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Tired of ‘eco-judgement’? Here’s how I’m tackling it

Have you ever made a deliberate choice to do/not do something because of the environmental, ecological and/or social impact, and then mentioned that choice to a friend, shared it on social media, or made a comment to a colleague, only to be told:

That’s not the best* thing you could be doing’ / ‘your actions don’t matter’ / ‘why did it take you so long to start’ / ‘what about doing x instead’ / ‘don’t you know y has a bigger impact’ / ‘it’s not perfect’ / ‘you’re not perfect’ / another equally frustrating and deflating thing?

Oh you have? I had a feeling it wasn’t just me.

I don’t know about you, but I do not find it the least bit motivating to be told all of the gaps in my effort, nor do I get inspired after hearing all the ways I’m doing everything wrong.

And yet… it happens. To all of us.

The reason I’ve been thinking about this (well, one of the reasons) is that I’m currently in the process of redoing my website (it’s long overdue). Part of that means updating my ‘about’ page, which I last touched circa 2015. Not even kidding.

Writing an ‘about’ page isn’t just writing about me. It’s introducing the website and the ideas and topics I cover to new readers, explaining the types of things I write about, and giving a good idea of what to expect.

As you can imagine, over the last four years, things have evolved a little, and I want my updated page to reflect that.

Now I’ve always tried to keep this website reasonably upbeat, and focus on the positive and practical. I also try to be gentle in my approach. I’m not perfect (and really, who is?), plus I still remember the time before I went down this path, when I did all kinds of things and made all kinds of choices that I wouldn’t now.

I’m sure I’ll be able to say the same thing in 10 years time about choices I make today.

But over the years I’ve softened a little more in my approach and outlook. The more I see other perspectives, the more I see that change is a process, it’s not always easy, and everyone has a different capacity to do so.

This website has always been about the choices I make, why I make them, and how I go about doing what I do. It’s a reflection of the way I think and my personal navigation of the issues. My hope of course, is that you find this useful and practical – but there is no expectation that you will be able (or want) to do everything that I do.

I am not the zero waste police. I want people who visit my site to feel supported, without any underlying tone of judgment. Something I’ve been really trying to do in my vocabulary over the past year or so, and in anything I write, is remove the words ‘should’ and ‘should not’. These are judgment words, full of opinion and swayed by the values of the person doing the judging. I don’t find them helpful.

And so, I am declaring this space a ‘should’ and ‘should not’ free zone. That’s not to say I’ve never used those words in the past, but I am trying not to use them now. My place is to tell you what I do, not tell you what you should do.

Removing judgment words from your vocabulary – you should think about doing this, too. (See what I did there?! There is absolutely no ‘should’ about it. You might like to think about it. I found it helpful. That’s what I really mean.)

One of the reasons I wanted to do this, is because more and more I see and hear about eco-judgment and eco-oneupmanship in the sustainability space – and it makes me sad (or is that mad… maybe both).

Aren’t we all meant to be on the same side – team planet?

Yes, if you have the capacity to do more, then do more. No need to gloat, however! And it isn’t realistic or fair to expect that everyone will be able to make those same choices.

Nor is it realistic to expect everyone to be at the same point in the journey. I know that so often these critiques are given with the best of intentions; but at the start of the journey, when everything is already so new and overwhelming, being bombarded with a whole other set of ethics/morals/values/opinions that weren’t even on the radar a minute ago isn’t usually that helpful.

I feel lucky that when I started out with living with less waste, back in 2012, there really weren’t that many people ahead of me in the journey. So by default, I had the space to find my own way, discover things I could change and make progress at a pace that worked for me.

Now I feel like it’s a little more tricky.

Just today I read an article published by the BBC (no less) declaring that asthma sufferers had as a big a carbon footprint as people who eat meat. But the article was not about reducing air pollution. Instead, it seemed to be entirely the fault of asthma sufferers, for having asthma. Apparently some could switch to ‘greener’ medication.

I don’t know why this ‘eco-guilt’ and ‘eco-shaming’ is on the rise. In the case of asthma sufferers (and is this reflective of these issues in general?), maybe it is simply easier to blame individuals than address the systems that need changing.

Anyways, in my own small way, and in the spaces I hold, I am taking a stand.

There is no room for eco-guilt, eco-shaming, eco-oneupmanship and generally feeling bad whilst trying to do good over here. We’ve got to keep that room available for creating positive change and motivating others, not dragging them down!

