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Living More Sustainably, For Less

Living a greener, more sustainable, and more enjoyable life doesn’t require sacrifice or undue expense. You can live a sustainable lifestyle for less with a few modest considerations.

Author: Martin Lundgren

You have more sustainable habits than most: you truly care about the environment, and you donate annually to environmental causes. You recycle religiously, upcycle assiduously, and always remember your reusable grocery totes. 

Perhaps you own an annotated copy of An Inconvenient Truth and have synthesized Kunstler’s warnings in The Long Emergency. You make your short commute to your hybrid office job, marveling at the news of technological advances and infrastructure spending designed to facilitate a greener, more sustainable economy. 

But you want to live more sustainably

There’s a nagging sense, a small guilty voice that tells you you could be doing more. There’s a tug in your heart as you scroll through daily reports of fires, floods, hurricanes, and global disasters. It feels personal despite not personally affecting you. And it all looks pretty pressing, oppressive even. It might even make you feel a little guilty with all the advantages you’ve had throughout your life. 

The good news is, while none of us can individually prevent the rise of global temperatures beyond the 1.5°C rise above pre-industrial levels warned of in the Paris Agreement, there’s much that each of us can do to offset our impacts and live more sustainably while still making ourselves comfortable. With a few simple shifts in perspective, we can live more equitably and sustainably and save a good deal of money in the process. 

Preserving the planet for posterity, after all, does not require undue sacrifice.

Read on to learn how you can make incremental tweaks to live more sustainably without foregoing your usual comforts. You won’t have to go off-grid, forage, hunt for food, or learn canning, but you can live better and greener with a few thoughtful approaches to life and living.

How to Go Green in Your Home and Your Life

You may have read our previous article on Going Green: The Financial Gains of a Sustainable Home and taken this guidance to heart. Giving up paper towels, planning meals, and composting organics, you may have even changed your diet to lean more plant-based. Commendable steps, all, towards a greener, more sustainable lifestyle, but what else can we do? 

Below are a few simple habits, a household appliance consideration or two, ingenious innovations, and a few tried and true (if forgotten) technologies to make your life greener, more comfortable, and more affordable.

Do More Than Electrify Your Commute

States nationwide are aggressively pursuing electric vehicles and EV infrastructure as a critical sustainability solution. Washington state signed into law the Clean Cars 2030 measure, requiring that all new cars registered in the state be electric by 2030. There are obvious environmental benefits of moving away from fossil fuels and internal combustion vehicles, and a clear necessity with diminishing supplies of nonrenewables, but “car culture” in itself, and all this culture entails, presents unique challenges and hidden social costs to both established and emerging countries and economies.

The WHO estimates that there are 2.2 billion registered motor vehicles (including motorcycles) globally. This number is expected to increase in the coming years, doubling by 2040. A product of the Industrial Revolution, motor vehicles have radically changed our urban and built environments, creating low-density sprawl and extensive networks of roadways and enormous parking lots. To quote Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” 

Global transportation modes have evolved from walking to streetcars to automobiles, radically transforming the way we live and move across the entire planet. The impact of the car is clearly expressed in urban form. Its existence creates issues of fairness and challenges to the sustainability of growing urban, suburban, and rural populations. The suburbs themselves, that is, sprawling, low-density developments on the outskirts of a city, weren’t popularized or even truly viable until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When we consider how we get around, we should remember that sustainability is, by definition, equitable and economical. 

The costs of parking lots, infrastructure, and all that a car culture requires are paid by someone, often indirectly, via energy and environmental costs. The asphalt market (a residual of distilled crude oil) is driven by demand for roads, highways, bridges, and transportation infrastructure. This market continues to grow at a compounded rate of 5.1% each year. It takes considerable energy to create asphalt.

The Rise of the EVs

Climate and environmental scientists studying “zero emissions” vehicles suggest that, while EVs might reduce emissions during use, producing EVs creates 80% more emissions than building a comparable gas-powered car. Currently, much of the energy used to mine the lithium and cobalt for EVs comes from fossil fuels, so, despite the environmental impacts of mining for these metals, the sustainability of EVs will continue to improve, but it’s not a truly sustainable solution. 

States like Washington, which are hydropower-heavy in their production of electrical energy, fare a little better than states like coal-heavy Virginia. However, we still need to measure and account for the larger environmental and social impacts of hybrids, EVs, and the “zero emission” roadway solutions being pursued aggressively across the country. While we might be incentivized to buy an electric vehicle, and you probably should if you do need a car, it’s still way more sustainable, more affordable, and arguably more fun to live and build a daily routine and lifestyle around a bicycle, either conventional, electric or power-assisted. Should roadways themselves start to deteriorate or falter, a bicycle will fare far better than an EV for your commute.

