The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know to make small changes that make a big difference

by Jen Gale

summary by Sara Pawlikowska

The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know to make small changes that make a big difference


You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.

Dr Jane Goodall

We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Howard Zinn

“The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know to make small changes that make a big difference” is an easy-to-read guide that helps you notice the small things you can do to help decrease your carbon footprint and introduce a mindset shift.

There are many ideas for you to try out and implement to your daily routine. Those are not huge, daunting tasks, but simple steps that you can take in the right direction. Some suggestions might be more demanding than others, but it’s up to you to which degree you want and can introduce the changes.

The book is divided into 12 chapters, where each chapter focuses on a different area of life. Each of them is designed to help you understand what kind of impact the choices that you make have on the environment. They also contain plenty of ideas on how to act upon it and live a more sustainable life.

  • Sustainable living - in a nutshell, altering your lifestyle to reduce the use of Earth’s natural resources. Those changes might include every aspect of your life, often transportation, diet and energy usage.
  • Carbon__footprint - the amount of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide, that is released into the atmosphere as a consequence of certain actions. Here, the main focus is on personal choices and activities and their carbon footprint.
  • Water__footprint - basically how much water was needed to be used for your particular activity, e.g. growing the cotton for that cute sweater of yours.
  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - namely carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide (the big guys). Those are the gases that, once emitted through human actions, get trapped in the atmosphere and heat things up (literally).
  • Greenwashing - simply put, ‘doing the talking, but not the walking’. Everything that companies do to convince you that they’re more eco-friendly than they really are.

Chapter 1. Conscious consumption
  • 3℃ rise in temperature by the end of this century
  • 50-80% of land and water is used for household consumption
  • Buying only the things you actually need

What is meant here by ‘consumption’ is everything we buy, e.g. food and clothes. Household consumption contributes over 60% of the entire global greenhouse emissions. That’s a lot. Not to mention it takes up the majority of total land and water resources.

The current prediction is a 3℃ rise in temperature by the year 2100. We’re talking sea level rises, climate refugees and less agricultural resources.

The simplest answer to that issue is buying less. But just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. What might be more achievable is to think about this more in terms of buying, but only the things that you actually need and will use.

There is a lot more psychology going on when it comes to shopping than we might think. Impulse buying, out of guilt, FOMO (‘fear of missing out’), or simply as a treat can seriously interfere with that ‘buying less’ policy.

So think about the things you already have first. If you then come to a conclusion that you actually lack something you need, maybe you could borrow it from a friend or make it yourself? You can also try getting thrifty and check out that cosy vintage shop next door.

You might realise that not only are you saving quite a lot of money just by thinking a little bit longer before you swipe your credit card. But also, which is arguably equally important, that you absolutely rock those ’90s hammer pants.

Tags: consumption buying

Chapter 2. Zero waste(ish)
  • By 2024, UK will run out of landfill space
  • 18 mln tonnes of waste is buried each year (UK)
  • The main greenhouse gas emitted from landfill spaces is methane, which is 30 times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide

Out of sight, out of mind, right? Well… no. Nothing ever really disappears. But as soon as we throw something away, we tend not to give it any more thought. However, the infamous ‘waste’ that happens is not only about the resources that were used on the product’s way to the landfill. It’s just as much about the landfill itself, the space it occupies and the nasty methane it emits.

The same rule applies here: don’t buy or accept things that you don’t need. That also includes those annoying newsletters that you don’t even remember subscribing for.

Reducing what you bring into your house is one thing. But I’m guessing your house is not empty now, is it? There are a few techniques to do a thorough audit of all your belongings to see what you’re actually using and which things just collect the dust.

My personal favourite, the mighty “packing party”. As the name suggests, you pack all your stuff into boxes, label them and put them in a room. Give yourself a month to come in and take the items that you need from the boxes (but ONLY the ones you need, no cheating!). After a month you have a good idea of which things are not necessary for your everyday life.

Those cuties that ended up rusting in your basement, maybe it’s about time to give them a second home? You might consider donating the things you don’t need to a charity, or try selling them online. If something is broken, don’t give up on it too easily. Maybe it just needs a little makeover and can get back out there.