When other corners of the internet start to get a little shouty, know that this is my pledge to you.

That’s not to say I don’t want to hear your opinions, especially if they are different to mine! Now I love the comments section of this website. It easily doubles (triples!) the value of anything I write when others share their perspectives, experiences, and yes – opinions. You’ll notice that at the end of almost every post, I invite people to share their thoughts and leave a comment.

Yes, I want to hear from you!

Comments are great. Opinions are welcome. Alternative experiences being shared is encouraged. There’s plenty of room to disagree and offer alternative viewpoints. And I’ve no plans to change this. It creates a richer experience for everyone, and I’ve learned a lot from the comments that you all leave.

This isn’t the same as judgment. That’s when people rock up and start telling others (often people they’ve never met) what they ‘should’ do. I don’t really even need to say this, because we already have such a positive and judgment-free space, but when addressing others, I’m going to encourage you to leave your ‘should’s and ‘should not’s at the door.

Change can be difficult. Eco choices aren’t always straightforward. People have different energy levels, priorities, budgets, commitments, accessibility and skill levels. Everyone is at a different stage of the journey.

Personally, I think we can get a lot more done – and have a much nicer time doing it – if we spend less time looking out for failings, and more time being supportive of where people are at.

Others make choices we wouldn’t make ourselves, but that doesn’t make them wrong. We’re all just imperfect humans in an imperfect world, living in a system where sustainable solutions aren’t always within reach. We are all doing what we can. That’s not a reason to feel guilty. That’s a reason to feel good.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you ever feel guilty about when it comes to trying to be more eco-friendly or live with less waste? Do the opinions of others add to that guilt? Any tips for dealing with negativity? How have your views changed over time? Anything else to add? Please share your thoughts below!

What’s the Controversy with Palm Oil (and is Sustainable Palm Oil Actually Sustainable)?

I’m guessing you’ve heard of palm oil. And I’m guessing that you’ve heard that it’s bad, or at least, you heard it’s bad for the orangutans. But if it’s so bad, you’re probably also wondering why all the companies that use it think it’s so good, seeing as it’s in around half of all packaged goods in the supermarket.

There’s got to be a reason for that, right? Otherwise wouldn’t they just swap it out for something else?

And what about certified sustainable palm oil? That sounds good, yes? So why do many environmental groups call for a boycott or ban on all palm oil, including certified sustainable palm oil?

Palm oil gets talked about a lot, but sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. Here’s the lowdown: what’s so good about palm oil, what’s so bad about palm oil, and what certified sustainable palm oil really means.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, and it is produced from the fruit of the oil palms (a type of palm tree): primarily the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis, but to a lesser extent the American oil palm Elaeis oleifera and the maripa palm Attalea maripa. Palm kernel oil is a different oil, but it comes from the same plant – this oil is produced from the seed, not the fruit.

Oil palms are tropical rainforest plants, requiring high rainfall, humid conditions and warm temperatures. It grows best when planted 10° north or south of the equator. Oil palms are more productive when grown in plantations, fruiting after 2-3 years until 25-30 years, when they need to be replaced.

What’s So Good About Palm Oil?

Oil palm trees produce more oil from less land than any other oil crop (5x the second-highest oil crop, rapeseed, 6x more than groundnut and sunflower oils, and more than 10x crops like soy bean or coconut oil). The trees also fruit continuously, making them a reliable crop to grow and accessible for smallholders.

The fruits and kernels also have lower production costs than other oil crops, which makes palm oil an efficient and profitable crop to grow.

Because of this, palm oil is the cheapest plant oil to produce (whilst still being profitable for the growers), which makes it popular for use in foods and toiletries. 10% of palm oil is currently grown to produce biofuel.

Palm oil is tasteless, and has a long shelf life compared to other plant oils. Another advantage of palm oil is that it is semi-solid at room temperature, and can be easily refined into liquid and solid oils. The solid fraction has a melting point of 35°C (95°F). Solid palm oil is used in baked goods and pastry as a cheaper (and dairy-free) alternative to butter, in chocolate and desserts as a much cheaper alternative to cocoa butter, and in dairy-free spreads.

In cosmetics it’s a good foaming agent and considered preferable to using animal tallow (animal fat). It’s often used in soap to create bars that are harder and last longer.

