8 tips to help you live a more sustainable life – (and 8 things that won’t help one bit)

I have to admit that to me sustainable living is an ongoing learning process. It’s taking me through a phase of redefining quality of life. I try to make
decisions that make sense, given our needs and values. It’s about living with intention. It’s about being fully aware of the consequences of our decisions, both positive and negative.

Still, I find myself continually struggling with the balance between my on-and-off yearning for Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and acute attacks of the What the Hell-syndrome.

Walden is a book that describes Thoreau’s 2 year-2 months experiment where he would “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” The simple living and self-sufficiency he describes has attracted me since I was little, and this life-style continues to be my inner image of real sustainable living.

However, despite being raised primarily in the countryside, I’m have become intensely urban in my taste (not so much the coffee-shops as the opera and arts) and realize that I’d most likely be overwhelmed and unhappy if I decided to go off and live in the woods. Judging by the agricultural skills I have exhibited in my urban garden (which looks better than last year, but nonetheless) , I would most likely be hungry too.

And as the feeling of failure to live up to my own ideals settles in, I become  an easy target of the What the Hell-syndrome.  If you don’t have experience with this syndrome, you probably never went on a diet, tried to quit smoking or made a New Years resolutions involving daily chores. The What the hell-spirit is that voice in your head that tells you that if you’ve eaten one cookie you’ve already cheated on your diet and, What the Hell, you can just as well eat a whole cake, and then some, since the diet is a failure anyway at this point.

As the years pass, I become more and more aware that it’s comes down to finding a balance between doing it perfectly and doing nothing at all, and realising that lasting change comes one step at a time.

That’s how I came up with this list of simple (?) changes that can be implemented – as well as things I’ve tried (or researched) that really don’t work.

Dry your clothes on a line instead of in a dryer

This one is simple enough – the dryer is one of the most energy-consuming major appliances we have in the house. Getting organized with clothes lines outside in the summer and inside, near a forced-air duct or radiator, in the winter, will save greatly on carbon emissions and cause less wear and tear on your clothes. This is especially important considering that the cotton that most our clothes are made of, is deemeded the world’s ‘dirtiest’ crop due to its heavy use of insecticides, and the most hazardous pesticides to human and animal health.

What doesn’t work is leaving your dark clothes to dry in the sun. The sun is a natural bleaching agent, and unless you want your black jeans and t-shirts to turn grey, you should hang your coloured and dark items in the shade or covered by a sheet.

Excercise your body’s ability to self-regulate temperature and be smart about keeping your house cool in the summer and warm in the winter


As a survivor of the summer of 2003 in Italy, I am personal testimony that your body does adapt to different temperatures to a certain extent. I would never have guessed while growing up in the sub-arctic, that I’d be able to sleep relatively comfortably at a night temperature of 28 degrees. Admittedly, the first few nights were tough and I was not happy, but as the weeks of excruciating heat went on, I felt my body adapt better and better. We’re doing without the A/C so far this summer, and have made it a rule to avoid it as long as the temperature stays below 28-29 degrees in the house. It is tough the first few days, but now nobody’s complaining. Most people will find that a bit rough, but most can manage at 24-25 degrees.

Likewise in the fall I suffer through the first few days of feeling the cold, putting on 2 pairs of extra socks and wool underwear, but after a while my body feels more comfortable at 19-20 degrees. Look here for some great tips on how to keep your house cool without the A/C.

In the United States, 18% of direct household energy consumption is for space heating,  6% for air conditioning, so there’s a lot of energy to save in this area.

What won’t help is hating your neighbours for keeping their A/C on from mid-May until mid-September. Believe me, if it worked, I would have seen results by now. If we channel all that angry energy in a different direction I’m sure it will make more of a difference.

Be environmentally friendly and reconnect with nature when you exercise

In order to stay healthy physically and mentally, we need to move. Getting in touch with nature helps us refocus on why we need to reduce our carbon footprint. When you have kids, bringing them along is also an important part of teaching them sustainable behaviour and avoiding nature-deficit. On the other hand, joining gyms with escalators or enjoying pesticide and water-intensive golf won’t do anything to enhance your connection with nature, neither will driving long distances to participate in sports or outdoor activities. Keep it local, keep it simple, keep it green.

What won’t work is getting into fights with golfers at every party you go to, neither will criticizing people who drive 200 km a week to bring their kids to hockey games. Putting people down will not create changes in their behaviour; engaging in real non-judgmental dialogue might.

