Updated: Sep 16, 2020
The modern world is filled with token “zero-waste” influencers and vegan millennials who’ve painted this near-perfect expectation of a sustainable lifestyle. The term “zero-waste” alone suggests that producing anything over nothing can’t be sustainable.
As someone who has shifted my lifestyle to be more environmentally-favorable over the years, I’ve struggled with a persistent thought that “it’s not enough”. The figures I admired, the figures that social media labeled as the experts in sustainable living, were vegan, made their own soap, didn’t drive a car, and kept their trash from the past three years in a single mason jar. Their level of commitment seemed so unattainable and intimidating as a young college student.
Since the earthy-crunchy folks were vegan, I started a pescatarian diet nearly two years ago with the hope of one day being vegan. However, after a year mainly plant-based, eating an entirely vegan diet was out of the question for me with borderline anemia and a peanut and tree-nut allergy. You see, my body needs nutrients just as much as the planet needs oxygen. So, I’ve settled for my pescatarian diet. However, I face criticism from peers almost anytime I eat animal products. “Lobsters live the most painful death, you do know that right?” I’ve also been criticized by people who eat meat daily and get a single-use coffee cup every morning that seldom gets recycled. I have even found myself nervous to share a picture with a plastic straw in the background since everyone labels me as the “save the turtles” girl.
The latest image of sustainable living is not inclusive of all, but even aside from that major deficiency, the image is so intense and perfect that it opens the door for the eco-conscious to criticize themselves because they cannot keep up, but also welcomes outsiders to critique the eco-conscious on every account that their lifestyle deviates from the norm. It’s disappointing that non-eco-conscious individuals feel as though sustainability is neither accessible nor important because of this image, but equally as disappointing is the shaming some feel empowered to vocalize to those who just try to be better.
While the term “zero-waste” is still abundant, I’m happy to share I believe it’s undergoing a phase-out; it’s being replaced by terms like “low-waste”, “eco-conscious”, and “semi-sustainable”. Sustainable YouTube creators have posted videos entitled “overcoming perfection paralysis” and self-proclaimed “eco-TikTokers” have shared #ecoconfessions showcasing their lifestyle weaknesses. Perhaps these are the first steps in creating a truthful and empowering sustainable community and are vital in achieving sustainability for all.
We, the sustainability community, need to be more gracious with ourselves, and our likely flaws. We need to commit to celebrating any positive action, no matter how small. The unrealistic expectations of such an intense culmination of lifestyle habits have become truly toxic to so many.
We can own our minor environmentally-harmful habits or practices when we recognize that they do not taint our good-intentions so long as we make the other environmentally-beneficial things we do shine brighter. At the end of the day, the most sustainable thing you can do is to use what you already have and to use less in general. The next time you’re tempted to buy the next greatest item made from recycled plastic so that you can keep your sustainability crown, just know, that crown will stay right where it is if you just keep doing the next right thing with what you already have. This approach will allow those of any background or budget to join in.
The sustainability community is one that just needs average people with consistent good intentions. We are living our own versions of a beautifully imperfect sustainable lifestyle, OWN IT, and encourage others to do the same!