In the 1960s, with concerns around the high saturated fat content of animal products like lard and butter, manufacturers began making alternatives by hydrogenating vegetable oils low in saturated fat to make them solid. Partly this was driven by health concerns, but it was also cheaper to produce. These trans-fats was later discovered to be even less healthy than saturated fats and many countries are now legislating to remove trans-fats from food (there are bans in Europe and Canada).

This left manufacturers looking for an alternative, which they found in palm oil.

Very few plant oils are solid at room temperature: the main alternative is coconut oil which has a lower melting point of 24°C (75°F). Cocoa butter is very expensive, and shea butter is rarely used in food products. With the rise in demand for vegetarian and vegan products, palm oil is a good alternative for products that traditionally would use butter or animal fat.

‘Good’, of course, depends on your perspective.

What’s So Bad About Palm Oil?

One of the biggest concerns with oil palms is that this demand for palm oil has meant a significant amount of deforestation, because forests are what grow on the land that is prime for palm oil plantations.

Deforestation means displacement of indigenous people and wildlife habitat loss as old growth rainforest is cleared to make way for new plantations. Animals that have lost their homes enter plantations looking for food: they are seen as a threat to the oil palm crops and considered pests, and often shot.

84% of all the palm oil produced worldwide comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. This also happens to be the only place in the world where orangutans live (on the islands of Borneo – which has both Indonesian and Malaysian territory – and Sumatra, which is Indonesian).

The WWF estimates there were over 230,000 orangutans in the wild a century ago, but their population has halved over the last 100 years, and the Sumatran orangutan is now critically endangered.

Orangutans might be the most famous victims of palm oil, but they aren’t the only species at risk. The Sumatran elephant, tiger and rhino and the Bornean pygmy elephant are also threatened.

Land clearing isn’t the only threat to wildlife – poaching and logging are also issues – although in Indonesia it can be easier to get a land clearing permit than a logging permit, so land is often cleared for logging under an oil palm permit, but no oil palms are subsequently planted.

Palm oil isn’t just a threat for wildlife: it’s a threat for the climate. Another concern with palm oil is that many areas used for oil palm plantations are natural peatlands. Clearing of peatlands and planting of oil palms in these ares increase risk of fire, and the UN suggests peatland fires contribute around 5% of human-caused carbon emissions.

Palm oil is also the 6th most heavily fertilised food crop in the world per hectare. Chemical nitrogen fertilisers are made using natural gas, which can react with nitrogen gas in the air during an exchange that takes place at 400-500°C. This requires fossil fuels not only for the reaction but also to get to these temperatures.

It is estimated that the nitrogen fertiliser industry accounts for 3-5% of all natural gas used and causes more than 1% of all greenhouses gas emissions produced worldwide.

What Is Certified Sustainable Palm Oil – and Is It Sustainable?

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 by a collective of industry representatives, environmental groups and social advocacy groups to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products. It now has over 4,000 members worldwide, who have all committed to produce, source and/or use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO.

To support this, the RSPO have developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). The RSPO trademark was launched in 2011, and RSPO currently certify about 20% of global palm oil production.

The RSPO is not without criticism. When the certification began in 2005 it was found to be complicated, costly and hard to implement. Many consider the standards to be weak, enforcement is limited and there is little retribution for non-compliance.

Certification can be given to palm oil plantations planted on land cleared of tropical forest, which begin as non-certified palm oil and later apply for the sustainable palm oil accreditation: this hides the reality that this certified plantation was recently tropical forest.

Studies have repeatedly shown that certified sustainable palm oil does not stop deforestation (although it may slow it down), it does not reduce the threat of fire or halt the decline in orangutan populations, and there are questions around whether it actually lifts people out of poverty.

Is ‘Certified Sustainable Palm Oil’ Greenwashing?

Many critics of the RSPO call it little more than greenwashing; a way for corporate palm oil stakeholders to look good to the public whilst continuing business as usual.

Some call for a full ban on palm oil, and many shoppers choose to boycott palm oil altogether.

Others critics argue that despite its flaws, a certification scheme for sustainable palm oil is still better than nothing at all, and it provides a way for organisations and companies to transition to more sustainable practices.

Supporters of the scheme, which include the WWF, argue that palm oil is necessary because it is cheap, more efficient than other oil crops, and provides economic benefits to the countries that produce it.

But production has roughly doubled every year since the 1970s, from around 2.5 million tonnes in 1970 to 75 million tonnes today (it’s estimated to reach 240 million tonnes by 2050). It is hard to imagine that such rapid growth can happen in a way that is truly sustainable.