Of course, there are things that can’t serve anyone anymore. For those, you might want to check out the Recycle Now website, or reach out to your local Freecycle community. Maybe someone still sees potential in what you see as ‘trash’.

Tags: waste recycle donate

Chapter 3. Plastic free(ish)
  • Half of the plastic produced is used only once and discarded afterwards
  • Every year 7 mln tonnes of plastic end up in oceans
  • On average, every third fish that was caught contained plastic

Plastic might have appeared in our lives around 70 years ago, but it sure will last longer than you or me, if not taken care of appropriately. Plastic is not a bad thing, it’s actually very important and helpful thanks to its durability and flexibility. However, the very same properties that make plastic such a useful material, also make it so terribly hard to get rid of.

Recycling is one way of dealing with this. But it might be surprising to learn that it’s not actually very effective. Only about 14% of the UK’s plastic waste is recycled. Not so great.

What about biodegradable plastics? Sounds good, but unfortunately the term ‘biodegradable’ is a perfect greenwashing tool and can easily be overused. Sure, some plastics are made to be degradable, but only in quite specific conditions. If those are not met, i.e. biodegradable plastics end up in a landfill, they will face the same fate as their ‘regular’ cousins, the non-degradable plastics.

It all sounds pretty daunting and, well, sad. But, there are a few things we can do to help. Think about things where you could try to replace the plastic for glass, which is way easier to recycle. For example you might want to consider a glass reusable water bottle and actually use it! Same goes for reusable shopping bags.

Another suggestion would be to go for quantity. If you buy a liquid hand wash or shampoo, choose that 5-litre bad boy and refill the bottle you already have. That way less plastic will go in and out of your house.

Tags: plastic biodegradable greenwashing

Chapter 4. Sustainable(ish) food
  • Around 50% of food waste happens at home (UK)
  • If food waste was a country, it would be the 3rd biggest greenhouse gases emitter (after USA and China)
  • About 30% of produced food never actually reaches the table

Food waste is a very complex and broad issue. So broad that every single person on Earth is involved in it. The aspects here are not only eating better and more responsibly, but also reducing what we don’t eat, as well as maximising what we can grow using the same amount of resources (land, water, etc.). In other words, it all seems to go down to efficiency.

Even though there are no golden answers out there yet, there’s already a lot we can do to eat better and greener (literally and figuratively).

Reducing your meat and dairy consumption is a good start. Especially red meat, as beef production for instance emits five times more greenhouse gases than that of a chicken. How about trying to have a meat-free day once or twice a week altogether?

Try hanging out in that vegetable section for a little longer and maybe go for some nice beans while you’re at it. Beans are a great source of protein and they’re quite delicious. So go ahead and get creative in the kitchen. Try cooking from scratch whenever you can as well. That will also decrease your plastic usage.

Tags: food meat dairy beef

Chapter 5. Sustainable(ish) fashion
  • 2720 litres of water are needed to produce one T-shirt
  • We wear only around 20% of the clothes we own
  • About 80 bn pieces of clothing are consumed globally every year

When it comes to clothes, fast fashion is a big thing. Fast fashion describes the mass production of cheap clothes in response to the demand based on current fashion trends. Which basically means lots of clothes and questionable quality.

We all know that buying clothes and not wearing them is a bad idea for many reasons. We talk about the wasting of water to grow cotton, or the various chemicals used e.g. for dying the fabric ending up in the rivers.

All of that is indeed happening and it is bad. However, what we might be scared to talk about is the human aspect of the industry. Child labour, unsafe and unhygienic working conditions, as well as inadequate wages are also a big part of this problem.

So look into your wardrobe first, see what already hides in there. Maybe you don’t need to go buy that new shirt, cause you just found your old one that you forgot you had. Have another look in there. You might discover there is a whole new world in there. Going back to those cute high-waist jeans could make you feel like you just went shopping (to your own bedroom).

Buying less and passing on what you don’t need seems pretty straightforward and it really makes a difference. It might be helpful though, to avoid some unnecessary temptation. Remember those weekly emails you get about your favourite shop’s new collection? Well, me neither. And that’s the spirit!

