There is no question that we’re on the brink of an environmental crisis. Scientists have been warning us about the consequences of global warming caused by human activity for decades. In Australia, we now feel the negative impact of global warming on an almost daily basis.
The bushfire crisis has continued for months, and an area of over 10.7 million hectares have been destroyed. Australia is home to over 1800 at-risk plant and animal species, and an estimate of over 1 billion animals have perished.
The world heritage listed Great Barrier Reef has suffered from two major back-to-back coral bleaching events. If water temperatures continue to rise, we might lose large part of the reef forever, destroying a delicate ecosystem and with it the livelihood of thousands of people that depend on it.
At the same time, governments and many multinational companies continue with business as usual. Large scale fossil fuel project such as the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland and a deep water oil drilling project in the Great Australian Bight still forge ahead.
Seeing all these events unfold can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Many of the decisions that have led us to this point can seem out of your control and too complicated to solve as an individual.
But you can make a difference through the choices you make every single day. This article provides you with tips on how to start living a more sustainable lifestyle.
What sustainability means
In very simple terms, sustainability means to meet our own needs without compromising the needs of generations to come.
When you choose to live a sustainable lifestyle, it means that you intentionally avoid things that deplete natural resources, to maintain ecological balance. You leave enough for the environment to replenish itself and avoid products that cause harm to the environment or cannot break down at all.
The 5 R’s of living a more sustainable lifestyle
There are hundreds of small steps you can take to start living a more sustainable lifestyle. The tips below give you some ideas on the habits you can adopt to reduce your personal carbon footprint.
An easy way to stay aware of making more sustainable lifestyle choices is by remembering the 5 R’s
All tips in this article address at least one of these 5 sustainability principles.
Replace one-time use with reusable materials
Many common household items are designed for one-time use and convenience. Unfortunately, these items take a lot of energy to produce, are directly linked to the fossil fuel industry and pile up in landfills where they will never breakdown.
From take-away containers and coffee cups, straws, plastic bottles, extra packaging and beyond, so much of what you use only for a few minutes every day will still be around many generations from now.
Estimations show that Australia alone uses approximately 10 million disposable plastic straws per day, equalling 3.5 billion straws annually. Worldwide approximately 8 billion tons of plastic are added to the ocean each year.
To reduce the amount of waste you’re adding to landfill, choose to take a refillable bottle and reusable coffee cup with you. You can even bring your own container to a café or restaurant for a trashless takeaway experience.
In the kitchen, replace plastic sponges and paper towels with washable cloths and old rags. You can also reuse glass jars and plastic containers to organise your pantry.
When doing your grocery shop, wherever possible, try to avoid items wrapped in unnecessary plastic. Shopping for staples such as legumes, nuts and pasta in bulk food stores can help you living more sustainably and save you money.
Finally, if your local grocer, food brand or supermarket uses an excessive amount of packaging for their products, talk to them directly or contact their customer service department. If enough customers complain, they will have no choice but look for alternative solutions.
Cut down on chemical cleaning products
Did you know that most cleaning products you use to keep your house spotless are not only harmful to the environment (and potentially your health), but are also completely useless?
A study by Australian consumer advocacy group Choice found that:
- Many multipurpose cleaners failed to outperform plain water in their tests
- Plain water performed almost as well as every single floor cleaner they tested; they don’t recommend using any floor cleaner products
- There’s hardly any difference between multipurpose cleaners and special kitchen sprays.
So, in addition to the pollution caused by producing chemical cleaning products, the aerosol containers and spray bottles that end up in landfill, and the actual pollution of the air and ocean when using them, the majority of these products are also a waste of money.
One alternative to using commercial, chemical-based cleaning product is to make your own multi-purpose cleaner with vinegar. Castille soap is also a great natural alternative to get rid of grime.
Reduce your electricity usage and switch to renewables
Dependency on fossil fuels is a worldwide concern and is a major problem in Australia. These fuels are not renewable and contribute major carbon emissions every day that they are used.
