Over the last few months, several major reports came out linking climate change to disastrous social, environmental, and economic consequences. The United Nations, for instance, brought together 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed 6,000 scientific studies and concluded that many earlier predictions were wrong. If we continue at our current pace of greenhouse gas emissions, we will face a full-on crisis by 2040, including massive food shortages, wildfires, and the end of the coral reefs. If you are the parent of a toddler right now, that is the year your child will be entering the workforce.
Then, in November, the Trump administration released a separate climate report that made it clear that the United States is already facing the deadly and devastating effects of climate change. Wildfires, hurricanes, and heat waves are already affecting large swaths of the American population, and these disasters are only going to become more frequent and severe.
Experts say that it is possible to reverse course, but it will take significant effort. Governments and companies have much of the power to change the future by creating policies that will curb carbon emissions at a large scale, but everyday consumers like you and me have a role to play as well.
Most of us living in the modern, developed world have gotten used to producing a large carbon footprint. Consider the massive quantities of household trash we generate every day, which adds up to 6,351 pounds a year per family. Each year, consumers around the world toss out 21.9 billion plastic bottles, 28 billion glass jars, 26 billion pounds of clothing and textiles, and 68.6 million tons of paper. All of these materials took energy to make and transport, only for it to land in our homes, where we promptly throw it in the trash can.
There are small, simple, inexpensive lifestyle changes we can make to be more responsible consumers. Scientists acknowledge that corporations have a far greater impact on remedying the problem than individuals, but a study published last year in the scientific journal Nature found that substantial, sustained efforts by consumers could help achieve the target of reducing the earth’s temperature by 1.5°C. Just as importantly, researchers have found that one person’s personal decision to live more sustainably is very likely to inspire other people to do so as well, creating a ripple effect throughout a community. This will accelerate the pace of change, and crucially, send a signal to governments and companies that we demand better of them.
There are two things you can do here. First, fill your home with glass pump bottles. The home brand Grove sells bottles for hand soaps and bathroom products, dish soaps, and sprays. They cost about $11 each. Once you’ve made that investment, you’ll be extra motivated to buy your household products inbulk-size pouches, which cost less per ounce and use less plastic. The brand also sells tubes of concentrated surface cleaners that you mix with water in spray bottles.
For laundry, use highly concentrated formulas, like Seventh Generation‘s 4X solution, which requires you to use only a quarter of what you would use ordinarily. The main ingredient in laundry detergent is water, which is what you wash you clothes with, so it makes all the sense in the world to do away with water in the bottles. Using a concentrate means your laundry bottle will last longer, reducing your consumption of plastic.
VOW NEVER TO USE ZIPLOC BAGS AGAIN
Using disposable plastic baggies around the house can get addictive. Brands like Ziploc and Hefty create bags in every size imaginable, at such a cheap cost, that you begin to use them for everything. Your kid needs a snack in the car? Worried about leaky toiletries on a trip? Need to bring a sandwich for lunch? There’s a bag for that.
Sure, it’s convenient. But you’re chucking out tons more plastic that you need to. The good news is that brands have developed reusable versions of the classic baggie. Take Stasher, a startup that has created silicone bags in the same size and shapes as the disposable ones we’re used to. They cost between $10 and $20, which seems expensive until you consider how much you spend on disposable bags. The bags have a leakproof seal, and they’re dishwasher and microwave safe. And they come in fun colors, including shimmery ones perfect for makeup and toiletries.
USE RECYCLED PAPER IN YOUR KITCHEN AND BATHROOM
We’re equally addicted to disposable paper towels. Any time there’s a spill or a splash of water from the sink, we reach for a paper towel and throw it in the trash. The first order of business here is to stock your kitchen with dish cloths. If you have one handy, you’re more likely to use it.
But if you absolutely cannot do without paper towels, buy the kind made from recycled paper. Seventh Generation sells them in both bleached and unbleached versions. The brand also sells toilet rolls made from recycled paper. They are just as absorbent as conventional paper towels and toilet paper, if not as soft and plush. One happy consequence of the paper’s texture? You tend to use less of it.
FIGURE OUT SOME MEATLESS MEALS YOU WILL ACTUALLY EAT
I’ll admit I’m a full-blown carnivore. If there’s steak or lamb on the menu, I’ll probably order it. But meat is a major source of greenhouse gas. If we all became vegetarian, we would cut global food-related emissions by a whopping 63%.
I’ve never in my life been tempted by the vegetarian lifestyle. But over the last couple of months, I’ve realized that this is partly because all of the meat-free food I have tried is boring and tasteless, and I often feel hungry later. There is a reason for this. Vegetarians make up only 3.2% of the American population, so many restaurants and grocery stores aren’t incentivized to cater to this sliver of the population.