Tags: fashion clothes cotton buying

Chapter 6. Sustainable(ish) family
  • On average, a family spends £1000 on clothes and shoes in the first year of their baby’s life
  • A child gets through 5000 disposable nappies
  • Disposable nappies make up around 3% of household waste

If you decide to start living a more sustainable life and adjust your habits a little - that’s great. But it can be hard to do when you’re living with other people. It’s good to talk to your partner, kids and friends about what you’re trying to do and why.

Remember that not everyone is aware of the consequences of what they’re doing, or why it is important. So don’t jump into conclusions and bear in mind that there always needs to be some sort of compromise. As amazing as ‘zero waste’ sounds, it’s really hard to achieve. So put that empathetic hat on and cut them (and yourself) some slack.

If you have kids, you might want to explore some long-lived options. Lego, for one, is a great example of the kind of toys that stay with your kids for longer, they grow together. It’s also quite easy to add to this collection, refreshing it, but not replacing the entire thing.

Maybe someone you know is having a baby. How about instead of buying them a shiny new toy, you cook something for them? Or take the precious little one out for a walk to give the parents some time to catch up on sleep?

Doesn’t sound like much? Well, baby steps (pun intended).

Tags: family children toys

Chapter 7. Sustainable(ish) home
  • On average, every fifth person on Earth doesn’t have access to safe drinking water
  • 70% of industrial waste is deposited into waterways, hence making them undrinkable
  • Around 28% of total UK energy usage happens at home

So what’s renewable energy anyway? By definition, energy can be described as coming from a renewable source if that source is not being depleted in the process of producing that energy. We’re talking mainly wind, water and solar panels.

Switching to a renewable energy supplier has become quite easy these days. Check out Big Clean Switch for some nice comparisons of tariffs. Apart from the obvious carbon footprint reduction, switching to a renewable energy source also helps to create more demand for this type of energy. This in turn is the way to gradually transform the entire industry.

There is so much energy saving that can happen at home. Simple things like remembering to turn off the lights, or putting on a jumper, instead of turning up the heating. Those do make a difference.

When it comes to water, here are a few tips. Try taking shorter showers and turning off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth (personally, I didn’t know this was a thing, but apparently it is). You can also switch off the oven 10 minutes before the timer goes off and once you’re done open the door to let the warmth go into the room.

You might want to rethink your investments and savings as well. It’s time to put your money where your mouth is (provided that you actually talk about climate change) and find out what kind of investments you and your bank are supporting. Maybe you could switch to more ethical and greener investments.

Tags: house renewable energy water investments

Chapter 8. Sustainable(ish) work
  • With the energy used by a photocopier on standby overnight, you could make 30 cups of tea
  • The same amount of energy you would need to power a TV for a year is used by air conditioning an office for just one extra hour over a month
  • The carbon dioxide produced by leaving a PC on overnight for a year would fill up a double-decker bus

Okay, hear me out. Trying to go ‘greener’ at work is a pesky business. There will very likely be a lot of resistance. That’s what happens when there are a lot of people involved. But don’t give up just yet, we’re here for you. Let’s see what can be done in that department.

Let’s start slowly. Just as we discussed plastic, it’s a good idea to try replacing all the single-use cups with reusable ones. How about making secret Santa all about giving each other reusable cups? Alright, it sounded better in my head, I give you that. But you get the idea.

Another topic worth mentioning - printing. Well, it would be great to do less of it altogether. But going entirely paper-free is very hard, so here are a few tips. Print double sided if you can and try choosing a more eco-friendly printer in the first place. There’s also such a thing as an ‘eco-friendly font’ (I know, I know). Those include Ryman Eco, Courier and Century Gothic. It’s all about using less ink while printing.

If you have your own business, there are some more things you could do. Again, switching to a green tariff and investing in solar panels are worth looking into. It’s also good to talk to your employees and colleagues about those issues. You might get some extra hands on board and see what kind of solutions they would be open to.

Tags: work plastic printers business

Chapter 9. Sustainable(ish) school

Back to school, huh?