If it’s just too far or unreasonable to commute on a conventional bicycle, the most sustainable mode of transportation after walking is considered an all-electric or power-assisted bike. With these new and emerging options for bicycle transport, you can travel twice the distance with considerably less effort, so your business casual attire won’t turn into athleisure wear. Many states, like Washington and California, and local municipalities are now (or will soon) be offering rebates on e-bike purchases. Your employer might even offer you credits for biking to work or taking public transit.

EVs and e-bikes are both great steps forward for sustainability. The Build Back Better Act and the aforementioned incentives and initiatives lead us to a decarbonized electrical grid and a more sustainable future. We’ll be getting around more equitably and affordably in the future, but there’s still a handful of other, maybe less radical, changes we can look at towards living an increasingly sustainable lifestyle.

Take a Moment to Celebrate

It’s important to consider here, as we weigh all of these potential environmentally sensitive and sustainable approaches, that it’s not an “all at once” or “all or nothing” approach to living sustainably. It’s progress towards a more sustainable way of life. Every incremental, individual effort counts. As we’ve mentioned in others of our articles, we need to celebrate our small successes. If you ride an e-bike, use your reusable totes, eat a plant-based diet, or have given up paper towels, take a moment to celebrate before we move on to other sustainability approaches and considerations.

You Are What You Wear – Greening Your Wardrobe

You might be so generous that you’d literally give the shirt off your back to someone in need. But have you thought about the actual costs of that shirt from an environmental standpoint? Did you know that the water required to make one cotton T-shirt is enough for a person to drink for 2.5 years or that 80% of discarded textiles globally are either incinerated or dumped in landfills annually?

As fashion production shifted from local domestic production towards globally produced products, the industry abandoned the virtuous cycles of production and consumption in favor of cheaper labor practices and increased production. This has led us to the 21 Billion pounds of textiles sent to US landfills yearly. We won’t crawl down the rabbit holes of the social costs of the fashion habits of established economies, but suffice it to say that the vast majority of the 300 million people working in the textile industry in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam are grossly underpaid, undervalued, and frequently abused. The apparel industry also accounts for nearly 10 percent of global carbon emissions and is second only to the oil industry in pollutants.

The good news is there are plenty of sustainable solutions for your closet. The environmental failures of the fashion industry have inspired a plethora of resources and strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of your and your family’s closets. The first and most obvious step is to wear your clothes longer. Clothes are so cheap that we often buy them just because they’re a bargain. But those “bargain” clothes aren’t designed to last, and they seldom see adequate wear worth the actual cost. Today, our clothes are, on average, worn only 5 and 7 times before they are discarded; in some places like China, fast fashion articles are worn as few as three times. The rise of Instagram influencers has further exacerbated this situation.

If you are determined to wear your clothes more than 7 times, you’ll look for more quality construction. You may even be willing to pay a little more for something that wears longer. You might love this item enough to repair it as it wears. Researchers, environmental analysts and fashion industry experts suggest that if you want to reduce your impact and waste, you should strive to wear your clothes at least 30 times. 

To help with this, you can enlist the #30wearschalleng and install the app on your mobile phone. Likely, you’ll soon find those affordable garments aren’t lasting as long as you’d expect, and you’ll begin searching for more durable, perhaps locally produced and sustainable products and outfits. Resorting to vintage and handmade goods is one, good looking option. With a little effort, you’ll soon discover the growing number of organizations and brands banding together to remedy what’s been labeled our global fast-fashion catastrophe and find curated collections of sustainable, fair-trade manufacturers and brands from groups like Project CECE. Taking a further stance, you can restrict your new clothes purchases from countries with strict labor and environmental regulations, like the US and Canada. You might pay a little more, but the quality and sustainability points are worth it in the end.

Estimating the overall “value” of a piece of clothing with a simple cost-benefit calculation of the cost of the garment, divided by the number of potential wears (Garment cost/number of wears = cost per wear ). If you buy a $50 pair of Japanese selvedge denim dungarees (a true steal), for example, and wear them 5 times before relegating them to the closet or thrift bin, the cost per wear (CPW) is $10. Compared to the $200 domestic-loomed, organic cotton trousers made in Tennessee, which go with everything and are worn with delightful regularity, say 40 times or more, your cost per wear is $5 or less, and a much better value for you and the planet.

What Happens to Fashion?

In addition to a growing awareness of the environmental and social costs of fashion, there is a growing trend toward reuse and upcycling. Like the T-shirts upcycled to napkins and kitchen towels, you can repair and adaptively reuse your clothes to divert them from landfills and make a sustainability statement in the process. You can also employ local makers and tailors to repair your clothes rather than sending them to the landfill or the thrift store. Even just a few additional wears from a loved jacket or pair of trousers will offset the more than 90 million tons of discarded textiles that end up in landfills every year. You might be surprised how well a repaired garment wears, and how affordable it is to fix a zipper or a button. If you’re truly a DIY type, you can even find classes or individuals willing to teach you basic sewing and stitching for easy repairs, lending new life and a sense of purpose to your “old” or “worn out” clothes.

