This is a post from 2019 that I am republishing to mark Earth Day 2023.
I started my vegan journey for environmental reasons. Being “eco-friendly” was part of my identity: I walked and biked everywhere, recycled religiously, and signed petitions against polluters. Yet, and oddly, it wasn’t until 2013 that I opened my eyes to the environmental impact of the food on my plate. After experimenting with cooking vegan dinners for a few months, I chose to become vegan. Over time, my husband and kids (mostly) followed suit – at least at the family table. For urban and suburban dwellers like us in developed countries, eliminating animal products (meat, dairy, and eggs) from our diet is the simplest, most effective action that individuals can take to have an immediate, positive impact on the environment. Plus, there are bonus health and ethical benefits. This said, there is a lot more we can do to help the planet and slow the trend toward mass extinction.
In this post, I will share a few of the steps my family is already taking to reduce our environmental footprint to share the planet’s bounty more equitably with other beings. However, there are other, deeper steps we should be taking… but my family isn’t there there right now. I’ll talk about those too. Stick with me until the end of the post for a call to action you can follow regardless of where you are at in your journey.
Some good things we are doing
We try hard to pay attention to what is going on around us, from our immediate community to remote countries. Some of it we can witness with our own eyes – as long as they are open. For most everything else, we have to rely on the work of journalists, writers, and researchers. We know that our vision is a result of the place where we stand on this planet (a pretty privileged one). We are aware that many of our sources of information also reflect that skewed viewpoint – so we try to practice critical thinking. We attempt to inculcate similar awareness and inquisitive minds into our children. The whole thing gets really uncomfortable and at times tiring. We need to balance the challenging work with an appreciation for the beauty of the world and a few good dance parties – because joy is what gives meaning to our efforts to improve life on this Earth.
We avoid animal products
Animal agriculture is extremely polluting… but just how much exactly? Getting a definitive number reflecting the proportion of the planet’s degradation that is caused by animal agriculture is tricky. Let’s just focus on climate change for now: how much of our greenhouse gas emissions are caused by animal farming? Cautious international sources have advanced figures approaching 20%. The Cowspiracy movie, with a pro-vegan angle, asserts instead that over half (51%) of CO2 emissions worldwide can be linked to livestock and their byproducts. (That’s based on the Worldwatch Institute’s 2009 report.) Such numbers take into consideration the cost of opportunity of deforested land that could be reforested if it was no longer necessary to grow feed crops for cattle. From 18 to 51%, there is a big gap. Who should we believe?
The truth is: it doesn’t matter. Every minute we spend arguing on this topic is a minute we are not spending supporting humans’ transition to more sustainable sources of nutrition. Even at “only” 20%, and even before considering the deleterious effects of large-scale animal agriculture on water, soil, and air, plus our health, the situation is dire. Eating over 100 pounds (50 kilos) of meat per year – as do the citizens of all developed countries and many developing ones too (with the notable exception of India) – can only lead to large-scale destruction. So we don’t do it.
Our family also avoids using animal products for clothing, notably leather and wool. Leather, far from being a “natural” material, is particularly toxic to produce. The most common way to prevent animal skin from rotting is to bathe it in solutions of harmful chemicals (such as chromium and formaldehyde) that harm the communities where leather is processed along with anyone living downstream. More generally, the money animal farmers receive for animal skins contributes to the viability of their industry, and keeps the costs of meat and dairy lower. Adding insult to injury, the tanning chemicals are still in the leather at the time of disposal, and may leech into the soil, meaning that they are hardly more environmentally-friendly than artificial fibers (“plastic leather”) at the end of their life cycle.
We cut back on packaging and waste
Going vegan? Easy. Going zero-waste? Now that’s challenging. But everyone can aim for “less waste.”
Cooking whole, plant-based foods from scratch at home (as opposed to using processed foods), makes it possible for us to reduce the weekly amount of waste we produce at home to a small garbage bag plus one or two cubic feet of materials in the recycling bin. We buy many items in bulk, or in the least packaging possible. Whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and seeds are easy to procure from bins in many major supermarkets. We often bring our own containers for refilling – ask if you can do the same at your store! (Or do it anyway…) Sometimes, it is much cheaper: canned beans are notoriously more expensive than cooking from scratch, even when factoring energy costs. At other times, it’s a wash from a strict monetary stand point, but we don’t have to take out the recycling bin as often so that’s a plus.
We are lucky to live in a city with a few package-free grocery store options. Thankfully, the trend is growing! A little bit of research will help you find shops where you can refill your laundry detergent bottles and some personal-care items (see this directory of US options for starters and this site for Canada or this one for Québec, try this for the UK).
