By now, you’ve probably noticed that sustainable living has become all the rage -- and for a good reason, too.
Choosing a sustainable lifestyle that contributes to our environment thriving in the long-run also does wonders for your budget. Once you get started, you could realize that sustainability becomes about more than just doing your part for our planet, and improves your mental, physical and financial wellbeing, too.
Through being more conscious and intentional about how you live, you might find yourself living a life with fewer, more meaningful objects and habits, rather than feeling like you’re always struggling to stay afloat and to feel fulfilled.
So, how do I switch to a sustainable lifestyle?
It's simple - start small. You don't have to make grand gestures or overhaul your entire life to contribute to the sustainability movement. Some of the smallest tweaks can have major impacts and ripple effects.
Most importantly, you want your efforts to be not only environmentally sustainable but personally sustainable, too -- as in, make sure you develop habits that you can sustain throughout your lifetime.
Don't throw yourself in the deep end with something you know you can't keep up. There's no need to feel guilty about not being able to do it all -- it's better to tend to the little things that you know can consistently incorporate. You’ll start to develop sustainable habits that become a part of your routine for many years to come, and that can always expand as you become more comfortable with your changes.
So, without further ado, here are some big ways to start small.
Know what you’re working with
You can have the best of intentions when you make the switch to sustainability, and get super excited about discovering brands that are aligned with your values but try not to get swept up and forget what you already own.
From clothing to home decor and even kitchen utensils and miscellaneous tools, perform an audit of your possessions to reacquaint yourself with everything you have. You’d be surprised how easy it is to re-buy something that’s buried at the back of your closet or lost in that draw of bric-a-brac. By going through your belongings, you develop an awareness of what gaps actually exist that you might want to fill with new purchases.
Work with what you already have
When you start going through what you own, you might get swept away in the thrill of decluttering and overlook some gems that are right beneath your nose. Be sure to keep in mind that there are ways to make things that seem old or worn-out go further.
REPURPOSE OLD AND UNWANTED ITEMS
The most sustainable way to shop is, well... not to. Don't worry, you don’t have to place a lifetime ban on shopping, rather, just remind yourself that sometimes the perfect solution is hiding in a hidden corner of your home.
Maybe you’ve been tempted by all those insta-pics of fitness influencers drinking smoothies out of mason jars. Before you head to target, take a look in the fridge and see if you have any similar items that can double up as a glass when they’re empty. Jam and pickle jars are great for this!
You’d be surprised how far repurposing goes with clothing, too. That long-sleeved grandma shirt? Tie it at the front over a cute bralette and you're festival ready. That old pair of jeans that’s too baggy, now? Cut them just above the knee and pair them with a chunky belt for a cow-girl chic pair of shorts. So in, right now.
Whether you have a sewing machine to make alterations, or simply a host of herbs and spices in your kitchen cabinets that make beautiful natural dyes, there’s almost always a way to revamp your wardrobe with what you have on hand.
Best of all, when you work with what you have, you make room in your budget to invest in high-quality, well-crafted sustainable items when you do decide it’s time for something new.
REPAIR BROKEN OR WORN OUT ITEMS
These days, we can be quick to replace items that in one way or another are falling short. All it takes is a click of a button for a new shiny version of something we already own to arrive at our doorstep. But often, our original item is still perfectly valuable, if only we would take the time to breathe new life into it.
Whether it needs a coat of paint of just a few stitches, see if you can give some things a second chance before they hit the Goodwill box.
Create a framework for curating your possessions
Your belongings generally fall into one of three categories: essentials, non-essentials, junk. The Minimalists developed this framework for categorization, and it’s incredibly helpful when you're performing your audit of possessions.
Essentials are pretty self-explanatory, and they are more or less the same for all of us. Think toothbrush, underwear, fridge, bed, etc. Non-essentials will differ from person to person. These are usually the things we “want” -- a T.V, a vase of flowers, candles, paintings -- that add value to our lives because we enjoy them.
Junk is relative to your needs and desires, but it can be loosely defined as anything that doesn’t truly add value to your life. In our previous example, the old pair of jeans went from a junk item to a non-essential, because you found a way to add value to them.
Having these categories in mind will help you understand what things you own, what you might be able to donate or discard, and where there may be room for adding value to your life.
USE THE "IF" VS. "WHEN" SYSTEM
When you get to that step, another useful tool is the “if vs when” system. Ask yourself, “Is this item for when something happens, or for if something happens”?
