Disclaimer: This is written from the perspective of a thirty-year-old man, living with his husband in London, and with no dependants.
Over the course of the latter half of 2017 I began to challenge myself to “green” my day to day life. Whilst to a greater or lesser extent there is an increasing push to live more sustainably, only when I purposefully began to make greener decisions in my eating, shopping and travel habits, did I notice just how little the average person does. That is certainly not a condemnation, especially when the focus on consumerism drives an irresponsible and unmaintainable disregard of resources: cheaper food options are mass-produced with little nutritional value and packaged in plastics which cannot be recycled; we are encouraged to regularly update our electronic devices, regardless of whether they are still functioning or not, and then disregard the old device consisting mostly of parts which cannot be recycled; fast-fashion dictates trends at an alarming rate, increasing demand for poorly made goods created in the developing world in often appalling conditions… the list could quite easily go on.
Living sustainably also remains beyond the realms of financial possibility for many, with it being far cheaper in the short-term to buy substandard goods, nutrient-deficient packaged food, or electronic goods contracts that tie you in at a greater long-term cost, but at a more manageable monthly rate.
There are, however, some “quick fixes” that I have adopted over the last 12 months that whilst aren’t going to rid our oceans of plastics tomorrow, will begin to turn the tide if we all do our bit.
Firstly, last year I was in desperate need of a new phone and spent a lot of time investigating what the best solution was. Do I choose a brand with questionable tax-evasion history, or one with a questionable human rights record (or both)? Do I choose the phone that is produced by a company trying its very best to live up to ethical standards, but is just not as effective as other models for business use? In the end, after much deliberation, I opted to go for a refurnished iPhone. Whilst it may not be ideal, recycling an old handset has meant that my carbon footprint is greatly reduced and I’m stopping a few dozen parts ending up in a pit somewhere, where they’ll be forever more. However, it is a compromised decision, one where I had to balance the usefulness of the phone for my daily work requirements, and the desire to increase my sustainability; though it does act as a useful analogy for all of my efforts over the last year: no matter how much you try, you can’t remain “on the grid” and be entirely ethical in your choices as a consumer.
I’ve also been more deliberate in selecting food that has a better ethical footprint. This is much harder to action than I first thought it would be, because the challenge that immediately presents itself (as with much of this) is: where is the line? You can make quick and easy decisions like I did to begin with which included buying only Fairtrade chocolate and not anything from brands with incredibly questionable records such as Galaxy or Nestlè, selecting eggs from only organic and free range sources, ensuring my teabags are both Fairtrade and not lined with traces of plastic, as many alarmingly are, and by also no longer eating at restaurants that either don’t treat their staff well (Byron Burger), have less than excellent meat (Nandos), or both. Whilst giving up the ease of restaurants like Nandos was noticeable in the early days, this quickly dissipated and actually led to my next step regarding food choices: vegetarianism.
Well. Sort of.
In recent months I’ve made the decision to drastically reduce the amount of meat and dairy produce that I eat. This began by giving meat up entirely for Lent this year, but I soon noticed that I actually don’t eat that much of it and that making the effort to continue the abstinence after Lent wouldn’t be that challenging. I once heard someone use the phrase “flexitarian”, which is probably more where I stand currently: whilst I don’t buy or cook meat at home (other than occasionally for my husband), I won’t refuse it if served at someone’s house or if something on the menu of a restaurant catches my eye. I also haven’t entirely given up fish, but again do my best to ensure that it comes from organic and natural sources – avoiding harmful farms and fishing practices. Dairy is less of an issue for me, as I gave up cow milk a number of years ago (and over the course of that period have switched to soya, then almond, and now hemp milk to substitute this) and I infrequently eat cheese – unless I’m abroad. Whilst these all may seem like small and inconsequential changes to my lifestyle, it’s worth recognising the impact of the meat and dairy industry not only on the livestock, but also the environment. According to information provided by PETA:
- 51 percent or more of global greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by animal agriculture, according to a report published by the Worldwatch Institute.
- It takes an enormous amount of water to grow crops for animals to eat, clean filthy factory farms, and give animals water to drink. A single cow used for milk can drink up to 50 gallons of water per day—or twice that amount in hot weather—and it takes 683 gallons of water to produce just 1 gallon of milk. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef, while producing 1 pound of tofu only requires 244 gallons of water.
- Using land to grow crops for animals is vastly inefficient. It takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based (vegan) diet than it does to feed a meat-eater since the crops are consumed directly instead of being used to feed animals.
- More than 90 percent of all Amazon rainforest land cleared since 1970 is used for grazing livestock. In addition, one of the main crops grown in the rainforest is soybeans used for animal feed.