If you’re really not going to wear that skirt, dress, or shirt again, you’ve got options. You can resell them at a local consignment or second-hand retailer or through online resellers like Poshmark, ThredUp or Ebay. You can find a friend, clothing closet, thrift store, or other enterprise that will sell or distribute still usable garments to consumers. The garments you drop at the Goodwill or Salvation Army may not end up where you’d expect, however. Approximately 85 percent of textiles donated to thrift stores wind up in municipal waste streams for various reasons, amounting to 12.8 million tons of clothing and shoes (made of cotton and polyester) sent annually in landfills. That’s polyester, which takes as long as 200 years to decompose and often leeches harmful petrochemicals into the soil.

In some municipalities, like King County, Washington, you can recycle your unwanted garments, provided they’re not moldy, mildewed or contaminated with oils or other hazardous chemicals. Many of these items are exported to other countries, which may not be great for several ethical reasons. Still, many of them are converted to items like wiping rags, soundproofing, stuffing, and insulation.

Cool and Sustainable

Beyond buying fewer, better quality clothes from ethical manufacturers in countries with stricter environmental standards and repairing old garments, you can treat your clothes and the environment better by washing your garments only when necessary. Hang your jeans up after wear and “let them air” is one approach; denim doesn’t need to be washed between every wear. With the exception of undergarments, perhaps, most clothes can be worn a few times, with light wear, without requiring a wash. You can extend the life of any garment while reducing your energy bill by washing garments in cold water. Cold water washing does more than save you money on water heating; it extends the life of synthetic and natural fibers and reduces the number of polluting microfibers released into our waterways and oceans.

Leveraging the Power of the Sun

So while we’re wearing our natural fiber, ethically constructed clothes longer and washing them in cold water, we can save a little extra cash, and further reduce our environmental footprint with how we dry our clothes. Conventional clothes dryers are huge energy hogs, representing a whopping 2 percent of our nation’s entire electricity consumption. Clothes dryers are so wasteful that the US National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a “Call to Action” to help reduce the excess energy used by conventional clothes dryers. 

Using natural gas or electricity to warm air, the moisture is extracted from the wet clothes and blown out of doors. It’s a woefully inefficient process. Advances in heat pump clothes dryers make the process of drying your garments way more efficient, like 50 to 60 percent more energy efficient, according to some accounts. Your clothes dryer alone accounts for roughly 3.2% of your annual energy use, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. As the cost of electrical energy continues to increase, these savings will certainly add up. Investing in an efficient heat pump clothes dryer is a very sustainable step. 

If you’re serious about greening your lifestyle and saving more money, consider outside clotheslines or drying racks. You leverage the power of the sun free of charge to dry your clothes, at least during the warmer months, eliminating the need for a clothes dryer and getting sunshine-crisp laundry. Line-dried clothes tend to last longer due to the reduced heat and wear from tumbling. If your neighbors or the HOA decide to trouble or cite you for hanging your clothes outside to dry, remember that many states, including California, Arizona, Colorado, and 16 others, have “right to dry” laws prohibiting HOAs or condo associations from forbidding the drying of clothes out of doors; Washington state, as of July 2023, is also considering joining the group of “right to dry” states.

Doing More With Less

Doing more with less can cost little more than a change in perspective, as we can see how we buy and wear our clothes or how we think about getting around. We can look sharp, wearing crisply sun-dried, repaired, and well-loved garments. We can coast our e-bike to work on a Tuesday afternoon, stopping with our reusable aluminum or steel coffee mug for fair-trade coffee and finding time to drop off a bag of old garments at the recycler on the way. 

It’s a lifestyle and a shift in perspective that saves both money and the planet. We can feel good and live more equitably, fairly, and sustainably without spending much money. We’ve mentioned briefly the heat pump clothes dryer, a sustainable innovation gaining popularity for various reasons in the United States. In subsequent articles, we’ll consider other appliances and home renovations to make our lives even leaner, greener, more comfortable, and more affordable moving forward. There might be some upfront costs to these sustainable renovations, like buying domestically manufactured clothes, but as we’re buying less and saving a ton with our sustainable lifestyle shifts, these changes increasingly make sense.

So, for now, enjoy that newly repaired coat and make sure you’ve got adequate insurance to cover the cost of that e-bike in the event of an accident or theft. We’ll see you next time for further tips and insights on greening your home, life, and finances. Come back and visit us for more on sustainability and sustainable lifestyles that can save you money and help save the planet.

The information in this article is not intended as tax, accounting, or legal advice. Read the full disclaimer here.