Because we do most errands on foot, cutting back on unnecessary packaging and prepared foods also means not having to carry heavy containers of plant milk up the hill from the grocery store. I just make plant milk in the blender when I need it. Drinking water as our beverage of choice, most of the time, also reduces the total number of containers coming and going through our kitchen. Obviously, we don’t use bottled water.
It almost goes without saying that we take coffee “for here” and carry some reusable utensils and napkins along. And I can hardly remember the last time I used a plastic shopping bag.
We haven’t bought a roll of paper towels in years. Fabric napkins are a dollar a dozen at church thrift sales. We have a drawer full of them and I don’t anticipate ever needing to buy new ones.
For other items, I plan on conducting a home waste audit as a family project soon. Getting the children involved will be a great way to practice writing, math, science, and spreadsheet skills!
We live in a city apartment
Although I was raised in the country, I became a city mouse as soon as I was old enough to live on my own. Because of my preference for walking and biking everywhere, I always ended in densely populated areas… which has meant living in apartments rather than houses. I did not originally make this choice for environmental reasons, but it turns out that, in our modern world, dense urban living is more energy-efficient. I admire small homesteaders who live from the crops they grow, but the fact is that not every human family on earth can have a backyard with a population of 8 billion. Density is key, perhaps counter-intuitively so.
We enjoy the benefits of proximity every day: we walk to school and most errands, we are surrounded by friendly neighbors with families, and we take advantage of urban amenities like community centers and playgrounds. Best of all, we don’t need to dedicate a significant portion of our time to the maintenance and improvement of our home’s exterior. Some people may enjoy mowing the lawn and cleaning gutters, but I’d rather go for a family bike ride or volunteer my time in the community. The time freed from house-related chores can also be invested in cooking from scratch (see above).
Plus, with everything else being equal, the cost of housing in an apartment is generally less than it is in a single-family home. That means less pressure to increase our income, which would incur higher environmental costs.
Finally, I enjoy the extra proximity to my kids that we get from living in a smaller space. I anticipate things will get tight for a few years when they are both teenagers… but before we know it they’ll have their own lives and we’ll hardly see them. I’m glad they are not hiding in the basement when they are home because, well, we don’t have a basement!
We resist buying stuff and carefully pass on what we no longer need
The “stuff” we buy, own, clean, maintain, and eventually have to dispose of dominates our lives. I am not choosing the word “dominate” lightly. Although some of my favorite people have successfully transitioned to a minimalist lifestyle and managed to avoid being weighed-down by earthly possessions, the vast majority of North American families – mine included – remains overwhelmed by them. As a parent responsible not only for myself but also for my children’s decisions to bring or not to bring items into our home, I carry the burden of materialism – a total “first world problem,” but a true problem nevertheless.
“Rethink” and “refuse” are the first steps we (try) to take to hold back the tide. When we have a problem, our first impulse is often to find an object that will resolve it. Instead, we try to get into the habit of slowing down that process as much as possible to give ourselves time to think. By avoiding online shopping, and reducing our exposure to conventional commercialism (warehouses, superstores, and malls in particular), our family makes it more complicated for ourselves to get the stuff we (think we) need. That way, we increase the likelihood that we’ll do without. Saying “no” to everything that’s “free” (especially “swag”) also helps.
But sometimes there are things we do need.
- For kid clothing, we love hand-me-downs from family and friends, and I go through great lengths to pass on whatever my own kids no longer need to people who may actually use them. Dumping clothes at one of those charity bins is the last resort: although it feels satisfying to get rid of stuff swiftly, it’s really passing the problem straight onto someone else.
- Adult clothing options in thrift and consignment stores are amazing. If I need new jeans, I actually prefer shopping at a consignment store: there are hardly-worn pairs from every manufacturer in my size all together, making it a breeze to find the right pair. My husband prefers to buy a small number of new high-quality, timeless pieces, capsule-wardrobe style.
- In the kitchen, durability is key. I cook exclusively in cast-iron, plus a couple of robust stainless-steel pots. Many were acquired second-hand. There is also a great used market for small appliances: so many people buy a food processor (or bread maker or soy milk maker or dehydrator) and never use it, only to resell it years later at a fraction of the price. (The one item that is really hard to find second-hand is a power blender – maybe it says something about how much people use them!)
- There is no longer any reason to buy furniture and decor items from the store, other perhaps than the convenience of it. Everything we might need has already been purchased by someone else who no longer needs it. If you live anywhere near a city, you’ll find abundant options on Craigslist, Freecycle, Facebook Marketplace, or whatever other mode of swapping and selling used items is popular in your neighborhood. I love using our building’s Facebook group to exchange goods with my neighbors, especially kid things, and Buy Nothing Project groups are also great to ask for the things you need.
- We are careful with our electronics and aim to stretch their lives for as long as possible. When they truly no longer serve us, I try to pass old laptops on to our local refurbishers promptly, in case they can make them work for a local charity or person that needs it. As for cell phones, we are aiming to get at least 5 years of good life out of them, and hopefully more.
