By Marine Leclerc
A few months ago, I interviewed people to discover the main challenges they face to be more sustainable. I wanted to understand what struggle people have and how they could be relieved at an individual level so they can take actions to reduce their impact.
As expected, a few common pain points came back: packaging, transport and the famous: “it’s too expensive”. However, very surprisingly a few people mentioned an opposite argument: being sustainable was natural to them because their financial difficulties made them frugal. I was in front of a paradox. Is sustainable living more expensive or cheaper than “traditional living”?
I have been trying to reduce my impact for three years and I realised that I spend less money now than when I was a mindless consumer. My income also drastically decreased, and I do not lack anything, so I deeply feel that sustainable living really is inexpensive and that there is a huge misconception around that lifestyle.
In order to compare “sustainable living” and “standard living” as objectively as I could, I adopted a very practical approach to budgeting.
Why does sustainable living seem expensive?
There is no denying that social media (and Instagram in particular) rule our vision of lifestyles and sustainable living is no exception. Ethical and eco-friendly bloggers and influencers are growing their following by spreading the image of a lifestyle that feels and looks better than any other. They make it appealing for two reasons.
First, they cannot spread a word and start a movement that is not aesthetically pleasing. As awful as it may sound, by nature, humans are attracted to a pleasant lifestyle. So, if they want to catch their attention in a busy feed to preach their message, the pictures should look pretty.
Secondly, to make a living and produce free content to their audience, they are paid by sustainable brands to make their products look dreamy.
As a result, sustainable living appears expensive because it would imply purchasing a lot of ethical products, owning a huge house with a brand new minimal home decoration, new trendy zero waste accessories, fashion items that cost 10 times more than H&M tees and the list goes on.
But there is a gap between sustainable living advertised by influencers and what it truly is.
Why do I think sustainable living is inexpensive?
I live by a very simple mantra: “the most sustainable option is the one you already own” so my actions to reduce my environment and social impact all come back to not buying.
My consumption and my spending drastically decreased so I use the extra dollars in products and services that I know are sustainable. To me, sustainability cannot be expensive if learned and applied it correctly. Unfortunately, we understand it wrong due to several factors.
- Social media and media pressure give a wrong image of sustainability. They push us to over-consume and make us crave what we do not have.
- Greenwashing convinces us that we need a green alternative (or two) for every single product we should give up. For instance, you do not need 10 organic, vegan, cruelty-free skincare products daily, even though they come in recycled packaging. Same conclusion for reusable straws, do you really need them?
- Misinformation spreads much faster than scientific peer-reviewed articles. Data and figures around the impact of fashion (for instance) are all over the internet because of bloggers and media that do not double check their sources. It encourages us to take massive actions that sometimes do not result in the best outcome. Buying from ethical brands that manufacture their garments in upcycled nylon might seem like a great idea, but we later learn they release microplastic in water which end up polluting our oceans.
- Society itself still shares the wrong messages and expects us to look beautiful and successful while being sustainable. Success could be defined by how many green alternatives we own and how many eco resorts we visited. I invite you to read Why Women Will Save the Planet by Friends Of The Earth. A few chapters give a very understandable definition of green economies and explain why there are no good alternatives. I believe that if we truly desire to be sustainable, we need to review our fundamental values and define our success based on intrinsic satisfaction. In his book There Is No Planet B Mike Berners Lee shares a good list of skills we should develop to face the future challenges, including mindfulness.
If we go past misinformation, greenwashing, media and society pressure by educating ourselves and doing some inner work, sustainable living does not appear so expensive anymore.
Let’s do the math!
While the above statement makes a lot of sense to me, proof is required. I decided to analyse spending patterns of a ‘normal’ lifestyle, a sustainable lifestyle as pictured on Instagram and what I call a ‘Real Sustainable Lifestyle’.
I considered the spending categories as defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and focused on the categories that I believe are affected by the level of sustainability we adopt.
While, I wanted to find peer-reviewed research clearly stating the money implications of a sustainable lifestyle, these were impossible to find. Besides, researchers still lack some data and time to conduct proper studies. For instance, we cannot measure the medical treatment savings generated by sustainable living yet as a few generations are necessary to gather a reliable data sample.
So, I used my common sense and a colour code to analyse the spending variations between the three lifestyles.
The colour code is as follows:
- In dark green, costs that are a lot lower compared to normal lifestyle.
- In green, costs that are lower than normal lifestyle’s costs.
- In white, costs are the same compared to normal lifestyle.
- In red, I highlighted higher costs compared to normal lifestyle and in dark red the costs that are a lot higher costs than those generated by a normal lifestyle.
To be able to do the math, I assigned numbers to colours: dark green: -2; green: -1; white: 0; Red: +1; dark red: +2 and finally I summed them up.
Here are the results of my work :
After doing the analysis and the math, I found that a sustainable lifestyle as pictured on Instagram is more expensive (+5) than a normal lifestyle while a “real” sustainable lifestyle is a lot cheaper (-12).
After doing that research as objectively as I could with the data I could gather, I did find that a sustainable lifestyle is not more expensive than a traditional one. The well-known impression that it must be more expensive is based on misconceptions and misinformation.
I hope that this post will put an end to the ‘sustainable living is expensive’ myth and encourage people to take the leap and join the sustainable revolution.
Marine leclerc is a passionate blogger who makes sustainable and ethical lifestyle her priority. After living in Malaysia for a couple of years, she realized that those topics were not popular and accessible enough so she created Attitude Organic to spread the word. You can follow Marine’s journey on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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Cover photo by Neemias Seara via Pexels.