My Sustainability Journey

My Sustainability Journey
**Potential trigger warning for those with eco-anxiety**

How it all began

It didn’t start with an earth-shattering realization that our Earth is in fact shattering. It was more gradual, I’d say over the course of a week or so. I’d scrolled past the photos and videos of the destruction to our ecosystem countless times and just thought it was sad, but moved on with my life. Honestly, I don’t even blame myself for it. At 20 years old, I was raised with this. It’s barely touched on in school, so I had nothing to worry about, I trusted that the grown-ups knew what they were doing. It’s pretty hard not to be desensitized to it when the unspoken rule states that if you’ve seen it your whole life it’s probably normal.

It's hard to say what was so different about the posts I saw that week that stopped my thumb from scrolling, encouraged my eyes to linger, and pushed my thoughts a little deeper which forced me to question why this is normal and, even worse, how long it could continue. I always knew our normal was filled with challenges, all that week did was make those subconscious thoughts a little more conscious. I started to question “normal”.

I’d argue that I went a little too far the other way, however, moving from a relatively apathetic mindset to a crippling empathy invoked such a strong sense of impending doom and helplessness within me that I knew something had to be done, and soon. 

The following months were consumed with anxiety. I know we’ve all heard about how one person can make a big difference, but when you become so passionate about something that you actually try to, you can feel really small, really fast. I opened my eyes to the impact that my actions had on the planet, let alone those of others, businesses, governments. I had no idea how I could fix this fundamental problem and felt so out of control that I almost began to accept it.

Oof. A little heavy for a blog post and probably not the one you were expecting, I know, but I implore you to stay with me.

So let’s fast forward. I still remember confiding in my best friend who, luckily for me, is also an Environmental Studies Major. She very calmly looked me in the face with a little smile and just said, “sounds like you have some eco-anxiety”. I was a little dumbfounded. I’d never heard of it, but after some googling, it sounded pretty spot on. 

But what does this fancy label do? Well, it (along with other anxiety coping methods) did a few things to better my mental health, but that’s for a different storytime. From a strictly environmental empowerment perspective, it helped to eliminate the isolation I was feeling. There were so many other people who were not just feeling like this, but passionate about the planet and working towards bettering it. I wasn’t alone. I was a part of something much bigger and I didn’t even know it existed. This really helped to pick me up, continue my research and take actions, no matter how small, to do my part, whatever that looked like for me at the time. I think this is the reason that Anne Marie Bonneau’s quote resonates with me so much, it echoes the same message: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”. 

What Did I Do?

I used to feel like my actions were too small, but I began to realize that as long as I am doing the best I can, that’s all that matters. I focused short term first, looked into my impact and researched ways to help mitigate it, and make my day to day a little more eco friendly. I didn’t always get it right the first, second, or even third time, but I kept striving and continue to strive to find more environmentally conscious alternatives to incorporate in my everyday life. 

Something that helped me make this seemingly life overhaul a little less daunting was dividing the rooms up in my house: the bathroom, kitchen, laundry room, cleaning closet, backyard, etc. I would zero in on one room and brainstorm all the changes I could make. For example, in the bathroom, I switched to a menstrual cup and other reusable period products, bar soap, package-less shower products (~ yes this is a big EarthSuds plug here ~), natural body mitt (think a natural luffa), etc. I then looked at ways I could get my household involved. I discovered if I made some changes and showed how simple they were, it was easy to get them on board. I even convinced my roommates last year to separate their food scraps into a different container so I could send it with my friends who had compost bins (as our apartment didn’t offer compost).

The key here is that you never become sustainable, you just slowly become more sustainable. It’s not a one and done achievement. It took me a while to get where I am today and I’m still a ways away from where I want to be, but between you and me, I don’t think I’ll ever reach it. I’ll never be totally satisfied with how sustainable or unsustainable I am. 

And it’s good to feel like you can do better and constantly push yourself to be better – that’s how we change. But if you ever feel like you should be doing better to the point that it’s really weighing you down my tip is to just ask yourself “am I doing better than I was this time last year?”. Most of the time the answer is yes because you’ve grown and learned more about how to make our planet a little better. And even if sometimes you fall in the other direction, and feel like you haven’t, then it's a great opportunity to first, reflect on and appreciate all of the changes you have made and things you have done, then jump back into your research and learn from your network. That’s the cool thing about being part of such a global movement, we’re always learning, growing, and changing together. 