This continued demand means the threat to natural tropical rainforest areas remains as great as ever, as does the threat to wildlife.

What Can We Do About the Palm Oil Problem?

Start With an Audit of Your Pantry and Bathroom Cupboard.

If palm oil is something you’re concerned about, the first thing to do is find out whether any products you’re using actually contain palm oil.

If you live in Europe, an EU law on food information that came into force in 2014 requires that palm oil must be clearly labelled as palm oil: it cannot be called vegetable oil. The US FDA also requires that oils be declared by their common or usual name in food products.

However, in Australia there is no such requirement and palm oil can be labelled as vegetable oil. Most companies will have information about whether they use palm oil on their websites, or will answer requests for information, so you may have to contact them directly to find out.

With non-food products, palm oil may be labelled as Elaeis guineensis, which is the name given to palm oil by the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI).

So far, so simple. However there are actually over 200 ingredients in food and cosmetics that can be derived from palm oil (you can find the list here). If you come across an ingredient in a product, ask the manufacturer for clarification of its origins.

If a Company Uses Palm Oil, is it Certified Sustainable Palm Oil? Switch Out Non-Sustainable Palm Oil First.

Most companies who use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) don’t use the logo on their packaging, but they will be keen to tell you their sustainability credentials on their website or if you ask.

If your audit reveals a lot of products containing palm oil, a next step would be to find out which ones use CSPO and which ones do not.

This gives you a priority list of products to swap out first. Better to support a company at least trying to do better over one that is not.

As well as swapping products, it is worth telling both the company whose product you’re no longer buying and the company whose product you’re switching to why you’re making the swap. Send a quick email, letting them know. This makes them aware that their customers are concerned about palm oil in products.

Slowly Switch Out Products that contain Palm Oil for Those That Don’t.

One by one, as the things you buy run out, start looking for a palm-oil free version.

Some products are easy switches. Palm oil doesn’t need to be in things like peanut butter, it’s added in because it’s a cheap filler. The same goes for chocolate bars: palm oil is simply cheaper than cocoa butter.

Some products are trickier. It may mean switching to a slightly different product (muesli over processed cereal) or it may mean deciding to make our own (and learning how to make our own).

The more processed a product is, the more likely it is to contain palm oil. Switch to less processed foods and less packaging and you’ll reduce your palm oil consumption, naturally.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t oil palms, it’s the way we’re using palm oil. Supporters of palm oil love it because its cheap. But do we really need to make more cheap fast food and processed snacks with empty calories?

Everything comes with a price. Cheap palm oil that results in deforestation, habitat loss, displacement of indigenous people, wildlife extinction and greenhouse gas emissions actually seems like a very high price to pay for low-cost shampoo and snacks.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Is palm oil something you’re concerned about or not? Have you ever audited the products you buy to find out how many contain palm oil? Do you have any ideas for anyone wanting to reduce their palm oil? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share in the comments below!

All links to facts and figures can be found here.

6 Tips to Stop Impulse Buying

Living with less waste is very firmly linked to the buying of less stuff. The less we buy, the less resources we use, the less packaging we invite into our homes, the less storage we need (don’t forget, storage is stuff), and the less we end up recycling or landfilling down the track.

But it can be very hard to stop buying stuff. After all, everywhere we look, there are adverts or people persuading us that the thing they have is exactly what we need. Whether it’s on the TV, billboards, printed magazines or newspapers, social media feeds, internet banner ads or somewhere else, we are exposed to a lot of adverts.

And everything can be posted everywhere.

Not to mention, there is a lot of beautiful, useful stuff out there in the world.

With all this in mind, it is really not surprising that we keep buying stuff. But most of us have more than we need, and would rather decrease the clutter than add more to it.

If we want to live a low waste lifestyle, and save resources, we really need to buy less stuff.

But how?

Here’s 6 things I did to get out of the habit of impulse buying.

1. Unsubscribe from ALL Shop Email Lists (and anything else that is way too salesy)

I used to sign up to store mailing lists as they promised me discounts and to be the first to know about all their special offers. Turns out, pretty much everything is on offer pretty much all of the time. But by keeping their stuff in my face, they were wearing me down, and encouraging me to buy things I didn’t even know existed until I saw the ad.

I wasn’t saving money by being on these mailing lists, I was spending more.

