On Being Young and Broke in the Sustainability Movement: A Lifestyle Guide

I first entered the online sustainability community as a second year college student. I loved all the innovative companies and initiatives I was reading about, but there was one huge, glaring problem: I couldn’t afford them. I have been very lucky to have the financial support of my parents throughout college, but I was always overloaded with school work and had no time for a job, which left me with little spending money. Of course I want to buy ethically produced clothing, organic produce, and package free soaps! But a lot of that was just out of reach for me. Mary Kat of The Plastic-Free Chef put it best:

We need more solutions to deal with waste that don’t require average people to bankrupt themselves. Why should I have to pay extra money out of my meager paycheck to compensate for the fact that corporations manufacture enormously vast quantities of waste? Why aren’t they held accountable for that?

So what can we do? How can we still reduce our waste and not break the bank? Here are six things that make my little environmentalist heart happy but also do not ruin me financially.

Buy Second-Hand Clothes

Let’s be honest here: the production of clothes creates huge amounts of waste. Not only are gallons and gallons of water used in the process, but the fashion industry creates 5% of all carbon emissions in the world. (!) There is also a massive amount of fabric that gets thrown out in production.

By buying second-hand, you are reusing items that are already in the waste stream. This means new resources don’t have to be used every time you need a t-shirt. Instead, you can buy one that already exists! Second-hand also means you are not supporting the fast fashion industry, which, besides literally creating clothes to be thrown out after a few weeks, has a track record of human rights violations against the workers who make the clothes. (Case in point: the recent H&M scandal.) Do yourself, and your fellow humans a favor and go to the thrift store instead. The clothes are usually cheaper than buying new anyway.

Buy In Bulk

Whenever you have the chance to buy in bulk, do it. It is almost always cheaper than buying something in packaging. Why? Because when you buy something in packaging, you are paying for the packaging. Wouldn’t you rather just buy the thing you need? Take oatmeal for example. I eat it almost every day. An 18oz container of oatmeal is about $3.00, depending on where you live. You pay for the oats, the cardboard container, the plastic lid, and the plastic seal. I was blessed with a nice bulk section in my grocery store in college, where I could get oatmeal for $1.19 per lb. That is literally half the cost of the packaged oatmeal—AND you get to prevent all that packaging from making it’s way into a landfill.

But what if your grocery store doesn’t have a bulk section? Not to worry, you still have options. If you buy the biggest possible container you can get (i.e. a 10 lb bag of rice) you are still getting the most bang for your buck. By doing this, you are paying for more of the cost of the actual food than the packaging, and you are reducing your demand for items with a greater packaging to food ratio which is ultimately more wasteful.

Make Your Own

This goes for lots of things, but I’ll focus on food here. Making lunch at home, for example, is always cheaper than buying. Try committing to pack lunch every day for a month, and you’ll see the difference in your bank account.

In addition to this, a lot of plastic food containers you get from takeout or grab-and-go spots are made from plastic #6, or polystyrene, which is very difficult to recycle. (Recycling is going to a whole other post on this blog, but here’s the gist: the lower the number, the more likely your local recycling plant can process the material. If you live in a rural area or an area with little recycling infrastructure, they will likely only be able to process plastics #1 and #2.)

Think Like A Minimalist

No, I am not going to tell you to get rid of all your possessions. But what I will tell you to do is ask yourself, while you’re considering a purchase at the store: how does this add value to my life? If you have three pairs of black shoes do you really need a fourth? Did that shirt you bought last year ever actually get worn? Get honest with yourself and consider what you really need. Adopting this mentality has saved me so much money because I have simply not bought clothes and other thing that I didn’t need and didn’t absolutely love. The rule I follow for buying something new is if I want something, I wait a month, and see if I still want it. If it was an impulse buy situation, that desire usually goes away. If, say, I haven’t had a pair of sandals that aren’t falling apart all summer, then maybe it’s time to look for new sandals. (Not that I would know anything about that…)

Repair What You Have

I come from a family of engineers, so it was normal to me to open up something that was broken and try to fix it before even thinking of buying something new. But you don’t have to be an engineer to make a repair—the internet is your friend! The world wide web has taught me how to replace the screen on my iPhone, darn jeans, and so much more. I would highly recommend acquiring some basic sewing skills so you can easily fix small rips and tears in your clothes. Invest in a small tool kit of pliers, screwdrivers, and hammers, and you can fix loose sunglasses arms, jewelry and more. If you can’t fix something, support your local businesses and hire someone to do it. I recently had a pair of my favorite boots re-heeled by a cobbler, and I now expect them to last twice as long.

A lot of things made in the past 30 years are simply meant to be thrown away (so you have to buy more), and by making them last longer, you are fighting against this disposable culture, so good for you! And, when you repair something instead of chucking it, you are inherently reducing your demand for the new materials that make up that item.

Use A Reusable Coffee Cup

This one gets thrown around a lot, but it’s so important. Because of the plastic lining in paper coffee cups, they are very very difficult to recycle because the two materials have to be separated to do it. I know of one location (University of Toronto, I see you!!!) that actually does it. 99 times out of 100, it will not be possible. But when you invest in a reusable mug, or use a jar from home (try an old salsa jar, for the low low price of $0) you don’t even have to worry about that. You’re not participating. If you drink a coffee every day before work, that adds up fast…roughly 250 coffee cups a year just got saved from being thrown out. You’re killing it!

As an added bonus to lowering your impact, most places will give you a discount when you bring your own. Starbucks offers 10¢ off, and I’ve seen some places offer as much as 50¢ off. Coffee shops love it when you bring your own cup (you’re saving them money too!) but if you get a grumpy barista, don’t let it get to you. Remember why you’re doing it, and move on. You’ve got this.

Bonus: Be Kind To Yourself

Forgot to bring your reusable cup? Didn’t get a chance to pack lunch because you woke up late? Can’t find any jeans that fit you at the thrift store? (Um, that’s me.) Take a deep breath. Life happens. If you don’t get around to these things, it’s okay. If you do any of them some of the time, you’re doing great! What matters is that you are choosing to be a conscious consumer, instead of following the metaphorical pack. But I will say this: what will make the biggest impact over time are the small, consistent changes that we can make every day. So no matter what you decide to do, be dedicated.

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