This guest post is written by Aurelia Hibbert, research assistant at the University of Cambridge and a Soapbox Project Changeletter reader. Aurelia is on a personal mission to help industry leaders to implement true sustainability measures so they can build a better society, rather than destroying it.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Since graduating in 2018, I have had the opportunity to make more of my own choices in life, with fewer constraints on the options available to me. Some of these have been due to an increase in budget, others cost nothing but require a change in mind-set or spending a bit more time.
While making small changes in our everyday lives can help to reduce our environmental impact and ease our climate anxiety, it is also important to keep a sense of perspective. Taking all of the carbon/plastic/waste out of our lives, at the expense of all our joy, freedom and wider impact, is not going to be sustainable, so moderation is key and a sense of scale can really help in this.
The key to effectively reducing your own carbon footprint is in understanding what contributes to your current carbon footprint. There are many good resources for working this out and using a tool that is specific to your country is important (we use the book ‘How Bad are Bananas?’ by Mike Berners-Lee). Once you understand what the biggest contributors are, you can take a look at why you do/use them and how you can change that.
Below are some of the actions that I have taken, with my partner, to reduce the environmental impact of our lives. Through making these changes, we have learnt a bit more about what we value in life, from sustainability to sunshine, and how much we can influence our own happiness through the decisions we make.
Sometimes the hardest, but often the cheapest, ways to reduce our impact is through our own behaviour. I suppose all the following sections are behavioural in some respect but I suppose this section is really about attitudes and behaviours which are normal among societies in developed countries.
One of the early changes we made in our house was to reduce our meat intake. This has almost become an environmentalist cliché but really is a good place to start. For example, according to ‘How Bad are Bananas?’ by Mike Berners-Lee, getting a day’s protein from beef has 10x the carbon impact of getting it from eggs, and 100x the impact of getting it from peas. Lamb and beef are the main culprits, so these are definitely no-goes in our house, but we do occasionally eat chicken or fish to bring variety to our cooking. Having said that, we are getting better and better at lovely vegetarian cooking, so this is helping reduce our consumption further.
Another habit that we have is repairing things. As a pair of engineers, we are a pretty handy household, so this certainly helps, but small things such as learning to sew on buttons, being prepared to downcycle worn out slippers into comfy insoles for other shoes, or reusing a damaged casserole as a planter, all help to reduce our consumption of ‘new’ resources. It also helps to reduce waste, which is a good impact too.
Personal care is another behaviour that I have changed recently. Simply by swapping from shower-gel to soap bars, I cut out the waste of a plastic bottle every month or so. I have also reduced how often I wash my hair, as our hair adapts to these new schedules so that it does not become overly greasy between washes. Another one to reduce waste, specific to women, that I was unsure about at first, is swapping to a menstrual cup. All these small things, insignificant as they may seem individually, contribute to changing our overall behaviours and make us more aware of the waste we produce and the products we buy.
Knowing what to buy when faced with the plethora of options available to us online today can be really overwhelming, and the prevalence of greenwashing can make this even worse. For example, should I buy drinks in glass bottles, or aluminium cans, or is plastic actually better based on certain metrics?
The answer to these detailed questions is complicated and there are many different answers out there, depending on which impacts you want to avoid the most. If you are interested in this level of detail, I highly recommend the book ‘How Bad are Bananas?’ by Mike Berners-Lee. This book provides reasonable order of magnitude comparisons for exactly such things, and helps you to understand how important the question is. For example, the type of container your drink comes in is not really of relevance in your carbon footprint if you still fly to go on holiday every year.
Generally, we use a few simple rules, in this order, to help every-day decision making on what to buy:
I think the first two are the most important, the other three could easily be swapped around in order depending on your own values.
Using these rules, it helps us to avoid the climate-anxiety inducing processes of getting totally stuck in the detail of impact calculations that you can’t even get the right data for, so you would have to make loads of assumptions about the products you are comparing.
Some key examples of how we have used these questions to purchase things are:
The question of travel is one that is close to my heart and I am well aware I have been an environmentally-damaging traveler in the past. Having lived in Australia for 18 months, with our families in the UK, the decision to not stay in Australia was made much easier when we understood that we were no longer willing to fly, and so visiting our families would be virtually impossible.
While flying abroad on holiday has become so normalised in developed countries, only 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018 (according to this article). This means that 11% of people in the world are contributing to the 2% of global emissions that result from aviation. So, looking at alternatives to flying are important, particularly since 88% of air passengers are travelling for non-business reasons (source).
I find that asking myself why I want to fly somewhere usually reveals that I can achieve the same results by staying more locally or travelling by another means. For example, if I wanted to go to Malaysia, to experience a different culture, I could experience a different European culture by train. Not only are there many great cultures around here, but by taking the train you can also stop in other places along the way and get more of a feel for the context of the destination. Even staying more locally, there are strong cultures around the UK which I have not yet experienced and I am looking forward to the opportunity to do so now I live back in the UK.
More day to day though, since few of us have the luxury to be on holiday most of the time, we have looked at low-impact alternatives to the typical car commute. Firstly, we have chosen where we live based on where our work is, so that we can walk, cycle, or use public transport to commute every day. Beyond this, we do not own a car. The rise of car-sharing platforms has made this increasingly possible and we find it to be much cheaper than owning a car (even a really cheap one) because we do not need a car to commute.
Of course, none of us are claiming that we know the perfect low-impact way to live. Firstly, this will look different for everyone based on our own constraints and values. Then, the way that impact is regarded shifts over time. For example, single-use plastics have dominated environmental actions for several years, which has distracted from larger climate questions, such as those around electricity generation and consumer behaviours such as flying.
This sense of scale is one thing that I enjoy learning about and I find it really helps concentrate my energy on getting the big decisions right and not obsessing over whether green lentils or red lentils are a lower-carbon source of protein. The Mike Berners-Lee book I previously mentioned is fantastic for this.
With some decision-making support in hand, we can increase our own impact through learning how to share this effectively with others. This can be really tricky and understanding how others might view the issue of climate change is a good starting point. ‘What we think about when we try not to think about global warming’ by Per Espen Stoknes is really helpful in this area.
While I try not to be preachy about climate impact (and I am sure some people are scoffing as they read this), making small comments here and there can change people’s behaviour. For example, I have noticed some members of my family making small changes to their purchasing decisions based on recommendations I have made. While these may seem like small things, your influence is probably larger than you know and by being open about these things (rather than telling people they are doing it wrong), you might just cause someone to think twice about their existing behaviours and priorities.
Of course, we couldn’t talk about sustainable changes to lifestyle without discussing the ability to change your own opinion. This is something that people often struggle with, me included, because it makes us feel like hypocrites. However, the ability to question our own opinions when faced with new information is critical to developing as a person. We must accept that we do not hold all the information and as such our understanding of ‘sustainability’ is not, and may never be, perfect but this should not hold us back from acting on what we currently know.
Having had to fly back to the UK from Australia when we moved back, this seemed very hypocritical to me as I had spent the year avoiding flying as much as possible (there was one flight I took for business after exhausting other options to not go/use other modes of transport). However, the fact that it would probably be the last carbon-fueled flight I ever took, because I would be near my family, made it the right decision. I also had to get over how it would look to other people who didn’t understand the full picture, because ultimately we aren’t trying to reduce our environmental impact for what other people think of us, we are doing it to avoid catastrophic consequences of climate change - so why should we worry about what conclusions other people jump to?