When it comes to lightening the load we humans heap on the planet, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the scale of the task. But take heart – small, sustainable changes in how we live and spend our money do make a difference. Starting small isn’t a cop out – it’s necessary. And that’s because an all-or-nothing approach often doesn’t stick, while thoughtful lifestyle adjustments are hugely motivating – and can lead to much more ambitious actions over time.
The way we eat, the power we use at home and how we travel are all ethically charged decisions which have a significant impact on the future of our environment – not to mention the seemingly ceaseless acquisition of stuff we think we “need” for daily life.
My partner is a wildlife journalist and a long-standing vegetarian, so I’ve come to understand that eating meat on the scale our society does is a very fast way to royally screw the environment: vast swathes of land are given over to raising grain to feed cattle for us to consume. But I do eat meat – I really like meat – I just eat a lot less than I used to. When I do, I buy organic – which I can only afford occasionally – because the welfare standards are better. Plumply fresh, sustainably sourced fish arrives in the post via a fish-box scheme run by a small outfit in Scotland. They buy directly from local fishermen and take the bycatch that’s caught inadvertently, which would otherwise be chucked out and wasted. We get at least five family meals out of a £35 box. There are always dilemmas though – the fish arrives encased in thick polystyrene that can’t be recycled. I bash the box to bits each month so it fits in our rubbish bin, cursing all the while. They know there’s a problem, but the fish has to be kept cold. Rock, meet hard place. My assessment is that it’s better than buying fish from a supermarket.
The excess of festive guzzling over Christmas can feel faintly obscene, but there is no rule that states Thou Must Buy A Mass-Produced Turkey, and then get hellishly stressed while cooking it. Opt for wild game sourced online from an ethical meat supplier, or go veggie for the day. The latter will be vastly cheaper and you could donate what you save to charity.
How electricity is produced has enormous impacts on our world. And here’s a confession – after years spent admiring my sparkly halo, I have just switched away from a company that is really making a difference to how green energy is generated. I found out we were spending over £200 a month, and I can’t afford to lose the £500 it turns out we’ll save annually by going with a different green energy supplier. As a result, I’ve become very aware of where our usage is high and how it can be mitigated: using the tumble dryer most days is probably costing us around £200 a month. So I’m putting up a washing line in the garden, and will try very hard to reduce the squillions of pounds we currently spend on hot air.
For anyone living outside a town or city, travel is tricky. We drive – we have to, we live in the countryside. But we also deliberately walk our kids to and from school virtually every day. I want them to understand that their bodies are designed for getting around, and they can make use of that power. The 10-minute daily trundle was a tortuous whinge-fest for three years straight, until finally, suddenly, they accepted that this is how it is. And as they’ve got older, we now cycle into our two local towns more often, rather than taking the car. We don’t fly away on family holidays: we go locally, usually to Pembrokeshire or Scotland, where we’ve taken the train and ferries. And yes, a hire car, but only for short trips. We also consciously visit places where our kids can see exciting indigenous wildlife: they’ve seen eagles, dolphins, otters, adders, deer, seals, puffins and gannets; we’ve grown butterflies and tadpoles at home… the idea is that they understand there is delight in being in natural places, and a reason to care for them.
Who we buy from as well as what we buy matters when it comes to building stronger communities and reducing our footprint on the planet. Again, it’s about making a simple, deliberate shift in habits. Instead of a panicked search on Amazon, last Christmas, I decided to support our local bookshop, so popped along and bought every single person on my list a book. I had a lovely chat with the woman in the shop – who looked chuffed to bits at the tottering pile I plonked on the cash desk – reduced my Christmas bill considerably on the usual terrifying total, and vanquished in a single one-hour shopping trip the endless agonising over what to get for whom.
Opting to buy presents locally not only supports the livelihood of someone in your community, whether it’s a owner-run shop or a craftsperson or a food producer; it also reduces the miles you travel to shop and the miles travelled by the item itself, which if it’s locally produced won’t have spent months tossing around on the high seas in a container ship from China.
Small changes, incremental gains, failures along the way, but all told, steps in the right direction might not sound revolutionary, but it all helps to transform our habits and the way we think. Get planning. Christmas is coming. See you in the bookshop.