Articles - 1st April 2019

Serena Lee on Sustainable Living

Words by Serena Lee

Living a sustainable lifestyle is all about the journey – it would be impossible to make every switch overnight, and I think it can be quite overwhelming as we begin to learn about all the daily ‘stuff’ we use that’s unsustainable. Before embarking on sustainable living, it’s important to not beat ourselves up about the things we’ve not mastered just yet; instead, we should use the space between where we are and where we want to be to inspire us to make changes, one step at a time.

With that said, adopting a vegan diet is a great place to start. It’s the single lifestyle change we can make that will most positively impact the planet – University of Oxford researchers recently found that omitting meat and dairy products could reduce an individual’s food carbon footprint by up to 73%. I went straight from eating animal products to a plant-based diet in 2014, but I was luckily quite aware of how to maintain a healthy, balanced vegan diet. For anyone looking to implement a vegan diet, I’d recommend reading How Not To Die by Dr Michael Greger, plus his cookbook under the same series name.

When cutting out meat, dairy, and eggs, it’s important to look into suitable substitutions for what these foods give us nutritionally. You’ll also find that plant-based proteins have extra benefits such as no cholesterol and more fibre – I went plant-based for health reasons to begin with, rather than for the animals (that came later). After a month, I felt great and decided to keep going – and learning about the environmental benefits was a bonus for me. Vegan options are everywhere these days – if you’re looking for vegan options in London, hopefully, my Instagram page @vegansofldn or the Vegan London guidebook will help you find the perfect place.

Whatever you’re eating, it’s likely you’ll come across a lot of single-use plastic – in the supermarket, in bars & restaurants, and at coffee shops. Thankfully, plastic cups, straws, cutlery, and bags can all be substituted easily. While there is a plethora of fancy bamboo and stainless steel options on the market, you might already have some good substitutes at home that can be put to use.

For example we all own cutlery, so why not roll a set up in an old piece of cloth and use these instead of disposable cutlery? Dig out your canvas bags and use these as shopping bags, and as produce bags for loose veg at the supermarket. If you have some old Tupperware at home, bring it with you when you go out to eat for leftovers or street food. Two things that might be helpful to buy are a reusable flask and a metal or bamboo straw. I also carry a pouch with muslins or small terry cloths in for my daughter, and now use these in place of tissues for any situation.

Parenting is a whole separate topic – my husband and I have been learning as we go along; we’re just a year into parenthood now. Some of the most impactful things we’ve implemented are cloth nappies with extra bamboo inserts, cloth wipes, second-hand clothing, and clothing rental (we just discovered Bundlee, who send age-appropriate clothing to your baby for each season). Babies & kids grow so fast; it seems mad to keep buying new clothing for them every few months!

Speaking of buying new, I recently saw a great post on Instagram called the Buyerarchy of Needs, by Sarah Lazarovic. It explained how we should look at consumerism with this order in mind: Use what you have, borrow, swap, thrift, make, and – last of all – buy. It serves as an important reminder that buying isn’t always the answer and that there are other ways to fulfil our needs (if it turns out that we ‘need’ at all).

When it comes to that final element of the Buyerarchy – “Buy” – what’s stopping fast fashion from being the norm is the trifecta of aesthetic, sustainability, and affordability. It’s fairly easy to find good-looking, sustainable clothes, but they’re usually relatively expensive. Sustainable, affordable clothing is plentiful in charity shops, but it can take a lot of searching to find clothes that are aesthetically similar to fast-fashion clothing that’s currently in demand. And finally, aesthetically-pleasing clothing that’s affordable is usually not produced sustainably.

So where does that leave the consumer? It’s important to avoid the final option we mentioned – pretty, cheap clothes that aren’t sustainable – if we want to put the planet first. This means either buying from charity and second-hand shops, which was my only option while trying to get out of university debt, or spending more – and supporting brands focused on sustainability – if money allows. Sustainable fashion won’t become the norm until it’s easy for the masses to consume clothing that’s on-trend, at a similar price point to high-street clothing, that just happens to be sustainable.

While it’s great to not buy at all, we do need people to show the demand for sustainable fashion in order for fast-fashion brands to take note and begin meeting that demand by changing (at least some of) their own supply to become more sustainable – and that’s why I think promoting ethical consumerism is so important, rather than boycotting the fashion industry completely.

All in all, a lot of these issues intersect. Having adopted a vegan diet, I eventually realised I needed to extend my compassion to human as well as non-human animals, and fast fashion isn’t kind to humans (incidentally, most garment workers are women, so it’s a feminist issue too). While rivers are being destroyed by unsustainable fashion, oceans are filled with plastic and harmful waste – which in turn kills countless sea animals. It’s all connected, but most of us are disconnected from everything that’s going on behind the tube station billboards and Instagram influencer ads.

There’s a lot more I have to learn, and I haven’t really ‘mastered’ any of this yet – but we have to share the small, positive changes we’re making as individuals to inspire others to make positive changes too – until millions of us are refusing plastic straws. I hope some of these tips help you on your sustainable journey.

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