Choosing how far to go down the road from materialism to minimalism as a family depends on how much tolerance we have for the small (and sometimes big) conflicts that result from straying away from the mainstream. And it’s exhausting: the second I let my guard down, new objects sneak into our home. At this time in my life, I feel like going full-out would require me to be so strict it would severely hurt some of my most precious relationships. So I compromise.
We walk, bike, and take transit (most of the time)
Having chosen to live in the core of our city means that we can go on our own steam to supermarkets and most errands. We favor walking as much as possible, biking to slightly-more-remote destinations, and taking transit to bigger attractions.
More importantly, we make decisions based on the mode of transportation we prefer. In particular, and although our children would be eligible to attend some special schools, we chose to send them to our neighborhood school. It’s a lovely establishment with great teachers and a warm community… and the fact that it’s only a 10-minute walk away from home means that we don’t have to be stressed-out and rush in the morning because we’re late.
We have not specifically prohibited our kids from participating in travel-intensive sports (like, say, hockey) but let’s just say that I am breathing a sigh of relief in knowing that they aren’t interested.
We still drive our now-13-year-old gas-powered car when visiting family, every other weekend of so. In a few years, both kids will be out of car seats and we will seriously consider getting rid of our car, and only using car-sharing vehicles (our local options include Car2Go, EVO and Modo) or renting a car if we need to drive further. Shared cars are plentiful in our neighbourhood and even if we use them every week for a couple of hours it will still be cheaper than the yearly insurance premiums for our car, to say nothing of gas and repairs. Why own a car when you can share hundreds?
Our individual actions are determined by the infrastructure around us. Roads (with or without sidewalks and bike lanes), land zoning, business rules, standards (notably for electronics, appliances, and cars), regulations (on labeling and packaging), all have the power of making it easy or hard to live a gentler lifestyle. Legislators and policy-makers can make what’s “green” the default option… or make it extra complicated to be eco-friendly.
Sadly, over a third – and often close to half! – of eligible voters do not turn out at the polls, effectively leaving the critical act of electing our leaders to others. I don’t blame those who consciously abstain from voting out of frustration when faced with the choices we do have… however there are differences between the different parties when it comes to the level of protection they are willing to extend to our land, water, air, health, and well-being. Voting to the best of our ability, as if the outcome of every election was to be decided by a single vote, is one way we try to make a difference. We take our kids to the voting booth with us and discuss the issues at stake with age-appropriate language. Please do the same.
Great things… that we need to get better at
Our schedule could use some slack
Inspired by Rachel Jonat’s book exhorting readers to “Do Less,” I have set some limits on the kids’ activities: no more than 3 sessions per week. I also practice saying “no” to requests so I can pick my volunteering commitments with care. I am currently on my building’s owner’s council (we call it “strata” here but Americans call it HOA), but I continue to resist active involvement in the Parents’ Advisory Committee at school. Nevertheless, with two kids, family needs (love those dentist appointments!), and even a basic social life, we do end up tightly scheduled at times.
As a result, we make less-than-perfect choices.
- Once a week, I have to drive from home to preschool to Irish dance to gymnastics back to Irish dance then home. I would prefer doing it on my family bike, but there is just no way we could be on time.
- We buy boxes of (vegan) cookies and baked items from our local coffee shop more often than I’d like because I don’t always take the time to make some cookies or banana bread on the weekend.
- We get some packaged groceries instead of hunting down the bulk version because we are pressed for time.
It’s a matter of priorities. I like to think that the benefits of community involvement offset the plastic packaging from that one box of cookies. But it helps to keep on scrutinizing every commitment with an eye for the greater good.
We could cut back on flying
We are not frequent flyers, but we do travel many miles by plane every year. My family lives on the other side of the country, and I try to visit my aging parents with the kids at least once per year. I wish we could take the train but not only it takes 4 days each way, but it is also a lot more expensive. In addition, we take one big international trip every year. In recent years, we have traveled to Costa Rica, and we are headed to Vietnam next winter. Cheap plane ticket prices cannot possibly include the true cost of flying.
I do not yet have a clear action path to reduce our carbon footprint when it comes to air travel, other than limiting our flights to two round trips per person per year. Beyond buying carbon offsets, I will also make the effort of writing a letter to elected representatives every time I take a trip, outlining what they could do to force the airline industry to reduce its emissions and/or highlighting infrastructure projects that could reduce the need for me to fly, such as improving train service.
What about technology use?
