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The 5 Sustainability Trade-Offs That Even Hard Core Environmentalists Make

the-sustainability-trade-offs-that-even-hard-core-environmentalists-make
Written by Jennifer Nini

It’s about progress, not perfection.

If you’re an active participant in the sustainability community, you will have heard this phrase repeated often.

This statement usually gets thrown around in the following circumstances:

  • a person gets into a heated discussion or debate and uses it as their “get out of jail free” card,
  • an individual has made a very unsustainable decision and uses this phrase to justify their poor choice i.e. purchasing a meal from McDonalds or making a coffee with a Nespresso coffee pod, or
  • someone feels inadequate about their choices, and particularly when they are around a “greener” person

I’ve uttered “It’s about progress…” many times to myself, particularly when I’m dying for a takeaway coffee and forget to take my KeepCup with me or when I’ve purchased food that’s not organic. I’ve even said this to appease a friend or family member who I suspect might be thinking that I’m judging them for not being as green as I.

The concern that this phrase raises for me, however, is how many people are unwilling to make sustainability decisions that mean real sacrifice. They instead pick the “low-hanging fruit” such as purchasing organic food or buying an organic cotton t-shirt.

While these decisions are to be applauded of course, I encourage people to go bigger, and ask deeper questions of themselves, for example:

  • Do I really need that organic tee when I have five tees like it?
  • Is the ‘organic’ plastic packaged food product imported from Peru/Italy/USA really sustainable?
  • How sustainable is ‘sustainably-farmed’ fish and meat if I consume it every day?
  • Why do I have so many items in my house and why do I keep buying more?

local-organic-produce-food

Years ago, my younger sister made a remark about how she felt that people and businesses who label themselves or their products “eco-friendly” don’t seem to be making genuine attempts to reduce environmental impact and that the “buying better” rhetoric they espouse is justification for higher prices and making themselves feel morally superior.

She raises valid points.

I don’t want people (like my sis) to reject eco lifestyle ideas because they feel it is a marketing ploy to manipulate them into buying more expensive goods or because it makes them “feel good” to take the moral high ground because they’ve bought consciously.

And when I see environmentalists failing to lead by example, I can see why others are cynical. But there’s no such thing as a 100% sustainable lifestyle in modern society… that I know of.

So in light of this, here are the five most common sustainability-related trade-offs that even the most committed greenie makes:

1. Meat consumption

Environmentalists eating meat is as paradoxical as “eco fashion”.

If you’ve watched Cowspiracy you’ll know exactly what I mean. The amount of environmental damage caused by land clearing to raise livestock is ginormous. Environmental issues aside, there is also the unethical treatment of factory farmed animals and the moral dilemma of treating animals as commodities.

meat-consumption-sustainability-trade-offs

I come across people who call themselves “eco-conscious” who aren’t actively reducing their meat intake which does the sustainability cause harm. No wonder lay people are confused!

So if you consider yourself to be a conscious individual but don’t want to give up meat completely, you’ve only got two options:

  • you actively reduce the amount of meat and fish you eat (“Meatless Mondays”)
  • you source sustainably-farmed meat and fish.

2. Buying stuff, and promoting stuff

As a committed environmentalist and content marketing entrepreneur, I am open about my own struggles with accepting sponsored posts on this blog and promoting materialism in my digital business.

How does one make honest money without promoting consumerism?

It’s a tough question I’ve wrestled with a lot over the last couple of months. So here’s how I deal with it:

Just how sustainable are your clothes?

  • As an environmental blogger, I have a Patreon page where I encourage readers to make pledges to help keep Eco Warrior Princess as ad-free as possible. I also try to practice minimalism, keeping only the things in my life that add value. I rarely buy new things and before I make a purchase, always ask myself: Do I really need this? 
  • As a digital marketer, I have chosen to help only mindful businesses reach more people.

Making these decisions helps me to sleep at night.

Related Post: Eco Warrior Princess Transparency Report August 2016

3. Having children

This is such a deeply personal issue that it can often be difficult to raise the topic without being judged a child-hating feminist (child hating no, feminist yes).

But here’s the truth: we know that an increasing population puts pressure on the earth’s finite resources. We also know that every human born into this world has a negative impact. Environmentalists find themselves divided on this topic. I myself have been reluctant to explore this issue and only recently opened up about in a recent post when I shared my own story.

environmentalists-and-population-sustainability-trade-off

So while logic plays a role in our sustainability decisions, so do our emotions. Should you decide that having a child is essential to living a fulfilling life (and really, what right do other people have to make you feel bad about this?) then I imagine as an eco-conscious person, you will make every effort to negate your family’s environmental impact.