Do your grocery shopping on foot

Impossible you might say, you do all your shopping on Saturdays and there’s no way you can carry all that stuff home. That might be true, I held the same view at one point in time. However, I have discovered that for my family doing major grocery shopping once a week had only negative environmental effects. I confess, I’m a side-tracker. Weekly menus make me feel claustrophobic even when I make them myself. I’m also forgetful, I forget what’s behind the lettuce at the bottom of my fridge if I can’t see it. So for me a full fridge is a fridge where a lot of things will spoil. When I shop for 2 days at a time, on foot, I remember what’s there, and waste close to nothing. This also means free exercise, and armed with a shopping trolley, my shoulders don’t even hurt.What won’t work is making this into a rule you can never break. There are times when the temperature drops below -15, or you’re not feeling well, when using a car is good vaccine against the What the Hell syndrome.

Be creative with your leftovers

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Loss Project, the US population throws away more than 25 percent—some 25.9 million tons—of all the food we produce for domestic sale and consumption. I have a distinct feeling we’re not much better in Canada. A trick to decrease this waste is to know what you have in the fridge and on your shelves, and to be creative with it. For those who have weekly menus, leave a day open when you make your own recipe based on what’s left-over/may-soon-spoil from the previous days. This saves both money and CO2 emissions and is actually fun.

What won’t help is eating food that’s passed the edible stage. Food poisoning is neither good for you, nor for the environment. When you have to throw something, try to compost it if possible, and try to do better next time.

Wash your clothes in a rational way

Most of the clothes we wash are clean or almost clean, but we miss that fresh feeling. Air your jackets and pants outside to give them back that freshness without washing or dry cleaning every time. Pre-treat the stains on your clothes and spot clean when necessary – this will allow you to use more gentle cleaning products and once in a while even avoid washing a shirt right away. Avoid changing towels every day. Use bathrobes that can be washed once a week instead of huge bath towels.

What doesn’t work is walking around with stained and dirty clothes and a Holier Than Thou look on our face. That will make your kids hate you and your environmentalism (especially as teenagers), and your only friends will be those who think exactly like you.

Make meat an exception and not a rule at the dinner table

The carbon footprint caused by our personal behavior is driven to a large extent by the type and quality of the food we consume.

A environmental friendly diet is characterised as follows:

  • Very little (or no) meat
  • Eat primarily organic food
  • Seasonal food as much as possible

What doesn’t work is attacking the meat-and-potatoes crowd. Again, convincing people to change doesn’t happen through aggression. Invite them over for a sustainable vegetarian meal instead.

Teach your children independence and how to use public transportation at an early age

41% of US energy consumption is for household vehicles. In Canada it amounts to almost 50 % of household energy use. A lot of this is connected with commuting to and from work, but shopping and driving kids to school and activities are important contributions to this dismal statistic. If we go back only 25-35 years driving around children was limited to after dark. In my childhood we’d make our way to afterschool activities on foot or by bicycle – or bus if it was really cold.

Somehow this practice changed from being normal and healthy, to dangerous and suspicious. This change has been a driving force in the increase in childhood obesity and car traffic, and is hindering our kids in becoming self-reliant. Reading Lenore Skenazy helps us address some of the fears connecting to “letting them roam”, and one step at a time, may even liberate parents from the slavery of driving around the whole afternoon.

What won’t help is letting your kids out in the world all of a sudden without communicating with the parents of their friends. You’ll be labeled a negligent parent and used as an example of what not to do. When my youngest started taking the subway on her own at 10, I made sure all the other parents knew we were “training” her for independence, and within a year quite a few of her friends were allowed to travel on their own as well.


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~ by Hege on July 23, 2010.

2 Responses to “8 tips to help you live a more sustainable life – (and 8 things that won’t help one bit)”

  1. Your list of simple changes is great – a favorite of mine being your suggestion to air-dry clothes instead of using the dryer. This one change can reduce your electric (or gas) consumption significantly. AND it is sooo much better for your clothes! If you have multiple children, you’ll find hand-me-downs no longer look handed-down when air-dried. Making this switch really is a matter of habit, and becomes second nature once you do it.

    Also favorite: Lenore Skenazy – her championing of free range kids is inspirational.

    Enjoying your blog – will be back to visit….

  2. I love the way you write! 😀

    Burn Notice 4th Season

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