A few weeks ago, I read a new post from Jessica Rose Williams about Organic Basics, a company that provides sustainable underwear, amongst other things. I’d recently read this post from Emma at Field & Nest about how you don’t have to be perfect to live a more sustainable lifestyle, and I was eager to get going on this more sustainable lifestyle.
So I clicked on over to the Organic Basics site, with visions of replacing all my M&S cotton underwear with this new and improved sustainable organic cotton underwear.
In a few more minutes I realised my mistake, thankfully before I actually ordered anything. And that is that with reusable items, it is almost always better to keep what you have until it needs replaced. Even with sustainable clothing, there’s an environmental cost to things like shipping, and what of the items being replaced? For something like underwear, the best case scenario is recycling, which while better than landfill is by no means a zero-cost solution.
The fact of the matter is, when it comes to sustainability one of the most important things you can do is buy less. This applies to consumables, like food and single-use plastics, but also reusables, like clothes and storage containers.
This isn’t to say that where these reusable belongings come from doesn’t matter. Of course it does. But that we should be replacing them when they are no longer fit for service, not because we see shiny new sustainable gear online.
And I think this is one of the hard things about sustainable living. We want to do something. Not buying things isn’t doing, it’s not doing. Even with minimalism, which also advocates buying less, there’s a process of discarding, which a form of taking action.
We want to strike while the iron is hot, too. I’m sure I’m not the only person whose enthusiasm for any course of action waxes and wanes. When I’m feeling more enthusiastic about overhauling my lifestyle to be more sustainable, of course I want to make those changes now, not three years down the line when my M&S pants finally give up the ghost.
So what can people like myself do now, to set ourselves up for a more sustainable lifestyle both now and in the future?
Research sustainable sources
The fact that I don’t need new clothes right now is, in truth, something of a blessing. It means that I have the time to do my research, so that when I do need new underwear I don’t just order the same ones I’ve always worn.
When it comes to the rest of my wardrobe, too, I can take the time to find brands that produce ethical, sustainable clothes that fit my style and my body. Indeed, I have the time to really hone what my personal style means for me (a question for the ages, that one), and to get a better idea of what clothes work for my body and my lifestyle, before I ever click ‘buy’ on anything.
This research also gives me time to get over the sticker shock. Who among us hasn’t looked at the prices on an ethical fashion website and felt a sense of impending doom? By doing the research now, before I need new clothes, I can get used to the prices and plan accordingly.
I read an article once about fast fashion, in which one of the women interviewed confessed to spending £200 a month on clothing. £200! What I really noticed here, though, was that in a sense I’m already halfway there. Occasional wobbles aside, my clothes-buying habits are, by and large, more or less sustainable, in that I only buy when I need new things. I don’t really do a capsule wardrobe or anything like that, but I buy infrequently and I doubt I’m spending as much as £2400 a year on clothes.
In fact, the biggest issue for me, from a sustainability perspective, is that I tend to wait too long, because I absolutely loathe clothes shopping. What this means is that I get desperate and default to whatever I can find that mostly works.
Last autumn, after sweating through a summer in jeans, I bought some denim shorts online for an upcoming trip. And while on the one hand I now own two pairs of shorts and have no intention of adding to them this summer, at the same time I bought them off of Amazon because the cut was passable and they more or less fit.
I also bought six pairs and kept two, because the sizing was so rubbish that of the three colours, each in a UK 12 and 14, one 14 fit me, but on the tight side, and one 12 fit me, but on the loose side. The environment paid for the extra shipping to return the badly fitting shorts.
Of course, even sustainable brands don’t have a magical sizing camera that looks at my body and knows exactly how to cut the clothes, but if I can find brands with consistent sizing where I know what size works for me, I can continue to buy from them in confidence without having to return things that don’t fit right.
Likewise, most of my t-shirts come from a quick whip-round Banana Republic at the end of last summer, after spending months wearing ill-fitting tops because in the summer here I really do need to change my top every day (sometimes twice a day), and I owned about two that I actually liked. I needed some basic V-neck or scoop neck t-shirts, in cotton and not too thick (I’m pretty curvy, so a crew neck or thicker knit look terrible on me), and as I didn’t see any on the few sustainable fashion sites I knew, I went to the mall.
Rather than buying organic underwear, what I should do now is spend my time looking for ethical brands that fit my needs, so that when my current crop of t-shirts wears out I can replace them easily.