The truth is, I know when the big sales are on. I don’t need the stores to tell me. Black Friday, Boxing Day, the end of the financial year. If I want something from these stores, I can go to their websites at these times to see if they have offers. They don’t need to come to me.

And if I forget? Well, that just means I didn’t really need anything in the first place.

As well as unsubscribing from store email lists, I also unfollow any businesses or people I feel were too salesy. I don’t block everyone who ever posts an ad (but you could!), I just weigh up the balance. If I enjoy the feed, find the content useful and don’t feel under pressure to buy or constantly exposed to “stuff”, I’m happy to stay following.

But as soon as the balance tips and I realise I’m just seeing a bunch of covert (or not!) ads, then I’m done.

2. Don’t Browse Catalogues or Websites Out Of Boredom

I remember a couple of years into my minimalism journey, receiving a catalogue from David Jones through the mailbox (for those outside Australia, David Jones is a fancy high-end department store). I flicked through it and saw all the purple kitchen accessories and nautical themed clothing, with cute anchor accessories and smart blue-and-white striped everything.

I didn’t own any of those things!

Immediately I felt inadequate, and a small voice in my brain started to tell me that I needed to own a blue nautical stripy jumper, and really, wasn’t it time to upgrade the kitchen spatula?

At the same time, my experience of minimalism told me this was absurd. Luckily I’d been on the less waste, less stuff journey for long enough that the stern, don’t be so ridiculous voice in my head was louder, and won out.

I put the catalogue in the recycling, and vowed never to flick through another catalogue again. (Oh, and I got a “No Advertising Material Accepted” for my mailbox. It works wonders.)

As someone on the less waste, less stuff journey I didn’t think I’d be tempted, but I was. The pull of these things can be pretty strong.

Don’t put yourself in temptation’s way. Don’t go to store websites unless there’s something you absolutely need. Don’t browse out of boredom. Don’t browse for “inspiration” – you’ll end up spending money you didn’t mean to.

Don’t open the shopping catalogues. (If they arrive in the mail, strikethrough your address and write “Not at this address, return to sender” on front, then mail it straight back where it came from.)

Instead, find another way to alleviate your boredom. Read a few pages from a book, go for a walk, play a game, message a friend, whip up some tasty treat in the kitchen.

The less we expose ourselves to “stuff”, the less tempted we are to buy stuff, and the less we buy.

3. Don’t Go To The Shops Without A Reason

If we are trying to stop buying stuff, browsing and window shopping are not reasons to go to the store. Unless there is something we need, and we have a list that we are prepared to stick to, we must resist the temptation to head to the shopping centre.

What you don’t see you won’t buy.

When it comes to writing lists, more specific is better. Rather than “a top for work”, think about what you really need. “A short-sleeved top, preferably green or blue, that will match the skirt and trousers I already own” is a much better instruction. Rather than “stuff for dinner”, look in the fridge and pantry, figure out what is already there and what would be most useful. “Potatoes, tomatoes and chickpeas” might allow you to use up what’s already in the fridge, and create less food waste.

If we are vague about what we need, we will end up with things we don’t need.

If friends want to meet at the shops, try to suggest meeting somewhere else. If that is not an option, consider opting out, especially if the purpose of the meeting is to go (window) shopping. There are plenty of fun things to do with friends that do not involve buying stuff. Try to steer future meetings away from the mall.

4. Learn the Difference between “Useful” and “Necessary”

So much stuff is beautiful, and so much stuff is useful – but that doesn’t mean we need to buy any of it (and definitely not all of it). Often we confuse “useful” with “necessary” when it comes to making purchases, and the two are very different.

The question isn’t “how will the item be used” so much as “how will I use it”? Or even, will I use it? Not once or twice, but consistently, regularly.

Stuff doesn’t just need to be useful. Stuff needs to be used.

Necessary can mean different things to different people. Good reasons include making our life easier, making us less stressed, saving a noticeable amount of time or anguish, providing entertainment, and helping keep the peace at home.

Here’s a few questions to ask to decide if something is actually necessary, or merely useful.

  • Do I need it? I mean, do I really need it?
  • How will I use it? Where will I use it? When will I use it? How often will I use it?
  • Will it still be useful in three months time? Six months time? In a year?
  • Is there anything else I already have that can do that job?
  • How will it make my life better?

If in doubt, go without.

5. When You See Something You Want, Don’t Buy It – Let it Simmer

If you see something that you want, or even something that you think you need, resist the urge to make the purchase. For now.