By paying attention to the electricity and gas you consume you can reduce your own footprint. Turn off lights that aren’t in use, unplug electronics that can still consume power in the “off” state.
Keep doors and windows open or closed to help control the temperature and don’t overdo it on the air-conditioning. Keep the temperature consistent at 24 degrees in summer and 19 degrees in winter for a more sustainable lifestyle – in both the environmental and economic sense.
Want to do even better? Switch to a renewable energy source. And yes, this is also possible when you’re renting. If you own your home, you might want to consider installing solar panels on your roof which will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also save you money.
What’s more, switching to a renewable energy source means that you’re voting with your feet. The more people make this choice, the more pressure we are putting on energy companies to invest into alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and wave energy.
Technically a part of conserving electricity, this tip deserves its own category because of the multiple ways it can make an impact. When you choose to hang your laundry to dry, you do save an estimated $100 annually in electricity from running the dryer.
You also preserve your clothing, so there isn’t extra wear and tear forcing you to purchase even more from the fashion industry. You won’t need to use an iron or worry about wrinkles. Additionally, you reduce the danger of house fires, commonly caused by dryers.
Carpool, bike, or walk to work
Another great way to reduce fossil fuel dependency is by making use of public transportation, carpooling, and biking or walking whenever possible. New Zealand is among the world-leaders in car ownership, with every 1,000 people having more than 740 cars.
While other air pollution varies seasonally, automobile emissions remain constant throughout the year and are considered a significant contributor to air pollution throughout in urban areas. An estimated 3,000 Australians die each year because of diseases attributed to air pollution.
Cars emit carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone and particulate matter that becomes visible as smog. This is a toxic mix of chemicals that is terrible for the environment. When you consider that diesel-powered vehicles have been declared carcinogenic by The International Agency for Research on Cancer, it’s particularly alarming that diesel is the fastest-growing fuel type in Australia.
Opting to bike or walk will reduce your environmental footprint and has the added benefit of making you fitter and healthier. What’s not to like?
Upgrade your home wisely
If you own a home or are building a new home, there are a number of opportunities to increase energy and fuel efficiency. You can replace old windows and doors with efficient ones and install insulation in your walls or attic to protect your home and reduce the use of heaters and air conditioning in adverse conditions.
With the advancements in smart home technology, you can now even buy thermostats that can be controlled from an app or programmed according to your schedule. This way, your empty house isn’t working to stay at the most optimal temperature while you’re at work but can still be comfortable by the time you get home.
You can choose appliances that boast of energy efficiency like a tankless water heater or heating systems that use less power. You have the option to install solar panels to provide some of the power to your home, and there are programs available to lease them if an outright purchase isn’t feasible.
Even without owning your home you can replace light bulbs with efficient ones and choose electronics like televisions that have good energy scores.
Adopt a minimalist lifestyle
Especially in affluent societies like Australia, a lot of the things we acquire we don’t really need. Sometimes we buy clothing just to make us feel better after a bad day at work, only to hang them into the wardrobe – tags and all – never to be worn.
Our obsession with accumulating new stuff and ‘grabbing a bargain’ has gone so far that we now have a whole genre of literature designed to help us declutter our lives. Aside from the financial and emotional stress that piling up stuff in our homes can cause, sooner or later these things will inevitably end up in landfill. And let’s not even go into detail on the resources required to produce these things and the working conditions under which they are made.
To adopt a more minimalist, clutter-free and sustainable lifestyle, spend some time understanding what is important to you and what you already have. You might discover things in your wardrobe that you have long forgotten about. Or that you have more than enough kitchen utensils already to become a professional chef.
Try to stay clear from impulse purchases, simply because something is on sale and remind yourself of similar things you may already own. Make a note of any items you want and see if you still think about them a couple of weeks later. If not, you probably didn’t need them that much after all.
If you need a new dress or suit for a special occasion – like a wedding or gala event at work – ask one of your friends if you can borrow one of there garments. There are also some great services such Dress for a Night or GlamCorner where you can rent clothes for special occasions.
