It’s been quite a chaotic week, if not month, for the majority of this country. I have many feelings about the election, most of them along the lines of fear, confusion, and anger. This post won’t be about the election directly, but something I’ve been forced to think about even more as a result of the election. The future of our environment is more uncertain than ever with the impending changes in D.C., and I’m beginning to think more about the impact individuals can make to help our planet. If you’re thinking, I don’t want to read about this hippy stuff, or something like that… I’m not sure what to say to you, except that it’s the responsibility of each individual to think critically about challenging the status quo, especially living in this mind-bogglingly wasteful country.
I’m not preaching. This is as much a personal exploration for me as it is a way to share the information I already know. I’m wasteful in many ways, many of which I could be completely unaware of. I think that’s usually the main problem - we’re so accustomed to what we’ve grown up around that we don’t see anything wrong with what we’re doing. We proceed, believing that we’re all entitled to the same indulgences that we witness, not questioning where things come from, or where things go. Certain things are okay because “everyone else does it too”. We comfort ourselves by emphasizing that we are 1 in 7 billion, and nothing we do can possibly make a difference in relieving the planet of the pressure of human existence. Yet, most of us seek to make a difference in the world one day. To me, it only makes sense that this difference starts with our daily habits. I’m not the most sustainable person I know, nor necessarily the most environmentally aware, but I’ll outline some of the things I want to do or already actively do to reduce my own environmental impact.
I’ll talk about diet first because that’s what I’m most familiar with. I have been vegan since I was 8 years old for health reasons, that have also accumulated environmental reasons in recent years. Livestock is responsible for 7.2 gigatons of CO2 emissions each year, which is nearly 15% of all human greenhouse gas emissions. For each kilogram of beef protein, 300 kg of CO2 is released. Additionally, cows produce 44% of human methane emissions, and methane can warm the planet about 86 times more than CO2 while it’s in the atmosphere. Pigs and chicken have less impact, but still require about 100 kg of CO2 per kg of protein. For comparison, tofu requires about 16 kg CO2 per kg of protein. There’s people out there who blame vegetarians/vegans for the deforestation in South America to make land for soy production… what they may not realize, however, is that 75% of the soy grown (in 2011) was used for animal feed, and 6% is used for human food. Instead of eating the animals that consume the soy for protein, we can eat the plant protein directly.
In addition to eating a plant based diet, trying to purchase locally grown produce is beneficial to the environment because it reduces transportation cost and energy to move the produce. Eating organic reduces toxic chemical waste from pesticides and fertilizer.
Eliminating food waste, composting, bringing your own bags to the grocery store, using a reusable water bottle (+ BPA free), and buying foods with less packaging can also help. In terms of daily habits, choosing to walk/bike instead of taking a car, taking shorter showers, turning off lights when you’re not using them, and recycling when possible are all beneficial.
Speaking of recycling - while it is definitely good to reuse and recycle, recycling is also an energy intensive process. Instead of using products (plastic water bottles, paper, disposable items) and assuming it is fine because those items will be recycled, it can be valuable to think about how to not use these products at all. Most actions that are done out of convenience can be easily altered to include reusable items.
Speaking of disposable items, I’ve recently started thinking about the environmental impact of feminine hygiene products. While these products are mostly cotton/rayon based, the disposable plastic packaging can definitely take a toll. The aversion to talking about periods may be part of the reason why disposable products are the standard - people want to just be able to throw them away and not think about it ever again, which makes sense. It’s a bit weird considering this is something half the globe has to deal with, which makes me think that reusable options, such as menstrual cups or reusable pads actually make a lot more sense.
I read a book called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline this past week, which presented unbelievable data about how much global impact our clothing has. When this book was written (2012), the US consumed 20 billion garments a year, which is 64 items per person - more than 1 piece of clothing per week. It’s the second largest consumer sector, right behind food. As a result, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons of textiles per year, which is 68 lbs per person. In 1950, the world made 10 million tons of fiber a year. In 2012 - 82 million tons. That requires 125 million tons of coal and about 2 trillion gallons of water. Zara alone produces 1 million garments per day, and the customers there shop an average of 17 times per year. While it might sound insane on paper, the rate at which we’re capable at consuming clothing is incredible. There is a focus on cheap clothing - H&M, Target, Forever21 - and these companies can afford to make clothes cheap because they’re making small profit margins on huge numbers. They thrive on making cheap, poor-quality clothes with factories that pay workers minimum wage, which is lower than living wage (cost to survive) in many countries. The book also describes a “clothing deficit myth”, which is the idea that all of our clothes, when donated, goes to some poor person who really needs it. In reality, 20% of post-consumer clothing becomes fiber for building materials, 30% for industrial rags, and 5% is thrown away. There’s not really a need for clothing in the world anymore, and if there is, it isn’t for the poor quality clothes that we’re burning through. To address this problem, we need to stop believing that all the clothes we purchase is put to effective use after get rid of it.
Even as someone who consumes relatively little clothing, this book still shook me. Clothing is not something we can just ignore, so I began looking into more sustainable clothing brands. Yes, many of them are more expensive, but when I consider the workers that made it, quality of the item, and decreased environmental impact, I find it justifiable, if possible. If not, trying to find higher quality cheap clothing and making it last as long as possible by taking good care of it and purchasing versatile pieces that will be worn often is another way of addressing this problem. A few brands that I have looked at and find admirable include Patagonia, United by Blue, and Cotopaxi. There are other companies that aren’t as charitable as those ones, but still sell high quality, long lasting, or ethically produced clothes - American Giant, DL1961, PACT, prAna, etc.
That's all I have for now, although I expect the themes of sustainability and consumption will continue to come up for me as I continue to examine the impact our daily choices can make.