- Coastal fish farms release faeces, antibiotics, parasites, and non-native fish into sensitive marine ecosystems. In addition, since most farmed fish are carnivorous, they are fed massive quantities of wild-caught fish. For example, it takes up to 3 pounds of fish meal to produce every pound of farmed salmon.
My food choices have also had an impact on where I shop: determining which supermarkets are the “lesser of all evils” has been a swirling rabbit hole of indecision! For instance, Marks and Spencer has more imported food, such as bananas, that are ethically sourced, but these come wrapped in plastic – in fact most of their fresh fruit and vegetables do. Waitrose, on the other hand, have much more available that is not wrapped in plastic or excessive packaging, but the packaging that they do use is often not recyclable at all. Co-op often seems to be the better option, but they very rarely have everything in their stores that you might need for a weekly shop. And of course, these are largely on the more expensive end of supermarket shopping. With the more accessible stores such as Tesco displaying at times a wanton disregard for sustainability. Understanding that when making a decision on where to shop, you often need to make a compromise as to whether you’re happy buying food that has clocked up the air-miles, or that’s wrapped in plastics that aren’t recyclable, or that the store itself might have a less than ethical approach to taxes. Whatever decision you make, one easy step would be to drastically reduce your use of single-use plastics such as carrier bags and food bags for vegetables etc. I always carry a reusable bag with me now, and never use the tiny polythene bags for my fruit and veg – let’s face it, a carrot comes with its own protection and you’re probably going to wash it anyway!
Of course, buying from local farms or from small-scale growers is preferable, but if you can’t do this (as many including myself can’t, largely due to geography) then accepting that you need to make a compromise is key – you’ll drive yourself (and those closest to you) insane otherwise. It’s also worth investigating whether organic suppliers who deliver can be found close to you; for Londoners I would highly recommend Riverford – but again this comes with an elevated price-tag, the very literal cost of choosing to live sustainably.
Deciding where to shop also impacts on clothing and household goods (such as washing up liquid, washing detergent etc.). I have drastically reduced my High Street spending for clothing, choosing instead to shop for more ethical brands online, which are more expensive as an initial cost but so far seem to be lasting much longer than their High Street counterparts. For example, I purchased a pair of MUD jeans via bandofbrothers.com well over a year ago and not only have they kept their shape and colour after multiple washes, there is no sign of any wear and tear on them; something I wouldn’t be able to say about a pair of H&M jeans. This has required a shift in mentality: from embracing fast fashion and the ever-changing commercialism of the fashion market, to investing in pieces that will last a long time, both literally and in terms of living beyond the trends set by the Chief Revenue Officers at the big fashion houses and High Street stores. Incidentally, my MUD jeans also come with not only a repair warrantee (not that I’ve yet needed this), and a recycling scheme in which you can trade in your old pair of jeans for a discount on a new pair – should you ever want or need to!
All this being said, this is only the beginning of the veritable iceberg – and ironically speaking of icebergs, I’m finishing this piece whilst flying to Albania for the second time in four days. Whilst I have made progress in my attempts to drastically reduce my carbon footprint, and increase my efforts to live sustainably and ethically, I have still have much more that I can do personally. My goals for my second year of focussing on this are:
- Reduce the amount of water wastage in my home and working environment. I’m notoriously awful at leaving taps running when cleaning my teeth or washing down a work surface.
- Be more deliberate in my recycling efforts – including the harder to recycle items that I might not be able to deal with curb-side, but that can be done at larger depots. Inner-city living also makes food recycling a challenge, and so I want to double down my efforts on this.
- Drastically reduce my carbon footprint. I need to investigate how to effectively do this (as there is mixed opinion out there on carbon offsetting), but I plan to be more mindful of what harmful chemicals are produced by me going about my daily life and where I can seek to reduce this.
It’s important for me to raise one final point: that none of what I have done above has either bankrupted me or made my life challenging in any way. The hardest part is changing the mindset that Westerners in particular and of certain generations have largely been indoctrinated from birth, particularly more recent generations: that if I want it, I can have it and the potential cost of that on myself or my surroundings is inconsequential. Whilst I continue to challenge myself on what I need, compared to what I want, I’d like to do the same to you: why is your desire for that cheap, easy access chocolate bar more important than the life of the underpaid child who likely harvested the cocoa beans? Or, why is your wanting of items from the latest line from Zara of more value than those enlisted to make those clothes in unbearable conditions, or the landfill that it will more than likely end up in? This isn’t about guilt, but it is about making informed decisions about the impact our lifestyles are not only having on our own health, but the health of others and the world around us too.