Ah, January, that fateful month in which we're all socially obliged to examine our bad habits and commit to healthier ones, like going to the gym regularly, volunteering, being more patient with your parents while you set up their iCloud, or remembering to drink water. All great! But this year, I’d like to encourage you to think outside your standard fitness and career goals and resolve to make some environmentally-friendly changes to your lifestyle as well.
According to U.N. scientists, we’ve got 12 years left to get climate change under control. With a problem as big and unwieldy as global warming, it's easy to feel like individual actions won’t solve the problem. (Or that it's not your responsibility to try to, since 71% of carbon emissions are from 100 companies.) While it's true, tossing your La Croix cans in the recycling bin isn't going to save the world, your individual actions do still matter, especially in the US, where even the best conservationists among us still emit more than their fair share. As the world gets closer to 2ºC warmer than pre-industrial levels, we’re all going to have to make adjustments.
It's important to acknowledge that not everyone can afford to make these changes for a whole host of reasons pertaining to finances, accessibility, health, and safety. But if you can afford to do better, you have an obligation to try. Plus, several of these carbon-saving initiatives will ultimately be money-saving, too. On that note, here are six relatively doable ways for you to be less of an environmental dirtbag this year:
Go carbon neutral.
Next to eating meat, flying is one of the worst things the average person does, and it’s often unavoidable. (No, “I’m trying to fly less to help the earth” would not have gotten you out of going home this past Christmas). One way to help counteract this is to calculate how much carbon your flights are using and purchase carbon offsets to match it. (Don't worry, no math is required; plenty of sites like this one will do the calculating for you). Most flights, even international ones, cost fewer than $15 to offset. Just mentally add the cost to your ticket when you purchase it.
What are you actually buying with those $15? A carbon offset is a way for a normal person to invest in projects that pull carbon out of the air, via planting trees (the OG carbon offset), actual carbon capture, or supporting green energy initiatives. Feeling really generous? You can use the EPA carbon calculator to check your estimated carbon footprint for the entire year, and pay to offset that. On average, that'll only run you around $150. Sites like TerraPass and Green Mountain Energy let you do this in one fell swoop, and they show you which projects your money goes to. Doing this doesn’t give you free license to go out and buy a Hummer, particularly because a lot of carbon offset projects, like planting trees, take years to show results. But hey, it’s a start.
Nix the beef.
I know, you've heard this one before. That's because cutting out beef is pretty much the number one thing you can do as an individual to help the planet. A single hamburger requires 660 gallons of water, or roughly the equivalent of thirty nine showers. Eliminating all meat from your diet would be even better, but quitting cold turkey (sorry) is a lofty goal. Switching to chicken, which has the lowest carbon footprint of all common meats, is a good place to start.
Put your money where your mouth is.
Fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil and BP are massive polluters who are rarely held accountable on their carbon-soaked warpath because they pour millions into blocking legislation that would support carbon taxes and other environmentally progressive policies. Because you, a regular human person, are probably not passing any legislation this year, the best way to hit them where it hurts is to divest, or in other words, to move your stocks, bonds, and savings out of the fossil fuel industry and invest them in more ethical ventures. Even if you don't personally own shares of BP, you're probably still supporting the industry in non-direct ways. Most major banks take the money that you have sitting in your account, and reinvest it into fossil fuel giants like Exxon Mobil.
This might sound like one of the harder things on this list—what do you mean move my money out of a massive, easy to find bank? Where the hell do I put it? Consider a credit union, where you'll likely get more personalized financial services than you ever did at your too big to fail bank. Most of us are depositing checks on our phones and many credit unions waive ATM fees, so don’t give me any shit about how switching will be too hard. The website MoveYourMoney also will help walk you through it. But first, let your bank know why you left—nothing is more fun than a break up text to a bank.
Be a (more) ethical shopper.
Unfortunately, capitalism makes practicing ethical consumption nearly impossible, but there are a few things you can keep in mind while you're shopping that'll help. First, unless you’re in a wacky rom-com where you need a suit for your brother’s wedding to your ex the very next day or something, you do not need one-day shipping. There’s a raging debate over whether it’s more sustainable to buy clothes online or in a store, and basically, there are too many variables to make a definitive call, but you can still shop greener by ordering multiple things from the same place at once.
As for what to buy, try to avoid plastic-based fabrics like polyester, nylon, and spandex and replace them with natural, renewable materials—think wool, linen, silk, and cotton, but not leather which is quite toxic. So if plastics are out, where are you supposed to get your stretchy, spandex workout clothes? Good news: there are tons of clothing companies making clothes out of recycled water bottles these days. Some brands that focus on sustainable workout clothes: Outdoor Voices, Recover, or even just search on REI’s website.
Denim is notoriously bad for the environment, so if you can swing it, get your next pair of Levi’s vintage. (Here’s a guide on how to do just that.) When the time does ultimately come to buy something new, consider a brand that's committed to eco-friendly practices, like Everlane, Patagonia, or Olderbrother.
Rethink your kitchen disposables.
Kitchens are one of the biggest centers for waste in your home (hence the massive trash cans we all keep there), but there are a few relatively easy things you can do to minimize that waste. If you're able to, avoid paper plates or plastic utensils when you can, and bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Paper towels are pretty eco-unfriendly, so take steps to use fewer. My sister hides hers in a cabinet rather than leaving them out in the open, so she’s less tempted to use them. Use old dishrags to replace the majority of your paper towels, and invest in some cloth napkins (and remember to regularly launder them, please). Instead of plastic wrap or tin foil—neither of which is very recyclable, because they’re often covered in food—switch to beeswax wrap, which is reusable.
Before you go to the polls, do your research, check out environmental scorecards like this one. Be able to identify the difference between candidates who support aggressively green policies versus those spouting nice words that sound green. Vote for carbon taxes. Demand that anyone you vote for make this a priority on their platform, because we've really only got 12 years to figure this out.