“Sustainability” might just be the hottest buzz word of the last five years, but what does it mean exactly? It seems like every company advertises themselves as sustainable in some capacity nowadays. Unfortunately, these claims are often misleading or downright false. This phenomenon is often called “greenwashing” and it comes in many forms. Finding a truly sustainable brand requires a keen eye and a somewhat nuanced knowledge of what sustainability actually means.
And that’s what this post is for! I just want to provide a place for information regarding sustainability in general. You will find comprehensive sustainable living tips and some detailed information about the environmental impact of many different industries. Hopefully I can equip you with the right knowledge to start living a more sustainable life!
Before I really dive into sustainability and what it looks like, I want to put a little disclaimer:
Real, significant environmental change will only come with large-scale policy from the government and change from big corporations.
Most of climate change comes as a result from poorly regulated practices in a number of industries. Two of the largest are agriculture and textiles. This statement is not to belittle individual action, because although small, it is important. Any difference is at least some difference, and that is AMAZING. But if you want to see significant change in the health of our planet, it is essential that you vote for lawmakers who support green legislation and boycott large companies who refuse to change.
With all that being said, here is what I found on what sustainability really means:
According to Google, sustainability merely means the ability to maintain a certain level of something for a certain amount of time. So the longer something can be maintained, the more sustainable it is.
Let’s start with some basics. We all learned about fossil fuels and climate change in school to some degree. Using fossil fuels for energy poses two very concerning problems: they are not sustainable because we use them faster than they replenish, and they produce the damaging byproduct carbon dioxide. When the CO2 releases into our atmosphere, it traps the sun’s energy inside causing Earth’s temperature to rise. The consequences of climate change are practically infinite which is why we should turn our efforts towards renewable energy. They eliminate the two issues that fossil fuels present. Renewable energy never runs out (I mean, it’s in the name), and they have little to no harmful byproduct like carbon dioxide.
Sustainability in Manufacturing
The harmful effects of fossil fuels are more widely known than the harmful effects of many practices in manufacturing. Fast fashion brands rely on cheap fabrics like polyester which are made from fossil fuels alongside cheap, inhumane labor. Many toiletry and cosmetic brands rely on harmful and toxic chemicals in their products and animal testing during production. Livestock production is perhaps the largest culprit of environmentally damaging methods: it requires 36-74 trillion gallons of water every year in the U.S. alone, 26% of the world’s land is used for livestock grazing, and one third of Earth’s land suitable for crops is used for livestock feed even when 820 million people go hungry every year. The list of issues in the raising of livestock are almost endless, so I recommend watching the documentary Cowspiracy on Netflix to learn more.
Here are some more fast facts about fashion, cosmetics, and livestock agriculture:
- Water Usage
- 93 billion cubic liters of water per year – enough to meet the needs of 5 million people
- 1/5 of global waste water comes from fabric treatment
- 10% of global carbon emissions per year – more than international flights + boat shipping combined
- Other problems with fast fashion
- The average person buys 60% more clothing now than they did in 2000
- Less than 1% of worn garments are recycled
Information courtesy of the World Bank
The image above is a little blurry, but shows the salary of garment workers around the world as a percentage of their country’s national average salary. As you can see, garment workers in China make only about 20% of their national average salary. This is far from a decent living wage. And, unfortunately, most of the clothes sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China.
Check out the non-profit Remake for more detailed information on sustainable fashion! They’re mission is to educate everyone about fast fashion and advocate for fair wages for garment workers around the world. They provide tips for divesting from fast fashion and provide a master list of sustainable and ethical brands that they love. You can also donate directly to their cause on their website.
This image lists brands that Peta identified that still pay for tests on animals so that they can sell their products in China. I have a personal story later in this post that goes more in depth about animal testing and China’s policies.
According to a Forbes article, the livestock agriculture industry accounts for a whopping 51% of global greenhouse gasses. This figure includes greenhouse gasses emitted by the animals themselves like methane and the carbon emissions from the supply chain of livestock to their distribution sites like grocery stores. Immense amounts of water are used for meat production as well. One pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water.
So… What Does This Mean For Me?
As I said before, significant change in our environment will not come from individual action, but from large-scale change in policy. First and foremost, this information allows you to make an educated and logical choice when you fill out your ballot. Voting for change is definitely the #1 most effective action out of all my sustainable living tips.
However, we cannot underestimate the impact of individual action. For example, by using a reusable water bottle instead of single-use plastic bottles, you can save 1,460 plastic water bottles every year! Although individual action won’t be the only method for resolving climate change, it puts our society in the right mindset to take the next step.
Once again, before I continue, I must make another disclaimer:
The ability to choose sustainable alternatives for life-sustaining essentials like food and clothes is a privilege.
I plan to write about the role of privilege in a future post soon because there’s a lot to discuss, but know that not everyone has the ability to access or purchase sustainable items. I acknowledge this fact, and that’s why this post does not intend to say everyone should be more sustainable, but that anyone who can be more sustainable should. Not having access to affordable produce or natural toiletries is no one’s fault but that of the system.
Additionally, no one is perfectly sustainable or perfectly ethical. Sometimes, you must pick and choose between the sustainable actions to participate in based on your personal situation. Even making one small change in your everyday life can have a large impact down the road. Striving for perfection will ultimately discourage you from trying at all.
How You Can Help
If we circle back to the definition of “sustainability,” living a sustainable lifestyle would mean stretching your resources for as long as possible. When those resources wear out or need replacing, look to buy from companies and brands that implement sustainable practices. The following are just a few ways to incorporate sustainable actions into your life!