In general, it makes sense to keep “for when” items, even if that when only comes around once a year (e.g. a camping trip, making fondue with your friends). They’ll come in handy down the line, and prevent you from having to re-purchase them when their time to shine inevitably arrives.
The “for if” items, for the most part, can probably be donated or discarded without causing much impact on your life. It can be tempting to cling onto them, because we think we’ll feel silly or regretful if, indeed, we do need them at some point, and have to spend money on something that we already had in the past.
But at the end of the day, we could fill up our whole lives with "for if" items based on the endless hypothetical situations we might find ourselves in. We're better off purposefully and intentionally buying "for when" items, and crossing the "for if" bridges when we get to them. So splash out on that party dress for New Year’s Eve, but maybe don’t keep or buy a wetsuit in case you ever decide to take up surfing, despite living in middle America.
Invest in quality, over quantity
Once you’ve made the most out of the belongings you already have, and figured out the gaps that you genuinely need or want to fill, you’ll realize it’s not about how much stuff you have, but rather, having the right stuff. Investing in high-quality pieces helps to meet your needs more effectively, reduces waste, and saves you money in the long-run.
When it comes to clothing, for example, pay attention to the materials that your clothes are made of, and the processes used to create them. Clothes made out of sturdy, organic materials, with hand-stitching and quality craftsmanship can become a staple in your wardrobe for many years to come.
Create a foundation of staples
Indeed, a valuable tool for prioritizing quality over quantity in your wardrobe is relying on a foundation of trusty staples that you can embellish with some funky and fresh pieces that you love.
No, you don’t have to wear only mix-and-matchable neutral tones to live a sustainable lifestyle, but having a good foundation of basics to work with will help you get more out of each piece. If you have a few pairs of simple pants in standard colors (blue jeans, black trousers, beige linens), a couple of basic tops, and some neutral jackets, then you can construct a lot more different outfits incorporating your bright, bold, and more expressive numbers.
Now bear in mind, just because something’s a staple doesn’t mean the quality doesn’t matter anymore. On the contrary - these are the pieces that you will rely on most, so be sure to invest in items that will see you through thick and thin.
Do the hard work now for smooth sailing later
There are some steps you can take towards sustainability that may seem big in the moment, but they’re small in that you do them once and reap the rewards forever!
For example, evaluate your home’s energy efficiency and see if there are ways that you can live more sustainably (and, in turn, reduce your costs). Could you insulate your windows? If you’re building a home, consider the direction it will face to reduce electricity consumption by using sunlight. Installing smart technology has also been proven to reduce costs and energy consumption.
When it comes to clothing, is there a way you can re-organize your closet that helps you see all your stuff better? Maybe re-organizing your tops by color will make everything easier to find, and have you wearing things you don’t normally go for. Or perhaps you’ll notice that, even though you always say you love the color and you’ll find a way to wear it, you just never reach for anything blue.
These are things that may seem tedious right now, but once you rip them off like a bandaid, you’ll experience the benefits indefinitely.
Take good care of what you own
A large part of living sustainably is implementing preventative care so as not to reach a breaking point in the future. By thoughtfully tending to your belongings, you can prolong their lifespan and decrease the likelihood of them becoming redundant.
When it comes to clothing, for example, pay attention to the washing instructions on the labels, and take the liberty of doing some additional research if possible. Did you know that jeans are designed to be washed as infrequently as possible? So maybe you can chuck them in the laundry basket at the end of the week, rather than after just a couple of wears.
If you can, run your washes on a lower temperature setting and use environmentally friendly detergents for an added sustainable boost. Many laundry detergents contain harsh chemicals that pollute the water system, and/or are packaged in excessive plastic. Other options like laundry pods are softer on your skin and the environment, and, although they are expensive, you’ll get many uses out of them. It’s also worth considering a tool to catch any micro-plastics from your clothes, like a Guppy Bag.
Additionally, the way you store your clothes can impact how quickly they wear out. For sweaters, try to fold, not hang them, the weight can drag them down over time, stretching them out. On the other hand, be sure to hang linen to minimize the amount of ironing necessary, since the material crinkles so easily.
Remember: a little goes a long way
Small efforts towards sustainability, continued over a long time, make a much bigger difference than 3 months of extreme actions that you drop when you can’t keep them up anymore.
It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure to be “perfect” when it comes to living a life that aligns with your values and beliefs, but we’re all human and it’s normal to feel tired and to need some slack. Do your best to commit long-term -- even if you give in every now and then, don’t let it discourage you from giving it your best shot. That’s all any of us can do, anyway!