This may involve:

  • finding alternative solutions to disposable nappies;
  • educating your child about the role they play in our wider eco system;
  • borrowing toys from a toy library rather than buying them;
  • teaching your child the value of growing and eating whole foods and organic food;
  • helping them understand what happens when they litter etc

This will help your child to grow up with a healthy respect for our natural environment rather than making choices that will further damage it.

Related Post: Should We Or Shouldn’t We Keep Having Children?

4. Non-renewable resource consumption

Skeptics often accuse sustainably-minded people of being hypocritical. They say things like:

“If you’re so concerned about the environment then perhaps you should stop using your cars, opt out of society and go out and live in the forest.”

Environmentalists aren’t Luddites or even hippies – we’re not against technological progress and don’t want to swap our lives for an Amish community or hippie commune. (Well I don’t anyway...)

woman-cycling-sustainable-transport

But there are things we can do to reduce fossil fuel consumption such as avoiding the use of your petrol-guzzling car and replace it with sustainable modes of transportation such as cycling, walking or taking public transport; reducing electricity consumption by avoiding the use of the heater and air conditioner or by installing solar panels on the roof of your home.

To influence others to more sustainable behaviour we must lead by example and that starts with reducing energy consumption or finding alternative renewable sources of energy.

5.  Air travel

When Leonardo DiCaprio took a private jet from Cannes to collect his environmental award, he received much criticism about his carbon footprint – and rightly so. As much as I adore Leo for bringing global attention to climate change issues and championing conservation, his actions smelled of hypocrisy. And even though he is said to be a “Carbon Neutral citizen“, reduction and minimisation of waste should be the aim, not the bandaid solution of planting trees to offset carbon (don’t worry, I still love you Leo!).

private-jet-private-plane-sustainability

Now most of us don’t have access to a private jet but many of us do take frequent trips interstate or overseas. Some environmentalists have been bitten by the travel bug so badly that they spend most of their time travelling. And while I encourage experiences over material consumption, travel – and air travel particularly – comes at a huge environmental cost. A cost many environmentalists conveniently refuse to address, as Leo demonstrated.

So what’s the solution? Well there are only two choices:

  • don’t travel (the most sustainable option); or
  • offset your carbon.

And if you’re as rich and privileged as Leo, offsetting your carbon isn’t enough – you MUST avoid taking private jets!

Now over to you. What sustainability-related trade-offs are you making? Do you think you can do better? If so, how?

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About the author

Jennifer Nini

Jennifer Nini is a writer, activist and the founding editor of Eco Warrior Princess. In 2010, after studying Fashion Business, she launched Eco Warrior Princess to explore her interests in fashion, politics, social justice and sustainability. Jennifer is also the founder of The Social Copywriter, a digital agency harnessing the power of copywriting and content marketing to help mindful businesses reach more people. When she's not perfecting a sentence or coaching business clients, you will find her at her certified organic farm reconnecting with nature.

9 Comments

    • Glad you enjoyed it! Yes it often starts with a small choice, but it quickly adds up and then before you know it, you’re not just learning about it and applying it in your own life, you’re telling the world about it too. Or is that just me? LOL!

  • To point 2, I’ve been trying to incorporate more creative posting into my blog, like DIYs for health and fashion, and I’m working on photographing more pieces I own over and over again to help people realize that you don’t need new things all the time. It’s got to be intentional when you’re an ethical blogger or you’ll totally lose sight of that.

    • Yes great to see you taking those steps. Years ago I wrote a post about the ‘fashion faux pas’ of being seen in the same outfits. Our societal conditioning to think wearing the same thing as odd is just that – a conditioning. Also for us, as we are interchangeably called ‘conscious’ or ‘mindful’ or ‘eco’ bloggers (well me anyway), I think it’s important that we are aware that the materialistic message can be viewed by some as hypocritical.