Support companies with sustainable business practices
As much as you try to reduce your consumption and make do with the things you already own, we all need to buy something from time to time. Luckily, there are now an increasing number of companies who are adopting sustainable business and manufacturing practices.
When you’re looking to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, it pays to spend some time researching your options whenever you’re buying something new. Which manufacturer produces in a way that is aligned with your values? Can you find online reviews that tell you something about the durability of an item? Could you buy it second hand? Can you buy it at a local store, meaning you can cut down on packaging for shipping and unnecessary road miles associated with online shopping?
You might be surprised at all the options you have. Good On You is a free mobile app that makes it easy to research the sustainability track record of your favourite fashion brands. It also recommends more sustainable alternatives.
If you’re looking to invest in the stock market, it’s also a good idea to dig a bit deeper into the company’s sustainability ratings. The investment app Goodments provides a lot of transparency in this process.
Beware of companies who are greenwashing though. Since sustainability and eco-friendliness have become somewhat fashionable, many companies try to capitalise on the trend without taking any action. That’s why it’s so important to do your research before making a purchase. The good news that this habit will also help you to adopt a more minimalist lifestyle.
Make organic and eco-conscious food choices
One thing you may not think of is the natural resources and pollution involved with the meals that you consume each day. Some foods are easy on the environment, and others are terrible for it. Sometimes the food itself would be fine, but the practices involved in maximising the profit margin aren’t sustainable.
Palm Oil, for example, is one of the most widely traded vegetable oils worldwide. Most of it is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is used in many pre-packaged and convenience foods you can buy at the supermarket.
Palm oil production and cultivation are responsible for deforestation and endangering of native plants, animals such as the orangutan and indigenous people who called the biodiverse forest home.
This is just one example of a food that is not sustainable the way it is currently being grown. If you want to avoid palm oil in your everyday food purchases, this WWF guide explains how.
Another food group that is facing increasing pushback due to its poor environmental record is meat and dairy.
The meat industry is the biggest environmental culprit in the food industry, and livestock farming contributes between 13 and 18% of human-produced greenhouse emissions worldwide. This outweighs all emissions from all transportation methods combined.
Add to that the land clearing required for animals to graze and grow the crops to feed them – as well as the water needed for both – and it’s clear that our planet won’t be able to sustain the growing demand for meat with a world population estimated to reach over 9 billion by 2040.
As these two examples show, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and confused by the sheer amount of information out there when it comes to making more sustainable food choices. How do you know whom to trust?
Instead of following the latest food fad or research report (possibly funded by an industry group), try to stick to a few simple tips:
- Buy the best quality you can afford (e.g. organic, free range);
- Try to make meals from scratch whenever possible (no hidden ingredients);
- Buy seasonal produce (bonus: it’s cheaper too);
- Reduce your meat intake and try to cut it altogether at least a few days per week (think of it as a special treat rather than something you need every day with every meal).
Gardening and sustainable landscaping
One of the most fun and powerful ways you can be more sustainable is to focus on your own backyard. Instead of grass that needs constant watering, fertilising and weedkillers, stone and mulch are an eco-friendlier choice for landscaping.
Choose native plant species that need less water like natural wildflowers, and plant trees that will be a positive impact on CO2 levels and even provide food. Avoid the use of pesticides in your yard entirely, as they will kill bees that are vital to the ecosystem. Make use of the drainage and repurpose runoff for watering your garden.
With even a small balcony or rooftop, you can grow your own vegetables and herbs. With a large summer garden and a pressure cooker to can with, you can stock up your pantry for winter. Any amount of food you can grow yourself is food that you know hasn’t contributed to pollution, and really makes a major difference.
You can also have free-range chickens, which provide for your own eggs as well as can be used for meat when they no longer produce. They also work as natural weedkillers and will keep your home low on insects and consume food scraps that would be otherwise thrown away.
A final word
Once you start adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, you will notice that there many more things you can do. And there are so many great blogs, books and videos out there to provide you with ideas.
This post is by no means intended to cover everything. That would be impossible! But by following these steps and basic guidelines you’ll be on the path to living a more sustainable lifestyle.