Using electronic devices for everything has an impact. One might think that sending an email has a lesser footprint than sending a letter in the mail. However, the acceleration and intensification of communication by electronic means that we are using a lot more energy than we ever did to chat with each other. Video calls also take a massive amount of electricity compared to old-fashioned analog phone calls. Add to that our new-found habits of streaming video (on Netflix and Youtube) and music, along with storing our data in the “clouds,” and our global energy use has just skyrocketed. I don’t personally have an ad-supported blog, but I certainly visit a lot of them… and they too have a huge carbon footprint.
For someone like me who has a strictly-online business, the numbers are sobering. Recently I have wondered whether I should try to earn an income through in-person classes and real-life meal prep services instead of teaching those skills online. If you have insight on this issue, I would love to hear more about it in the comments.
We must “rethink” and “refuse” more
“No” is a powerful word, and one we need to use more often. I recently participated in a special event at my gym. There was a sign up fee but the organizers were excited to tell us we’d get a water bottle and gym towel. Who seriously needs another water bottle in 2019? So when I signed up I was careful to add “no swag” next to my name. That led to some conversations with the gym staff and a few fellow gym-goers, and I like to think that I planted some seeds. Sadly, the bottle and towels were likely manufactured anyway. However, if more people embrace “no swag” as an option, event organizers might start considering their promotional efforts more carefully.
This is a practice that I need to extend to many more areas of my life, while making sure that my children are aware of it. We need to fight “stuffocation” like our lives depend on it… because they do. We have started favoring experiences, activities, edibles, and charity donations over physical presents for occasions, but we still give far too many “things” (and toys), especially to children. I will place more efforts in this area in the coming year.
We need to recirculate our unused items faster
Access to a vigorous second-hand market with lots of items on offer for sale (or for free!) matters. When more “gently used” items are readily accessilble, more average families – not just the super-thrifty – will cut back on buying new items. Accordingly, I believe that we have a responsibility not just to procure second-hand items for ourselves, but also to pass unwanted items forward. If we make faster decisions about whether or not we will use a given item again, others can benefit from them sooner.
Electronic devices like laptops, phones and tablets, unlike fine wines, do not improve with age. Every month that passes makes them less likely to become helpful to someone else. Pass it on to a responsible recycler in your community, ASAP! In a similar vein, and although they age less dramatically, kid clothing, gear and toys also benefit from being put back into use sooner rather than later, as superheros and patterns become less fashionable over time. Outgrown car seats should be sold or donated long before their expiry date.
I am currently experimenting with calendar reminders for myself to go through the various rooms of our home on a more regular basis to cull unused items and decorating touches that no longer spark joy. I will earmark one week out of every month for posting items to our local Buy Nothing Project group, Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. I find that all the pick up action disrupts my routine, so it’s good to have it contained to one week here and there. Having a clear “waiting” zone delineated near our front door for objects that are on their way out also helps keep me sane when decluttering.
Yes: individual action matters
Individual action alone will not stop the environmental degradation caused by us humans on the planet. Indeed, our daily habits are a great place to start when trying to address the climate emergency… but it would be terrible to stop there. Collective action, from activism to voting, is how small-scale efforts can be turned into policies and laws.
Nevertheless, individual action matters for at least two main reasons:
First, there is a ripple effect: when we live a bit differently from the mainstream, we trigger conversations. We make some others realize that there is 1) a problem, 2) some solutions, and 3) normal people (like us!) willing to experiment with them. Those conversations are not always pleasant. Unfortunately, it’s easy for someone who knows better to make others feel worse… I have been guilty of that myself. But even when things go sideways, seeds get planted. Weeds are known to find the smallest cracks in pavement to grow.
Second, our small gestures are part of a “proof of concept” experiment. We are early adopters of new lifestyles that inspire imitators, studies and future policy-making. Not every experiment will succeed and become the norm. But others will prove popular and spread to other families, neighborhoods, cities and countries. It can feel lonely to live according to your values, but rest assured that someone, somewhere sees you and goes: “I wish I could do this. Maybe I should do it? I think I will try it. I’m doing it!”
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
– Margaret Mead
Be an everyday hero today
Climate change and environmental degradation scare me, but they cannot take away my capacity to act – or yours. “Looking for the helpers” brings me hope, as I know there are millions of others out there who are also doing their best to protect endangered species, clean waterways, heal the injured and sick, and move us to action. Better yet, I can aspire to be one of the helpers.
And so can you.
Don’t dwell on the fact that you cannot change the world all by yourself today (or even this year). Instead, think about something that bothers you in the world, then come up with one action you can take today that will improve that thing – and make you feel better about it too.
Concerned about plastic pollution? Bring your own container to the food court at lunch.
Angry at animal agriculture?
Bothered by social isolation? Knock on your neighbor’s door and borrow some sugar.
Today you’re taking a modest stand in favor of a better world. Tomorrow you might be ready for another, bigger action.
What’s bothering you? And what will your action be? Write it down right here in the comments.