Sustainability is a Personal Journey

We all do things differently. And although we may share some of them with our peers and colleagues, we all have different tastes, hobbies, interests, and aspirations.

For many people, one of those aspirations is to live a more sustainable life. But what does that really mean? No driving? No planes? No supermarket food? No going to the cinema or the theme park or the zoo? Does it mean shopping at your local market… or growing your own veg? Does it mean never buying anything wrapped in plastic ever again… or just using Tupperware and jars where possible? Does it mean walking or cycling to work every day… or taking the bus on the weekend?

How far do you have to go to get it right? Now that’s a daunting question.

It’s easy to get bogged down thinking you have to change everything all at once, but there are so many possibilities, and there are so many different people living vastly different lives. You can’t expect an instant result, or a one size fits all approach, in any sustainability journey.

I recently read a wonderful blog piece written by Emily Dunne about her journey to live more sustainably and reduce her carbon footprint over six months; How I cut a third off my Carbon Footprint in 6 Months (it was actually fun!). She confronted many areas of her life including; cycling and commuting; sourcing products; buying food; Christmas; clothing; finance; and networking. She set out to change one thing each month, beginning with cycling to work rather than taking the bus. It was inspiring, and I love reading these kinds of stories because they do inspire me. But it got me thinking about one of the things that’s been bothering me for a while; which is that it’s easy to get hung up on the idea that we’re not doing it right or that we’ve failed, just because we’re not doing it how someone else did it. And that’s something I’d like to dispel, pretty quickly.

We live in a present-time-oriented society, and are faced with a plethora of stories and a hell of a lot of marketing telling us what we should be doing and how we should be living. Not just new technology adverts and fashion marketing, but dietary products, appliances designed to make our lives quicker and easier, and now a whole host of eco products. Yes, the market for eco products is on the rise in a big way across the UK, from personal hygiene products to cleaning products to everything in between!

Well, good, you might say! And yes, I might agree with you. But do you really need all those new products? What if you can’t afford all those products? Does that mean you can’t live sustainably? Have you already failed? Or can you just use what you’ve already got in a different way?

For some people, living sustainably is too difficult.

Do you agree with the above statement?

I don’t. It’s not too difficult, it’s just all too often marketed wrong.

The current impression that seems to be spreading across the UK is that to live sustainably you’ve got to be in a position where you can give things up, and at the same time afford new things.

Example: You’ve got to stop driving because it’s bad for the environment… but you’ve still got to get to work, and even more so now because you’ve got to afford all those nice new eco products you need to replace the non-eco ones in your house, not to mention shop at the local market which is twice as expensive as shopping in the budget aisle at the supermarket!

It’s a minefield, a big ole daunting journey, full of sacrifice and hardship, and having to go without all the things you like that make life easier…

Right…? Wrong!

Every sustainability journey is a personal journey, and every sustainability journey is different. Because every person is different. Because every person works different hours, earns different wages, has different home circumstances, different mental health, different physical needs… And you can only manage as much as you can manage. Yes, there are people out there who are in a position where they can go out and buy new eco products; where they can make a pledge never to buy anything wrapped in plastic again and then keep that pledge; where they can stop driving their car immediately – or afford an electric one; where they can put all the time in the world into growing their own veg. But not everyone can do that, not everyone has the time and the capacity to do that… and guess what, that’s ok.

When we’re talking about saving the world there’s a tendency to support this idea that we have to do everything humanly possible to live a greener, more sustainable life or we’re not doing it properly. But in reality that just isn’t always possible, and that’s ok.

It’s ok to just do what you can, and if what you can isn’t very much, then that’s ok too, because at least you’re doing something. And once you’ve made one small change in your life and that’s become habit, you can start making other small changes, step by step. Maybe you only make three small changes to the way you live in a year… that’s still progress.

One of the big pressures I felt when I first set foot on my sustainability journey was to stop driving and start cycling to work. For a bit of background here, I drive a lot. I drive to work, and for my job I drive around the District a lot, and I also carry around a lot of stuff: food and resources for the kids that I work with. So I began cycling to work… and it was a super stressful nightmare! For a start, I live in a very hilly area, and I also had to juggle carrying different – and often heavy – bags, and remember to book out the work cars weeks in advance so I didn’t end up in a pickle having to go to a meeting but not having a car to get there. In short, it was stressful… very. I persevered for a month or so, but in the end it just wasn’t practical, and I honestly felt like I’d failed at the very first hurdle. How was I ever supposed to become sustainable if I couldn’t even do the first and simplest step?

But after a little thought, I realised that that was other people’s first and simple step, and it shouldn’t have been mine. And that just because that step hadn’t worked for me didn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to make other changes.

So I still drive to work, and I still have to drive around the District for work. But now I walk to the shop if I can, and I walk or jog to my netball matches, and I cycle to my mum’s house. Those changes are manageable changes, and they are still an important improvement.

Just like with the cycling to work I also went out with a decision to buy all my veg from the local market. Which was great, until I totted up how much I was spending! So I had to re-evaluate what I was buying, and where I was buying it from. I still shop at the veg stall and at the plastic free shop, but I limit what I buy there, and I mix it with shopping at the supermarket, so that I’m making a small change, but not putting myself out of pocket. I’m also lucky enough to have a garden so I’ve started learning to grow my own vegetables… which is great fun, but also a long and dedicated process because I work a lot which means I make slow progress!

Each and every one of us has different circumstances and pressures in our lives and will have to approach that journey in a different way. I can’t afford to go out and buy lots of eco friendly products, so I do my best to reuse everything in my house as much as I can before it falls apart or becomes obsolete. And then I make sure everything that can be recycled, is recycled. I looked for cheap washing up cloths made out of natural fibres, I use Tupperware and jars where I can do my shopping and always take my own bags, and I try and buy my clothes second hand – on that note, it can be as simple as sewing up a hole in your trousers rather than throwing them away or buying a new pair!

It’s easy to compare yourself with other people, and other people’s progress. It’s easy to think you should be doing something, or you’re not doing good enough because something didn’t work for you. But it’s not about comparison, it’s not about being better than anyone else, and just because someone’s recipe worked for them doesn’t mean it will work for you, the important thing is the find your own recipe and follow that, because that is the recipe that will allow you to make change.

If you’re going to embark on a sustainability journey then you have my blessings, but remember to do it your way, because there’s a lot more than one way to do it, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you try something and it doesn’t work out. Just try thinking outside the box, or coming at it from a different angle. There’s a hundred ways to be sustainable, and not all of them will be possible for everyone.