The secret to changing your behavior is to spend some time finding vegetarian dishes that you find filling and delicious. Once you have a couple of meals you really enjoy, you can keep them on regular rotation. I’ve enjoyed Mark Bittman‘s couscous salad, which is full of chickpeas. I also started making a polenta and roasted mushroom dish, when a friend of mine posted a picture of it online. When I order from Asian restaurants, I pick tofu dishes, and palak paneer (a kind of Indian cheese), instead of beef or chicken. I’ve found that I enjoy oat or almond milk in my coffee more than regular cow’s milk.
The next time you open a cookbook or dine out, try something from the vegetarian section. It might surprise you. You may never become a full-time vegetarian, but your diet could become less meat-heavy, which is better for the environment (as well as your own health).
ENOUGH WITH THE TWO-DAY SHIPPING
Amazon got us hooked on two-day delivery. This pressured other e-commerce companies to keep up. As consumers, we now have no tolerance for delayed gratification: We want our stuff delivered as soon as possible.
Except: Do you really need every single item delivered in two days? As a Prime member, I often turn to my app when I remember I need something. One week it was hair ties, and the next, it was travel-size contact solution. Neither purchase was pressing, but Amazon made it so easy for me to click the “buy now” button. But this meant that rather than bundling many products into a single box, products were sent out one at a time, creating more packaging than necessary. And the company also shipped the products quickly, likely by air rather than ground transportation, which generates far more greenhouse gases. All so that I could replenish my jar of hair ties.
Amazon and many other retailers offer no-rush shipping. So these days, I opt for that, if I don’t need a product quickly. I’ve also gotten into the habit of putting products in my cart and purchasing several at a time, which I’ve found leads to Amazon delivering them all together in a single box. These are simple ways to train yourself not to give in to the instant gratification so many online retailers are pushing on you.
LEAVE REUSABLE BAGS ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE
We all know we should be using reusable shopping bags, but most of us don’t do it. Why? Because we forget to bring them to the store. We might carry our groceries home, unload them, and forget to bring the bags to the car. We might make an unplanned trip to the store, and not have a bag handy.
The solution is simple. Strategically plant reusable bags in all the spaces you inhabit. I have a set of five reusable plastic bags in my car, and more heavy-duty canvas bags in the trunk. I rarely use more than two bags at any one time, which means I always have a couple on hand. I also have a cute Baggu stashed in each one of my purses. And finally, when I am traveling, I carry my beloved New Yorker tote in my suitcase, just in case I need to make a stop at a store, which happens surprisingly often on business trips.
BUY FEWER CLOTHES, AND ONLY FROM SUSTAINABLE BRANDS
Most people have too many clothes, and most of these clothes are made cheaply, using inexpensive labor and low-quality materials. Fast fashion helped create the notion the clothes are disposable. You can buy them one season and chuck them the next. This, of course, generates massive amounts of waste.
But we don’t have to live like this. After all, surveys show that we only wear 20% of the clothes in our closets regularly. These are probably your most comfortable jeans, your soft black T-shirts, and your most flattering blazer. Focus on buying classic, high-quality clothes. They may cost more up front, but over time, you will save money, and the earth, by investing in pieces that you wear over and over for years.
When you’re shopping, seek out brands that are committed not just to creating beautiful, well-made clothes, but also making them sustainably. Take workwear brand Dai, for instance. It has just released aclassic $135 black turtleneck made largely from the pulp of wood regenerated into fibers, and is 100% biodegradable. It’s a soft, versatile piece that you can wear all the time, but when it’s finally reached the end of its life-span, it will return to the earth. Allbirdscreates sneakers made from sustainable wool and bamboo, and soles made from renewable sugar, rather than petroleum-based polyurethane. Womenswear brand Aday has developed three shirts made entirely from plant-based materials, including seaweed.
If you buy from startups like these, they’re more likely to stay afloat and create more sustainable products for you to wear.
CARRY AROUND REUSABLE STRAWS IN A LITTLE CASE
Last year was the beginning of the end for plastic straws. Some cities have banned them completely. Some brands, like Starbucks, are developing new containers that don’t require the use of a straw. While this sounds like good news, the fact is that the majority of the country is still blissfully loading up on straws when they go out to eat. As consumers, we’re using millions a day.
You don’t have to be among them. You can buy a small pack of reusable straws easily. Metal and bamboo straws are abundant on Amazon. But like reusable bags, the trick is to remember to bring your straws with you when you’re going out. This may sound a bit silly, but my solution has been to carry my straws around in my car and purses in little carrying cases, which can be purchased on Amazon or Etsy. They keep the straws clean, and mean you always have a couple handy when you really need one, like when you’re picking up your (vegetarian) food at a drive-through.
Author: Elizabeth Segran