Replace consumable items
Another good area of our lives to look at is consumable items. Single-use plastics have been getting a lot of attention in the news, and with plastic bag charges in the UK and in many major supermarkets here in Canada, a lot of us have already reduced our consumption of single-use plastics.
But there’s another area of our lives where plastic is often used, plastic that doesn’t necessarily get recycled at the end, and that’s personal care and cosmetics. How often do you go through a bottle of shampoo? A tube of deodorant? A jar of eyeshadow?
Because we replace these items relatively frequently, this is a great place to start phasing in more sustainable products. I love Chagrin Valley shampoo bars, which come in plastic-free packaging (brown paper bags) and have a reduced environmental impact compared to liquid shampoo as the soap is more concentrated. I’ve recently started using their deodorant as well (which comes in glass jars and works brilliantly), and they sell a wide range of other personal care products.
If your current routine involves lots of products in plastic bottles, then pick a few that are starting to run low and look for a more sustainable replacement – if you replace it at all. I recently ran out of shaving gel, for instance, and instead of buying more just started using my shampoo bar to lather up before shaving.
Reduce food waste
We all have to buy food. That’s a fact of life. This makes food a great place to start being more sustainable; each weekly shop is an opportunity to assess what worked and didn’t and to make further tweaks towards a more sustainable routine.
I was shocked to learn that domestic food waste is a major contributor to carbon emissions. Yes, you read that right, domestic food waste. That’s the food we throw away in our own homes, not the food from supermarkets or restaurants. It accounts for more than half of all food waste in the UK, and of that 60% is classed as ‘avoidable’ — to the tune of 17 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
Some food waste is classed as unavoidable because they’re the parts of a food we don’t normally eat, like egg shells or tea bags. Other waste is classed as potentially avoidable, as it’s things like potato skins that are eaten in some circumstances but not others.
It surprised me to learn that only 60% of food waste is classed as avoidable; I’m so used to tossing my banana peels and apple cores that it didn’t even cross my mind that they, too, are sources of food waste. A lot of fresh food produces this kind of waste, though, so rather than trying to eliminate it entirely the best thing to do, in my opinion, is to dispose of it properly — that is, in a garden compost bin or in a local authority green bin scheme.
Sadly, this isn’t always possible. My own local authority doesn’t do green bin collection in the apartment towers in the downtown core, and I’m so excited to move into our new house in September so we can start composting all the tea leaves and kale stems we produce.
For the remaining 60%, however, the best option is to avoid throwing it out entirely: by not buying more than we need, and by being creative about using up leftovers. Meal planning is a lifesaver when it comes to buying appropriate amounts of food, and I tend to find that planning for half to two-thirds of the meals before the next grocery shop works best, as there’s always half a head of cabbage and a couple of carrots leftover that can be sauteed with some eggs for another couple of meals.
The other way we can reduce food waste is to consider the emissions before the food reaches our own kitchens. Much has been made in the media lately of the benefits of a plant-based diet, so even switching out a few animal proteins for more lentils and tofu is a great start. Likewise, buying more local, seasonal food, either from your farmers’ market or from the supermarket, can help limit the amount of carbon used to transport the food to you in the first place.
A final note
Pursuing a more sustainable lifestyle can feel so overwhelming. The news is full of reports about how we have only twelve years — no, eighteen months — to save the planet, and we’re already feeling the effects of climate change with the heat waves of the past two summers. It’s easy to flip-flop between doing nothing, because it’s so overwhelming, and jumping in with both feet, trying to do everything at once.
It can be hard to strike this balance because so often sustainability is about not doing something. Not buying another dress. Not trying a new conditioner. Not buying a bigger car. I’ve listed the three categories in this post in order of least to most frequent purchases, but the common theme amongst them all is to think about where these things come from and to not buy more than we need.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, I encourage you to pick one way to reduce your food waste this week. It can be anything from meal planning to meatless Mondays.
If you’re feeling excited, and chomping at the bit to lead a more sustainable lifestyle, then I suggest focussing on the first two items in this post. Favouriting dresses on Etsy or creating a list of sustainable toiletry replacements helps to feel like you’re doing something, without inadvertently increasing your carbon impact by buying things you don’t need.
It sounds trite, but I truly believe that every little bit helps. Browsing shops on Etsy might feel self-indulgent, but when the time comes to buy more clothing you — and the planet — will be grateful you chose handmade clothes that are built to last.