable of eating, and when I’ll eat. I don’t load up on fruits and veggies that go bad quickly, but I do sometimes buy bananas in bulk so I can make banana bread later in the week.
The second biggest impact on my food waste has been freezing food. As a single person, I can’t always finish food before it goes bad. But breads, soups, proteins, and fruits freeze wonderfully. Frozen fruits and vegetables go great in soups and smoothies, and having a meal or two in the freezer saves me from eating out in times of weakness. In college, I lived on frozen meals with added vegetables (Trader Joes Indian entrees will always have a place in my heart.)
I’ve never been fortunate enough to live in a place that either has compost pickup or a garden I could tend, but I’ve used composting receptacles whenever possible in public. There are plenty of people on social media who have tips and tricks on creating your own little ecosystem! The day I buy/have a place with my own garden, you bet that I’ll also be composting.
More sustainable consumables
In logistics, the bigger or heavier an item is, the more resource-intensive it is to ship. Products comprised of a lot of water cause a lot of unnecessary emissions. This is especially true for cleaning products that we use a lot of. Brands like Blueland sell powder concentrates of household cleaners that take up fewer resources because they’re lighter, smaller, and often plastic free.
When it comes to personal care, my favorite brand is Ethique. Ethique sells primarily solid products (shampoo, deodorant, body butter), but also solid concentrates. Their lotion concentrates, shampoo, and chapsticks have earned their places in my daily routine. All of their products are plastic free, and they’re climate-positive to boot!
Regardless of what you choose, the main point is to buy less and more responsibly when you can. Every little change we can make helps.
Walking + biking > trains + buses > cars > planes
Anyone who knows me knows that I love walking places. Walking is a free and calming activity that keeps me in shape, AND takes me where I want to go. It also is the cleanest form of transportation we have. Bikes are a very close second, and e-bikes will always have a place in my heart. E-biking is truly fun, exhilarating, and efficient.
Public transit is also a love of mine, when it’s available and reliable. Of course, this is frequently not the case, but I’ll always opt for it when available and add extra time for any delays. Honestly, my favorite thing about public transit is that I don’t have to be constantly alert like when I’m driving. It’s one of many reasons I don’t have a car anymore.
Cars are a necessity for many, but one of the best things young people with no kids can do is move somewhere where they don’t need one. A surprising amount of the cost of living in a city is offset when you don’t have the liability of a car payment, insurance, gas, and potentially parking.
My achilles heel though is plane travel. I’m not flying private jets, but since my biggest hobby is international travel, my carbon footprint is massive. I try to take trains when my schedule and destinations permit, but it’s easier said than done. That said, planes are surprisingly efficient when used responsibly.
Failed attempts at sustainability
Before closing out, I wanted to list some of my failed attempts at sustainability. The best changes are the ones we can keep and that work, and these did not make the cut for me.
- Silicone bags
- Silicone caps — looking into beeswax though!
- Lotion bars (but I love lotion concentrate)
- Buying stuff because it is green rather than it is needed
- All true, formally known as causebox — or any “eco”-subscription boxes typically just introduce junk into your life
Ultimately, the biggest polluters are corporations and not individuals. Even so, we still have the power to consume less, consume responsibly, and dispose better. I also highly recommend following more sustainable creators to learn more and do more. Hopefully this inspires someone to start or continue their sustainability journey. Happy Earth Day y’all! 🌳