Just because smiley people in the ads tell you to buy new stuff, because it’s a new school year, doesn’t mean you should. New pencil case, new backpack with a cute pattern on it, or new uniform, because the old one has one pen mark on it? Does your kid really need all this?

Maybe it’s enough to wash the old pencil case and try on that old uniform. If it still fits, put some hairspray on the pen mark, wet it for 15 minutes and wash normally. That should do the trick.

If you do need something new, look for some green options. Check out Patagonia and Muddy Puddles for some robust and ethically-made school kits.

Make sure you talk to your children about things like food waste. Maybe you could try adjusting the portions, or rethink the contents of your child’s lunch box. Make sure they understand why this is important.

Tags: school children food waste

Chapter 10. Sustainable(ish) travel and transport
  • Transport is the biggest contributor to UK’s carbon dioxide emissions
  • Aviation makes 2-4% of total greenhouse gas emissions
  • Half of your annual carbon footprint is needed for a plane trip from London to Sydney and back

Riding your bike in the UK can be quite an experience (been there, done that). Let’s just say, there’s definitely room for improvement when it comes to the right infrastructure. But walking and cycling are great options health and climate-wise, especially for distances under 2 miles.

About cars, have you considered switching to an electric one? There are many benefits to electric cars, but the demand is not quite there yet to make them supper affordable. But there are also many secondhand electric vehicles available.

When it comes to flying, we need to recognise the huge carbon impact it has. Do you really need to travel by plane? Maybe a Skype call would do the trick just as well. If you do need to hop on a plane, choose economy and direct flights. That way you save some money and take up a smaller share of that nasty carbon footprint.

Tags: travel transport cars flying

Chapter 11. Sustainable(ish) celebrations
  • The equivalent of 2 mln turkeys are wasted each year
  • 5 mln Christmas puddings are binned every year
  • 250 thousand tonnes of food are wasted each Christmas

There’s such pressure on buying so much stuff for literally any possible occasion. Birthdays, Christmas, Father’s Day, Girlfriend’s Day, Badger’s Day… Well, maybe that last one is not so high-pressure after all. But the issue is real and it’s not only stressful, but also quite unsustainable.

So what can we do about it? Giving and receiving gifts is nice, but going for quality instead of quantity seems like a good idea. Have you ever tried making a present from scratch? This way you could give someone something way more meaningful (and well, cheaper).

Also, think about the wrapping of your present. Why not keep this Christmas paper, so that you can reuse it next year? You could also try out glass or reusable fabric wrapping paper.

For decorations, unfortunately balloons are not great at being reusable and around 100% of the time end up in the landfill. Try paper chains for one. Get creative and come up with different shapes and colours. After the party is done, keep them for the next occasion.

The Christmas tree is always a topic, am I right? If you already have a plastic one, keep it, use it and take care of it so that it will serve you for years to come. But if you appreciate having a real tree at home, one exciting option is to rent one! You take care of it for the holidays and then return it back for the rest of the year.

Sometimes doing is better than giving. Maybe spending time with someone, or making it possible for someone else to have a minute for themselves is just the best gift you could give them.

Tags: celebrations party gifts

Chapter 12. Activism(ish)

Stepping out of your comfort zone to propose a different way of doing things is never easy. But raising that issue with as many people as possible is necessary to move forward. You might not realise that by being brave and talking to people about what you learned you might be giving them a fair chance to make a conscious decision on the type of impact they want to have.

Not everyone is a campaigner walking the streets with big banners and megaphones. But activism can take various forms. One example is who you vote for. Choose to support politicians who share your values.

You can write to your local council, or become more active on social media. Signing an online petition, or joining a campaign group is also an option. Donating to your local charity is a form of activism.

There is a lot of criticism about environmental activism out there. There might be some uncomfortable conversations emerging. But as long as you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, you can make a real difference. Even if it’s a small difference. Everything counts.

And remember, don’t go too hard on yourself. Nobody’s perfect, but we’re trying to be a little better today than we were yesterday and that’s what matters. If you got this far and are reading this, it means you already took the first step to a better future for everyone. Thank you for that.

Tags: activism environment campaign