Change Your Diet
The vegetarian and vegan diets get a lot of flack for their seemingly radical and pushy participants. Changing something as fundamental as your diet is hard! The second a vegetarian or vegan “cheats” and eats something that’s excluded from that diet, they come under a lot of scrutiny. Personally, I find it silly and pointless to bully someone for at least trying. Sustainable living tip #2: Take it easy on yourself. The notion that living sustainably means living perfectly sustainable discourages many people from even trying in the first place because they know that they physically can’t be perfect. But as I said before, try not to strive for perfection. It’s impossible, and as long as something is changing, that’s great!
For example, maybe going vegetarian is easy for you alone, but if you cook for an entire family that eats meat, making the complete switch is unrealistic. However, sprinkling some more sustainable choices throughout your week or month can help a ton! According to Popular Science, cutting red meat from your diet can reduce your carbon footprint almost in half. As you can see, you don’t need to be perfectly meat-free to make a difference.
Make a Simple Switch
If changing something as fundamental to your life as your diet is a no-go, no worries. The best part about practicing sustainability is that it’s possible in nearly every facet of life. My 3rd recommendation in my list of sustainable living tips is start small! Carrying a reusable water bottle with you everywhere and saying no to plastic straws are classic sustainable choices than almost anyone can make. Other super easy and simple switches include: turning lights off when you leave the room, taking shorter showers, washing your laundry with cold water, and replacing your lightbulbs with LED lights once they burn out.
Restructure Your Buying Habits
Out of all of my sustainable living tips, #4 is perhaps the most effective on an individual level: cease to buy anything at all. Well, maybe not anything. But items like clothes or home decor rarely actually need replacing. Most often, the clothes you purchase you don’t actually need. The temptation to keep up with trends is strong and the feeling of buying something fresh and new is addicting. I fall for it frequently, but I am trying to get better. But the reality is that the textile industry is riddled with damaging practices and unfair wages.
The Problem With Fast Fashion
Think about it: brands like SheIn make trendy clothes for dirt cheap in huge volumes with poor quality fabrics. For example, right now tie dye sweat sets are HUGELY popular. I’m sure SheIn sells a set for no more that $15. Great! Say I purchase it and wear it for a few months. One (or maybe both) of these scenarios is bound to happen: the fabric was so cheap that a hole formed in the cuff after only a few wears or tie dye sweats go out of style. Either way, I’ll likely never wear those clothes again. Suddenly, SheIn has a surplus of tie dye sweats that will never get bought. Into the trash they go. As you can see, fast fashion is vicious cycle: new trends appear, SheIn produces clothing to keep up, I buy, I stop wearing, SheIn throws the rest away.
How to Combat Fast Fashion
The best way to break this cycle is simple: stop buying. Wear the clothes you have until you truly can’t anymore. Wait until they are worn out, too small, or too dirty to wear again. If they are still wearable and in good condition but you must get rid of them, donate them so they don’t end up in a landfill. Here are some sustainable living tips for when you inevitably need to buy new clothes:
- Try to buy second-hand first. Thrift stores are great places to look, but in the era of coronavirus, I can see the want to stay away. Try online second-hand platforms like ThredUp, Depop, Poshmark, The Real Real, etc.
- If you buy new, actively search for brands with sustainability in mind and pieces that are made with durable fabrics. Many of these clothes can be pricey, but think of them as an investment. Because fast fashion relies on cheap fabric and poor quality, you probably bought new clothes more often. Investing in a quality piece of clothing once eventually equates to purchasing cheap clothing many times.
- To stay fashionable, buy timeless and classic clothes like solid neutral colors and jeans. I guarantee that a white tee and light wash denim will never go out of style.
Beware of Greenwashing
To close out, I want to talk about a phenomenon that I mentioned in the beginning of this post: greenwashing. This term refers to the deception of brands to their customers about their environmental practices. Often, brands will post a vague and sweeping statement about sustainability or ethical practices on their website or social media. In many cases, however, these claims can be misleading or false. This term is not widely known, but it’s essential that you know what it looks like.
If a brand makes these types of general claims, typically you can email the brand asking for more detail. If their response skirts around the question or gives you information unrelated to your inquiry, odds are that the claims they posted to their site are false or not completely true.
I want to share my own personal experience with something similar to greenwashing:
When writing my post about my skin care routine, I did some research on each brand to see if they were sustainable and cruelty free. When researching my CeraVe cleanser, the first result on my Google search said that CeraVe products were cruelty free. This information came from CeraVe’s own site, so I knew there was a potential bias to their statement. As I dug a little further to confirm their claim, I found some interesting information. CeraVe as a brand is not 100% cruelty free because they sell some of their products in China. They are only one of two countries where animal testing is required for all cosmetic products. So although some products that CeraVe sells in the U.S. might be cruelty free on a product-to-product basis, the company still engages in animal testing overall.
Although animal testing is not necessarily an issue of sustainability but of ethics, sometimes I find that the two work together. However, my overall point is that sometimes the first claim you see for a brand in terms of sustainability or ethics is not always the complete truth. If a claim seems suspicious or too vague, chances are you will find a completely different story if you dig hard enough.
My 5th and final recommendation when it comes to sustainable living tips is do your research.
5 Main Sustainable Living Tips and Information
- Vote for the change that you want to see
- Don’t strive for perfection. Use this post as some loose guidelines to sustainable living. These are sustainable living tips, not requirements, so go easy on yourself.
- If you’re new to sustainable living, start small. Sustainability is practical in every facet of life.
- Restructure your buying habits and only shop when it’s time to replace items.
- Always carry a bit of suspicion for brands with vague or general statements on their own sustainable practices. Do your research.
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