  • I watched Cowspiracy very recently and was put off by the quote “you can’t call yourself an environmentalist if you eat meat,” as the person saying it appeared to be sitting down with his children to eat a meal. The first thing I thought was “hypocrite – you can’t call yourself an environmentalist if you have children.” Of course I don’t actually believe either is true, I eat meat and am child-free by choice. I haven’t owned a car for 3yrs but I travel by air regularly.
    To me, becoming vegan due to a faulty food industry would be like becoming nudist because the fashion industry is a top polluter. It’s preaching this kind of extremism that I believe is a hurdle to people joining the environmental movement. Even I’m put off by these hard lines and I’ve been committed to the environment most of my life – I have a degree in environmental science!!
    I’m totally on board with you Jennifer, we are too far down the path of destruction not to make bigger sacrifices for bigger improvements. I also believe we won’t get anywhere with an “all or nothing” approach. There needs to be compromise in order to move forward.

    • Yes there are people who take ideas to the extreme and forget that each individual has his or her set of personal ethics, desires and needs. After all, when we look back at our own journeys as “eco” people, I’m sure none of us grew up ‘mindful’ and if you were, your parents were definitely well ahead of their time! I definitely wasn’t raised to know all the stuff I know now. I learned, I applied, I learned some more, I informed others, I tracked progress, I reevaluated, I honed, I evolved, I shared. It’s a never ending learning process. And besides, I don’t enjoy people ‘Bible bashing’ me, so I try to refrain from “Eco bashing’ others 🙂

  • I have been having this internal dilemma for a while now, so it’s great to read your piece. many of my lifestyle choices are ‘greener than green’ but occasionally I slip up, like I might buy something that is ott packaged if I get stuck somewhere and need to eat. I have 4 children ffs! I own a big car! But every day Im making better choices, im getting more organised, I’m reducing my family’s consumption, I’m showing my kids how to tread gently over the earth, I’m trying my best, I think we all are. So yes, aim high, we all need to, but I definitely agree that it is a process. You can’t force or guilt anyone into changing their habits, it has to come from inside. Even the most hardcore environmentalist wasn’t born that way and didn’t wake up one morning knowing it all. I think some people are a little lofty when it comes to judging others. Little by little, step by step is how I approach things.

    • Thanks for sharing your story Patricia! We can only do the best we can, right? For me it all starts with being conscious of our choices so that even if we do “slip up” we own that decision, make peace with it and move on and know that it’s not the end of the world because we made an error in judgement. None of us are perfect after all and comparing and judging each other – and ourselves – is not helpful. Besides as unique individuals we have different needs, desires, aspirations, skills etc. So a family is important for some, not so for others. Some have jobs that take them around the world, others have never left the city they were born in. Some own a car as they feel it is a necessity, others don’t. We are so different and it’s why I drive the message of consciousness first. If we are ‘awake’ and ‘conscious’ we are much more likely to make better choices. And I have to agree with you on that – no environmentalist was born that way, and if they were, they were lucky to have some truly amazing parents! 🙂

  • Thank you for an honest and deeply thoughtful post , I have been grappling with similar thoughts and attempting to find a balance in swimming against the current for a very long time . Often when making certain choices asking the question – is this serving a higher purpose that can be justified ? Life is full of shades of gray ( possibly a lot more than 50 ) !
    I personally believe that spiritualism and environmentalism is very much tied together and if separated becomes murkier .
    We are all guardians of this planet and it is both a privilege and a responsibility we assume upon taking birth . Realising that this earth belongs to our Creator should inspire us to make less ego based choices and help shift our focus off the material .
    For example upon reading the Vedic scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita ( also the origin of Ayurveda and Vastu ) which are the most ancient and most detailed spiritual writings available – one finds a lot of answers and rules laid down to assist us in our quest of an honorable human existence
    4 main rules are mentioned as the cornerstones to keeping humanity on track and keep us situated in the mode of ” goodness ” which is the most conducive platform to contemplate a higher state of consciousness
    by avoiding this 4 basic activities we safeguard ourselves and our planet to a great extent , they are : meat eating , gambling , illicit sex , intoxication ( as they fuel the modes of passion and ignorance )
    When we think deeply about this activities it is easy to see how each has the potential to spiral in to complex web of obstacles that affect us and our environment both mentally and physically
    Our state of consciousness is crucial to anything we do – 2 people can be seemingly performing the same thing but their motivation and purpose can be very different , thus it is a very internal process for us to examine our motives and improve or to make peace with the best we can do .
    Life after all is meant to be challenging – that is how we grow and like you all mentioned refraining from judging others is one of its most important lessons

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