The Conscious Girl’s Guide to Sustainable Living

by Adina Anand

So you’ve heard about this “sustainability” thing. Maybe that hippie gal you knew in high school posted her vintage #OOTD on Instagram, or your local Trader Joe’s announced a drastic reduction of plastic usage, or your mom is going vegan... for real this time. Whatever the context, the environmental sustainability movement is picking up momentum and for good reason.

In January 2019, Sir David Attenborough, the voice behind all your favorite nature documentaries, warned at the World Economic Forum that "if we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves. We are one coherent ecosystem... We are in danger of wrecking that.” He went on to urge that “what we do in the next few years will profoundly affect the next few thousand years.”

True sustainability involves a holistic lifestyle change. This isn’t a crash diet for the wellness of our environment, but a lifelong commitment to tweaking our own habits in order to slow the rapid degradation of our planet. I am far from a master of the sustainable lifestyle, but I am trying to be more conscious and mindful of my impact.

Living in New York City, I share sidewalks with heaps of garbage bags thrice my height. As I hold my breath, I remind myself that just as global warming is a cumulative effect of negative practices, a cleaner planet becomes possible with the efforts of many, many people - whether I can see them or not. Even the smallest actions help.

Here’s how you can make a difference:

1. Find a Reason to Make A Change

Because if you don’t, you won’t stick with it. Find your “why” to be more sustainable, and make it personal. Visit a nearby landfill and come face-to-face with the effects of overconsumption. Take a hike through a forest and imagine what it would be like if there were no longer a forest to hike through. Lastly, don’t ignore the facts — seek them out. My favorite way to do this is by watching documentaries, including Before The Flood, An Inconvenient Truth, and What The Health. Complacency, I’ve learned, is the enemy of progress.

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2. Practice Conscious Consumption

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The answer to overconsumption isn’t to stop consuming altogether — you’re trying to build a sustainable lifestyle, after all. Instead, every time you are about to make a purchase — be it food or clothing or gadgetry — ask yourself, “do I REALLY need this?” In the words of Marie Kondo, does it spark joy? Getting real with yourself about your wants and needs before you bring an item into your home can help you avoid the dreaded spring cleaning session where you discover more things than you knew you had. And where do most of those things end up? The landfill, of course.

I’ll be honest — this is the hardest part of the whole sustainability thing for me, as it requires us to think before we buy, which is most definitely not the Instagram way. But once you get the hang of checking in with yourself before every purchase, you’re well on your way.

3. Eat Less Meat

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Not only is factory farming inhumane, but it is also incredibly damaging to our land, air, and animals - not to mention ourselves. A wealth of studies have documented the adverse health effects of consuming a heavily carnivorous diet, as chronicled in What The Health. Resolving to eat less meat is all about finding your “why” again — an emotional or logical rationale you can return to time and time again to keep yourself steady on your journey.

I became a vegan literally overnight because it suddenly clicked for me that meat was formerly a living being. Making this connection seems perfectly obvious, but once I actually gave myself time to visualize where my food comes from, I said goodbye to animal products (it helped that I was never fond of milk or eggs!). The other part of my “why” is wanting to feel as energetic and nourished as possible, and eating plant-based foods works best for my body.

But I’ll let you in on a secret: you don’t need to go vegan to make a difference! Try going meatless just one day a week. If that suits you, maybe go vegan on the weekends. Find a sweet spot that is sustainable for your lifestyle because it’s the accumulation of your small, positive habits that leads to big change — both for your body and the planet.

4. Avoid Fast Fashion

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Here’s another switch that Instagram makes really, really hard. It’s all too easy to see dozens of influencers flaunting the latest trend and immediately click over to a fast fashion retailer to own a cheaply-made rendition. By definition, that piece is not going to last long in your wardrobe.

Fast fashion retailers have an ever-revolving selection of low-quality, trend-based pieces, so much so that the entire store might look completely different from week to week. If you want to learn more about the environmental impact of fast fashion, I highly recommend the documentary The True Cost. Even Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine admits that “everybody [in fashion] is concerned about the climate crisis and what should be done to help.”

Sustainable alternatives include wearing what you already own (who would’ve thought?), mending your clothes when they break, shopping at vintage stores, renting occasion-wear, and sharing pieces with your friends. In this case, quality wins over quantity, and once again I defer to Marie Kondo to explain why: “once you learn to choose your belongings properly, you will be left with only the amount that fits perfectly in the space you own.” That “space” includes your heart. Be selective with what you let in.

5. Cut Down on Single-Use Plastics…

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Over 25% of everything we recycle ends up in the landfill. Even if we think we’re being good by recycling that plastic water bottle or takeout box, we have no control over its life after it’s in the bin. The solution is to have reusable options on hand for every situation in which plastic is in abundance. Try a reusable water bottle, a refillable water filter, a reusable coffee cup, metal straws, tote bags for groceries, package-free shampoo, upcycled glass containers...

the list goes ON! The moral of the story is to simply be more mindful of when we can minimize discarding something after using it once. It’s time to resort to recycling less... by reducing and reusing more.

6. ...Period.

Unfortunately for us ladies, “that time of the month” is a markedly difficult time to be eco-friendly. Mainstream sanitary pad and tampon options can contain more plastic than several grocery bags combined and will sit in landfills for up to 800 YEARS. The sustainable alternatives certainly come with an adjustment period (get it?), but are well worth the learning curve in the long run. Many of the substitutes can also be pricey and may not be suitable for your lifestyle. However, you could end up saving a chunk of money by splurging on a menstrual cup rather than repurchasing tampons every month. Some other ways to turn the crimson tide green include organic tampons (via Ohne) and reusable period underwear (like Thinx).

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Be positively influenced: follow these ladies fighting the sustainable fight on Instagram:

Kavita Shukla @kavitafresh: The incredible founder of the FRESHGLOW Co. shares her adventures and wisdom on her way to making the world a greener place.

Venetia Falconer @venetiafalconer: This sassy British TV host-turned-sustainability activist tells it like it is. Expect the stark truth and actionable (+delicious) ways to become a more conscious consumer.

Valeria Hinojosa @waterthruskin: Valeria’s colorful Insta feed showcases her “lifestyle with a conscience.” She shows us that it’s still possible to eat diversely, travel freely, and look fabulous all while looking after the planet.

Zero Waste Lifestyle @living_zero_waste: Follow this Spanish couple on their slow (read: conscious) travels around the world as they document their journey towards a zero-waste lifestyle.

April @zerowastedork: April is not here for your cutesy upcycled mason jars or vegan leather handbags. The “sole zerowaster in a family of four,” this ‘grammer is sharing the real, unfiltered version of her lifestyle, but wants you to know that we are ALL an essential component to change.

Honorable mentions: @botanicalpaperworks @unenvironment @im_ohne @shethinx

Ms. Media