Put down the purse, walk away, and let it simmer.

(Unless the item has been on your “I absolutely must purchase this if I ever see it because it is so inherently useful and necessary” list for at least 6 months – but I’m betting you don’t actually even have a list like this.)

See how you feel about the item later that day. See how you feel about it the next day. See how you feel about it in a week.

This is hard when there’s stuff in the sale, or on the “when it’s gone, it’s gone” rail, because marketers use scarcity to encourage us to buy stuff. We’re not sure if we want it, but if we don’t buy it, we might make a mistake! It might not be there tomorrow! Someone else might snaffle it instead!

But that’s not our brain doing a rational assessment of whether we really need or will use something. That’s our ‘fear of missing out’ talking. Since when was that guy in charge of our purchasing decisions?

In a week, if you are still adamant that you need and want the item, buy it. Worst case, you wait a week, decide you want the item, and it is gone. I’m betting that you’ll still be able to find the item somewhere else, or wait for it to appear second-hand online in no time.

Absolute absolute worst case, that doesn’t happen, and you miss out on the thing forever. The good news is, it is only a thing. There will be plenty more things that we want to buy over the course of our lives.

Life will go on.

6. Find a Way To “Reward” Yourself That Isn’t Shopping

If buying stuff is what you do when you’re bored, miserable, dejected or struggling with life, and you want to stop buying stuff, then you need to find a new way to make yourself feel better. Because trying to stop impulse buying, only to buy stuff as a means to soothe ourselves, is counter-intuitive. (It’s like going on a diet, and rewarding ourselves with chocolate cake. Tasty and satisfying in the moment, but it undoes all the good work.)

The good news is, there are plenty of other feel-good things to do. If you need cheering up, think of something that you enjoy that doesn’t involve shopping. Watch a movie or comedy show, bake a cake, stroll around the park, or make time for a cup of tea with some friends. Join an exercise class, learn a new language, or take up a new skill.

There are much more rewarding and enjoyable things to do than shop, and much better ways to use our money than buying “stuff”. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but each time we say no and resist the urge to open our wallet, we get a little closer.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Are you an impulse shopper? Did you used to be an impulse shopper? How did you learn to change? Is it something you’re currently trying to change? What are your biggest tips for not spending? Do you have any impulse shopping weaknesses? (Chocolate, hello!) Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

The Hardest Thing about Going Zero Waste (it’s not what you think)

If you had to guess what the hardest thing about going zero waste is, what would you say? Lack of access to bulk stores? Zero waste products being more expensive than their plastic-packaged, overly wrapped counterparts? Lack of buy-in from the kids, or the spouse, or parents, or colleagues?

These things can certainly be challenging. Yes, it would definitely be easier if we all had an incredibly affordable bulk store just around the corner, right next to a veggie shop full of fresh locally grown, unpackaged produce, and our family was so enthusiastic about zero waste living that they fought over whose turn it was to do the grocery shopping.

Let’s just imagine that for a second. Ahhhhhh.

The absolute hardest thing about going zero waste, though? In my view, it is none of these things.

The hardest thing about going zero waste is stepping off the consumer treadmill. The hardest thing is not buying stuff.

Let me explain.

When I talk about “stuff”, I’m not talking about the grocery shop. I’m talking about everything except the grocery shop. Yes, the zero waste conversation often hovers around bulk store shopping and avoiding the single-use plastic packaging that so many grocery items come packaged in.

We forget that everything else we buy is also contributing to the “waste” issue.

Everything. Even the zero waste reusables that we buy. No matter how eco-friendly the product, it still uses resources and it still uses energy in its creation, and it still has an impact on our planet.

Now I’m not saying, we shouldn’t buy anything, ever. Furniture, white goods, clothing, homewares, kitchen tools – it’s all useful stuff. Those zero waste reusables are pretty useful too.

But that’s exactly the problem. There is useful stuff everywhere; we know it is useful, and we want to buy it.

Sometimes we do buy it.

The hardest thing about zero waste is about resisting the majority, if not all, of the useful stuff. The hardest thing about zero waste is not buying stuff.

Change is Hard, and Buying Stuff is Easy

Change can be hard. Starting and then ingraining new habits, consciously trying to remember new ways of doing things before it seeps into our subconscious, researching new ideas and learning new skills – it can be exhausting.

We want to make progress, and fast. We want to see the evidence of this progress.

And that is where the buying comes in.

