The first important thing in this context is this misconception we have to debunk it is that you have to throw all your old things away when going zero waste because nope, that is not true at all. It is not uncommon consumer behavior that when we discover a new lifestyle that we want to pursue, that being sustainability, fitness, traveling, painting, whatever, is that we instantly go look for stuff we can buy that we think fits into this new ideal. But with sustainability, we have to do the exact opposite. We have to look at new ways of consuming, and how we can minimize what we buy because overconsuming green products are still overconsuming and inherently unsustainable.
When I first went zero waste, or when I first started to learn about zero waste, which is probably more precise, I still had unsustainable habits, I did not change all my routines at once. And I learned that when you add sustainable habits (at least some types) to your already set routines, it can easily be more expensive to pursue a green lifestyle. Because…
Some things do cost more, stuff like sustainable, local, seasonal greens can cost more money than other options, and sadly the more sustainable option, the organic option, or the unpackaged option is not the cheapest. Sometimes it is, which is great, but it is in no way a given. But sadly, some things cost more for bad reasons, because a global discourse about sustainability has opened a capitalistic market of “green” products that people can sell and profit from. Some of these items are likely to be made in the same factories as the “non-green” products, and the price is kept up to reflect consumer demand and a false sense of value. We do not like these products, we don’t like greenwashing. Some things cost more money for good reasons because actually paying people fair wages, actually aiming for fewer emissions, actually managing wastewater, recycling, and all these other things that make up an ethical and sustainable supply chain do cost more, than not doing it, this is especially true when it comes to food products, clothing, electronics, and furniture.
We have been used to paying very little for certain products for a very long time, arguably too little for too much, and in this context, I think it is important to acknowledge those who do not have any other option but to buy the cheapest products because I also know that is the reality. The choice to pick a more expensive product is a privilege. However, this speaks to an underlying problem of consumerism today. Looking at the CEO’s of the companies that produce the cheapest clothes, the cheapest food, they make billions of dollars, and they choose not to pay workers, they choose to disregard waste management, to destroy forests, and to pollute water systems. 71% of all global emissions are caused by the same 100 companies, and although we can do a lot as consumers by picking who we support, it is also important to vote for green policies that create restrictions and put pressure on the industries that pollute, to accept responsibility and to do better. It is not all on consumers, especially those with no means to choose. Okay, that was a side note.
I have also learned that a lot of being a zero waster is using things that are free, or that would have been discarded anyway, or by others. Like dumpster diving, or reusing newspaper for gift wrapping, or jam jars from the supermarket for bulk shopping. Rather than buying new shiny things, no need when the resources are already available to us, arguably in less flashy packaging but that is arguably also the point.
BUT MONEY… When we maintain old, unsustainable habits, and then add new habits on top of those, it will seem more expensive. For instance. If you want to be able to buy new clothes every week, but now have to buy them only from sustainable brands, it will be too expensive for most consumers because sustainable clothes cost more than fast fashion. Doing things “the old way” but then just with a green twist will make it seem impossible because sustainability should be a mental reconsideration of old habits. We have to reconsider how we consume, and only what we consume.
Now, after almost 6 years I have had some experience what changing my lifestyle, I know how I can make it work. I have basically flipped my entire budget around. I would estimate that I spend the same amount of money on food and clothes as I did before going zero waste. But I spend my money on vastly different things.
I have experienced over the years how my budget opened up for new things when I stopped buying meat products when I started buying fast fashion all the time when I stopped impulse shopping in general when I stopped spending money on anything that felt unnecessary to me. That gave me room in my budget to spend a little extra on the brand of organic rice that comes in a cardboard box, or socks and underwear from a sustainable brand that costs more than those from H&M. I would never have paid for those things prior to going zero waste, because I did not see how I could, and I did not value what I was actually paying for.
But now, I spend way less on things that used to take up most of my budget. I buy most of my clothing second hand, the things I don’t buy preloved are from green brands, but I figure the ratio is 90/10. I spend more on certain food products now, but less, and nothing, on other things. Because I never spend money on gag gifts, or impulse buys, or trend things, or new décor just for the heck of it, on designer labels, or new electronics, I have extra to support brands I value
There is also the notion of larger one time purchases in contrast to countless small payments. Some of my favourite reusable products like for instance the menstrual cup costs more than a box of tampons, but after only 4-5 periods, you will spend more on tampons than this one product. So sometimes, it is also about seeing the big picture and paying, if possible in the budget, a little more than you normally do, and then never having to pay anything ever again. The same with a bidet, while the bidet attachment costs more than toilet paper, it also reduces your toilet paper consumption by at least 50%, so it will also be cheaper in the long run. And there are many examples of reusable products that quickly earn their worth because despite how it looks, single-use products are expensive if you use them every day or every week instead of a reusable item.
When I started zero waste in 2015, I was still at uni and I have a monthly budget of $850 which also had to cover rent, school supplies, and utilities, there was not a lot of room for paying for stainless steel lunchboxes and fancy water bottles, to begin with. Now, I make about a teacher’s salary, so basically what I would have made if I had used my uni degree for teaching. And I like where that is at, some people say that is still a low income, when counting the number of hours I like, like 60 hours a week, at least haha, and some people perceive it to be a lot. I find that I did not start an independent business to be rich, my goal has always been to be able to get by, and I don’t need anything more than that. And I am intensely grateful that I can earn a livable salary so that I can keep doing what I know I was meant to do.
When it comes to my budget, I don’t have a lot of expenses, not only regarding things I don’t buy because they are unsustainable, but I don’t have debt, I don’t own a car, I don’t have expensive habits, except perhaps my consuming of nutritional yeast, so I am able to set something aside every month for emergencies and green investments. If you want me to talk more about how to invest sustainably, that would be a really fun topic for a video I feel like.
For the most part, my sustainable lifestyle, and I am saying mine because sustainable living is not a universal experience, and yours might look different. We have different opportunities, different shops, abilities, ideas, and environments that might enable or disable us on our ideal lifestyles, so yeah, in my experience, sustainable living is not only about buying new things that match the zero waste aesthetics, but about using what we have.
Like making our own cleaning agents, like choosing a green energy supplier, like buying second-hand, like repairing stuff when it breaks, like using 20-year-old Tupperware, like going trash-picking, buying bulk when possible, throwing away less food, using all parts of the vegetables, cooking for scratch, dumpster diving, voting green, speaking up about climate change and doing the best we can from where we are.