February 17, 2021

A Guide to Sustainable Living

Sustainability

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that sustainability has become a very important part of my life in the past few years. For me, there were a few key moments in my life that turned on the climate emergency lightbulb.

One was when I took a solo road trip across the country and lived in Montana for a few months. I spent a month on the road in my Jeep along with all of my belongings, and it made me realize how little I actually needed. That’s when I started to ask the question, “why did I ever have so much stuff?” and more importantly, “how much of this do I really need?”

The next realization was when I watched the documentary Cowspiracy and decided to go vegan cold-turkey the very next day. I realized, for the first time, the impact my consumption had on the planet and how I could make an impact simply by changing what I choose to purchase or put into my body.

I’m no longer 100% vegan and don’t believe anyone should have to be to save the world, but it does beg the question of how our choices impact others, our health, and the planet.

The problem with sustainability is we live in a world that’s designed for us to make the quickest and most convenient choice instead of the most ethical choice. So how do we choose in a culture that makes it so hard?

I believe the answer is simple: make sustainability beautiful.

I know that might sound strange, but let me explain: I don’t believe sustainability just helps the planet, I truly believe it simultaneously makes our lives more beautiful. Instead of filling our homes with plastic, we fill them with natural materials like wood and glass. Instead of wearing synthetic clothing made from oil, we can wear natural fibers like organic cotton and linen that are beautiful to look at. We can even make our plates beautiful by choosing locally sourced produce over food wrapped in plastic from Aldi that was picked a week too early.

So what can we do? Here are my tips for making the transition to sustainable living easy:

Eat More Plants

Notice I didn’t say “go vegan”, although I do believe that’s the best thing you can do! But after 3 years of being vegan and still struggling with a range of health issues, I’ve learned that going vegan isn’t the solution for everyone. What would make a global impact if we all started doing it today is simply eating more plants.

If you live in the US, you were most likely raised to eat meat daily, with virtually every meal. Historically, humans weren’t designed to eat that way. For centuries, we ate meat only on special occasions because hunting and killing an animal was something viewed as sacred. Nowadays with factory farms, we have access to meat at any hour of the day for lower prices than ever and that’s the greatest sign of a system that’s not sustainable by nature.

Try to go a day eating only plant-based meals, and use it as a time to learn new recipes! I personally love Elsa’s Wholesome Life and Avant-Garde Vegan.

Invest in a Good Water Bottle

This is a crucial step in your journey because water is something every single human on earth consumes. At this point, it’s clear that the bottled water industry is centered around profit over the planet. One of the easiest switches you can make starting today is refusing to buy or accept plastic water bottles and carrying a reusable water bottle with you wherever you go instead.

Not only is this better for the environment, but it encourages you to drink more water, too! This is one area where sustainability can be beautiful. Plastic water bottles are far from beautiful and look even uglier when they become litter and end up in our lakes, rivers, and oceans. Reusable water bottles made of metal or glass can be beautiful, and it’s something you get to look at every day as a reminder of the impact you’re having.

If you travel abroad, I recommend investing in a Larq self-cleaning water bottle. These bottles are self-cleaning and self-purifying, meaning you no longer have to buy bottled water when traveling abroad and can fill up at the tap with peace of mind about the water you’re drinking. They’re pretty pricey, but I would say are definitely worth the investment.

For every day, I recommend a brand like Hydroflask that makes insulated stainless steel water bottles. I’ve had my Hydroflask since college (7+ years!?) and it’s still in perfect condition. My husband and I drink out of it literally every day!

Carry a Reusable Tote Bag

Over the past few years, I’ve become a huge fan of canvas tote bags. I use these in place of a purse because they’re lightweight, easy to pack, and the perfect bag to have on me when I decide to purchase something out.

Their second big use for me is grocery shopping! It’s good to keep a couple of reusable bags in your car so you always have them when you need them. And when you go to check out, make sure you hand the person packing your groceries your bag so they don’t give you plastic unintentionally.

For canvas tote bags, check out Package Free Shop or subscribe to the New Yorker and get a free tote bag (this is my everyday bag).

Ditch Fast Fashion + Buy Handmade

Did you know the clothing industry is one of the top three most polluting industries in the world? With the explosion of fast-fashion over the past 15 years, we’ve turned clothing into something that should last for life into a disposable item only to be worn once (maybe twice).

In 2021, most people know that companies like Zara, H&M, and Amazon are in the business of making cheap clothes made of synthetic materials that are made in places like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Our skin is our largest organ and believe it or not, when we wear clothing made of petroleum (that’s essentially what polyester and other synthetic materials are!) we are absorbing that into our skin.

By switching to natural and organic fibers like organic cotton, linen, or hemp, we are benefiting the entire chain from the farmer, the artist who made the clothing, and our own health as consumers. I personally love linen clothing living in a hot climate, and I always get compliments when I wear it.

For handmade + natural clothing, I highly recommend Etsy!

Shop Secondhand

Along with buying handmade clothing, another amazing way to reduce waste is shopping second-hand. When you want a new item of clothing, instead of running out to the mall, head to your local thrift store and turn it into a treasure hunt.

But if you’re like me and hate the clutter of thrift stores (hello anxiety), check out apps like Poshmark and Depop. I have fallen in love with Poshmark in the past year and it’s been my go-to place for purchasing clothing on a budget.

Make Your Own Home Products

If this sounds overwhelming or too “hippy”, I can assure you that it’s way more fun than it sounds! This has been a game-changer for me and has been such a cool way for me to learn to love the products I use instead of making it something transactional that I have to go out and get.

For years I’ve been making my own household cleaner with Dr. Bronner’s soap and essential oils. Put it in a glass spray bottle and it will last for months, and best of all doesn’t have that terrible chemical smell that traditional cleaners have (which you don’t want to be breathing in!)

I also love to make my own face products such as creams with rose essential oil, body lotion, and facial sprays. It’s amazing how quick and easy the products we use every day are to make with just a few simple ingredients, and you can know that what you’re putting in your home and on your body is safe and actually good for you!

It’s All About Mindset

If you’re just started out, it can feel like an overwhelming list of things you need to change in your life today to be “sustainable”, and friend, I’m here to remind you that this journey isn’t a race. It’s about embracing the slow because it’s in the slow that we find meaning and connection.

Instead of thinking “I have to go out and buy ___”, say “I get to make _____ today”. Instead of “I have to go buy groceries”, say “I get to support local farmers and taste the difference in my food”. Instead of “I have to remember to bring my reusable bags”, “I get to make a small difference today when I tell the cashier I brought my own bag”.

These changes may seem small, but I can assure you they’re bigger than you think. And everyone around you will start to notice the difference in your life and you can cause a ripple effect in their lives, too.

Let me know in the comments what sustainable swaps you’ve been making and how it’s made a difference in your life below!

meet the writer

I'm Donna Irene.

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A photographer, writer, and educator with a passion for helping people quit the hustle and live filled with purpose. When I picked up
a camera over 10 years ago, I had no idea it would take me around the world getting to photograph for everything from fortune 500
companies, brands, and people like you.

And now that I've been to 40+ countries and counting, I want to
use my talents to inspire others to use their creativity to make the world better. Follow along for resources on authentic travel experiences, sustainability, and building a business with intention.

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Photographer, educator, environmentalist, and dog mom. I've turned a passion for photography into my dream job and I want to
teach you how you can do the same!

Hi! I'm Donna.

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