So the key is not perfection, but progress. It's an ongoing process and journey, and like any journey, the hardest part is being patient and getting started. 

What You Can Do  

I’ve been on my sustainability journey for a while. I still don’t have everything down pat and do see lots of opportunities to further my sustainable practices. But over time, there are a lot of things I have learned, especially looking back on my journey. They say hindsight is 20/20 so what better year than this to share some of the things I have learned through reflecting on my journey thus far?

  1. You won’t always get it right the first time. Sometimes I would get a product or make a change that I thought was eco friendly, only to later find out it wasn’t, or could find something even more eco friendly. That’s okay, it’s about learning. 
  2. Use what you have first. You have probably seen this before, but it’s worth saying again. It is so tempting to just rid your house of plastic and other un-ecofriendly products. But this is a huge waste!! It’s been made, so:
    1. Use it completely and mindfully (e.g. don’t just use too much soap in your laundry so you can get eco-friendly soap. Use it consciously and use the proper amount to make it last)
    2. Repurpose the containers. A friend of mine mentioned that her family uses individual yogurt containers to sort out nails and bolts. Get creative and try to reuse the containers you do have instead of buying fancy glass or other ones.
    3. When the time comes, and truly comes, dispose of them properly and responsibly. This could take some research, but there are a lot of harmful effects associated with improper waste management. 
  3. Be patient. This goes hand in hand with points 1 and 2 but it is very important. It's a journey not a race for a reason.
  4. Do your research. Follow trusted sources and stay up to date. Try to really look into the sustainability of products and learn what makes a product sustainable. Something that has really helped me do this signing up for email subscriptions - very easy and low effort ways to stay in the loop! 
  5. Have conversations but lead by example. I love showcasing to others how easy it is to make more sustainable swaps. So it’s very important to be a leader to your peers and help demonstrate and explain small changes they can make to become just a little more sustainable. 
  6. Be patient with others as well. While it's important to share your ideas, views and passion for sustainability, it can become frustrating when others don’t take your advice. It’s sometimes like that with things that you are passionate about, not everyone will agree. So be patient, lead by example, and have calm, educational conversations when possible. 
  7. Forgive your past self and look to the future. I began beating myself up and feeling so guilty looking at how un-environmentally conscious my past self was. But what is the use of doing this? All that matters is you are learning from it, and you’re reducing your impact now, rather than continuing your past self’s impact for any longer. 
  8. Join groups. This is a great way to feel supported and less alone. It helps you feel like you are doing your part in something greater and see how others are doing their part for a collective impact. It facilitates learning and growth while spreading the message. There are often groups to join at school, work, etc. 
  9. Start small. It’s overwhelming at first and so tempting to just change everything. That is exhausting and can lead to mistakes. Be patient, take your time to do research, and make it a little less daunting by changing maybe one small thing every week or month to begin with.   
  10. Understand that you have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others - including the planet.  A great example is when I switched to an unpackaged bar deodorant. It began to give me horrible reactions so I had to go back to the one I did not react to until it calmed down. This means, despite it being an all-natural deodorant, back to plastic packaging. But I have to take care of myself first, and am on the hunt for a natural deodorant, consulting with professionals to find one that does not have such harmful packaging and is good for me. And I will be sure that when I am finished with this deodorant, I dispose of the packing properly and responsibly.   
  11. Pay attention to the trade-off. Start to consider how something that may seem like it doesn’t have a great environmental impact can help to prevent a larger negative environmental impact in the future. A great example I read once was about vaccines, although they do involve plastic, there is likely a lot more plastic and resources that would have to be used and involved if someone did contract the disease. 
  12. Get creative and question your purchases. Rethinking if you need to buy something, if you can buy something better, where you buy it, and how you buy it. All of the elements of consumption can impact the environment. So, as I said before (but I will say it again because it is so important), try to be creative and use what you have, e.g. possibly a clean old pillowcase can serve as a produce bag instead of purchasing a fancy new one that will require resources. Support local causes and companies that support the cause. Try to look into the ingredients used, the sustainability of the company, etc. The important part here is to question how you can make a purchase more environmentally conscious. A great example would be how a product like EarthSuds not only reduces plastic packaging and consumption but also generates fewer emissions related to transportation than traditional shampoo. Since there is no extra water weight, more can be transported at once requiring less transportation overall.