It’s almost like a beginner zero waste right-of-passage; the buying of stuff. We’ve all done it. (Well, most of us. Including me.) We want to look like we’ve made progress, and so we buy the things to prove it.

The water bottle, the reusable coffee cup, the reusable produce bags.

It makes us feel good before the real stuff happens. The refusing of the single-use items, the remembering of said reusables, and the reshaping of habits.

That’s the real secret to being zero waste. It’s not the buying of stuff, it’s the remembering of stuff.

Of course, it’s okay to buy things. (Yes, it’s always better if we think carefully about our purchases and ensure that they are made by responsible companies and sold by responsible businesses; and they are exactly what we need and will use often. But no-one is perfect all of the time.)

We have to remember, that all of us enjoy a certain amount of comfort that we’d like to maintain. No-one reading this is living in a cave, collecting rainwater, growing all their own food and weaving their own clothes. Let’s be realistic. Maybe we like eating chocolate, or drinking coffee, or wearing ethical fashion. If takeaway coffee is our treat, then it is our treat – and a reusable coffee cup is a useful purchase.

Some things are useful, and some things are necessary. If the “thing” is standing between going zero waste and not (and will reduce waste in the long run), better to buy it.

But at some point, we have to recognize that we cannot continue to buy stuff to reduce our consumption and waste.

We have to reach our “enough”, be happy with what we have, and step off the consumer treadmill.

Stepping Off the Consumer Treadmill

The consumer treadmill refers to the constant desire or pull we feel to buy stuff and upgrade stuff. Letting go of these urges and not succumbing to temptation can be hard. It can take time. Sometimes a lot of time.

But if we are really going to embrace zero waste living, this is what we need to do.

You know how with exercise treadmills, you spend a lot of time and energy walking or running, and yet you never actually get anywhere? Well, the same applies to the consumer treadmill. Buying, storing, maintaining and ultimately disposing of stuff all takes up time and energy, for not much (any) gain.

The happiness we feel when we buy new things is fleeting, and it fades. What we’re left with is a credit card bill and more stuff to take care of – which tends to leave us feeling frustrated and overwhelmed rather than satisfied.

This is a tough lesson to learn.

Change is hard, and buying stuff is easy.

Even when we know that it is true, it can be so hard not to buy stuff. New things are so shiny, and marketers are extremely good at persuading us that we need things. That our lives will be better with them.

When I first went zero waste, the zero waste options on the market were lean. This was a good thing, as I was still in the early I-want-to-make-changes-and-want-to-see-progress stages when buying stuff is such a temptation.

Because the selection was meagre (and my budget was tiny), I didn’t buy a huge number of things, and the things I have are well used.

Then, as I went further down the zero waste path, I embraced the second-hand lifestyle, the making-do lifestyle, the borrowing-rather-than-buying lifestyle.

I learned about my “enough” and I let go of the urge to buy stuff as the solution (to whatever the problem might be).

It is more than 6 years since I first went zero waste, and now there are so many more options for zero waste items – often described as “essentials”. There are reusables for things I’d never have thought of (and would never have considered necessary until I clamped eyes on them), and there are better versions of things that I already have.

It’s easy to see things and think “ooh, I could use that” or “ooh, that is a much better version of what I already have – I should upgrade”.

The challenge is to resist this temptation. It can be a daily challenge. To understand that what is useful is not the same as what is necessary. It is easy to convince ourselves that we will use things, and therefore we need them. Instead, we need to remind ourselves that we don’t.

Things that are useful are not always necessary.

This isn’t about no stuff. We need stuff: it is useful and sometimes necessary. We can buy things because we consider them both useful and necessary, and we can recognize that everything we buy has a footprint.

The most zero waste thing to do will always be to buy nothing at all: to make do with what we have. That doesn’t mean it’s realistic, practical or achievable, but it is the truth.

If we can’t buy nothing, what can we do?

We can buy less, we can buy better, and we can make things last.

We can limit our purchases. We can choose second-hand, or we can borrow, or hire. We can share resources, we can trade, or swap. We can improvise, and make do without.

This is the closest we get to zero waste living.

We can consume resources, or we can conserve them. The planet won’t be saved by us all purchasing yet another reusable.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you find it easy or do you find it difficult to not buy stuff? How has that changed over time as you’ve begun reducing your waste? Is it something you’d like to be better at in the future? Or have you reached a happy balance of “enough”? Any other thoughts? Please tell us in the comments below!