You Don't Have To Go 'All In' To Make An Environmental Impact

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 

I have a friend who is so committed to the environment that she doesn’t wrap Christmas presents. She just lays the presents out on Christmas Eve — BAM — for all to see, and if they have a spare gift bag lying around from something someone gave one of her kids for a birthday, she may toss a gift in there. She composts, grows her own vegetables, and has a chicken coop out back stocked with chickens who supply the eggs for her family. She won’t buy a product that has too much packaging, especially if it’s plastic packaging. She almost never buys from Amazon. Her family rarely eats meat, and if they do, it’s the grass-fed, hormone-free kind. When they vacation, they usually choose locations nearby. Their house is solar-powered. They drive a Tesla. They are minimalists. In short, they are the most committed environmentalists I know.

I admire my friend and her family’s efforts, but, to be honest, I’m also a little intimidated by her. My version of environmentalism pales in comparison to hers. I buy almost nothing new. My TV, headboard, mattresses, and couch were all purchased new, but just about every other item in my home is secondhand, including the dishes and clothes (except underwear. I have my limits). It’s actually become a kind of game for me, finding secondhand beautiful furnishings and decor. How pretty can I make our space using only other people’s throw-aways?

Still, compared to my friend’s extreme environmentalism, I feel like a fraud. I mean, most people can’t afford a Tesla or solar panels, but would it be so hard for me to erect a chicken coop in my backyard? And do we really need to wrap our Christmas presents?

I think a lot of us fall into this trap, though — thinking that our efforts aren’t enough because they’re not grand gestures. The pressure to do something can feel a lot like the pressure to do everything. We see these lists of all the different things you can do that are good for the environment, and the implication seems to be that we must do every item on the list. If you can’t be all-in, then why even bother? It’s too much.


But don’t let yourself get overwhelmed to the point that you give up altogether. You don’t have to go off-grid and forever swear off plastic straws and ride your bike to work in order to make an impact. Life is busy. You’re already exhausted on the daily and don’t need one more impossible task to potentially fail at and feel guilty about. But there are plenty of small everyday choices you can make most of the time or even part of the time that will turn you into more of an environmentalist.

When it comes to environmentalism, doing the best you can is better than doing nothing at all.

Most of us have heard by now that eating meat, especially beef, is one of the bigger contributors to global warming. Not nearly as big a problem as fossil fuel combustion, but a significant contributor nonetheless. Still, you don’t have to become vegan to do some good. If you normally eat meat or other animal products three times per day, start limiting meat to only one meal per day, say, at dinner. That still has a huge impact. Imagine if everyone reduced their meat consumption by two thirds — that would be a major net contribution to reducing greenhouse gases.

Once we hear about the damage plastics cause to our environment, it’s easy to feel pressured to give up plastic altogether — as if that is even possible. Nearly every product we buy from the grocery store is packaged in plastic, from our gallon milk jugs to my favorite brand of cage-free eggs to that jar of off-brand mayonnaise. It seems like every single freaking thing is packaged in plastic. How could anyone completely eliminate all of that from their lives?

But you don’t have to completely swear off plastic any more than you have to never eat another bite of steak. Make small changes, starting with your awareness. I try to be aware of how much plastic packaging I’m putting in my grocery cart when I do my shopping. If I can cut it out without spending twice as much (like many, I simply don’t have a lot of wiggle room in my budget), then I do. For example, I buy all my produce without a bag. You know how grocery stores supply those little bags to put your produce in? Just toss the produce in your cart, bag-free. It’ll be fine. You have to wash it later anyway.

Also, I use reusable cloth bags rather than the plastic ones offered at the cash register. I spent $6 about four years ago to buy six bags, and they’ve covered me ever since. I’ve even picked up a few spares along the way, though I honestly have no idea where they came from.


And I don’t drink out of single-use plastic bottles. If you’re a person who grabs a soda or water from the impulse-buy section at the checkout every time you shop, try starting by allowing yourself that treat every other time you go shopping. Something is always better than nothing. You don’t have to cut it out completely like I do.

Shopping on Amazon is one weakness that I refuse to give up. That means I often receive products at my door that are double-wrapped in various types of packaging, some of it plastic. I know I’m expanding my carbon footprint every time I do this, but I would also be burning gas in my car if I drove to the store to get whatever I needed. And I don’t always have time to go to the store for light bulbs and shampoo. I try not to overdo my Amazon shopping and try to buy in clumps to avoid multiple deliveries, but I’m sure I’m contributing to global warming with my propensity for buying toiletries on Amazon.

To recap, here are a few small changes you can begin to make that will have an impact:

1. Commit to eating meat (especially beef) only a certain number of times per week

2. Buy secondhand

3. Use reusable shopping bags at the grocery store

4. Buy your produce without using a bag

5. Avoid single-use bottles

6. When shopping Amazon, save things in your cart over time and order them all at once to avoid multiple deliveries

7. Drive a Tesla

Just kidding on that last one. But man, I sure would love a Tesla.

I’m so impressed by my friend who is an extreme environmentalist. I think it’s amazing what she’s doing for our planet, and I am inspired by her commitment and tenacity even if I can’t fully emulate her awesomeness. I do what I can, when I can, and that has to be enough. And that’s really all any of us can do.

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