With new stories near daily about the latest environmental disaster, it might seem like changing your personal consumption habits won't make much of a difference.
It's true that systemic change is critical to combating climate change: A 2018 report from the United Nations found that humans have 12 years to significantly reduce carbon emissions to ensure a "safe" planet, which cannot be accomplished without buy-in from companies and governments across the globe. But individuals also have a part to play, Andrea George, director of the Sustainability and Environmental Management Office at Vanderbilt University, tells CNBC Make It.
If you want to live more sustainably, don't put too much pressure on yourself to change all of your habits overnight. Focus on making one smaller change at a time, George suggests.
"It's hard to change all of your behavior at once, or get somebody else to change all of their behavior at once," says George. "Pick one thing."
Here five ways to get started.
By far the biggest change people can make is to not consume to begin with, says George.
"If you think about the hierarchy of consumption, it's reduce, reuse, recycle," she says. "It's that 'reduce' piece that's really key. I'm trying not to sound strident or harsh, but the thing you don't buy is the most sustainable of all."
It's well and good to buy from sustainable clothing brands or shop for a hybrid car, but it's even better to wear what you already have and drive the car you already own if it still runs. The tech industry has a huge environmental footprint; try to limit the number of new devices you buy and instead repair your older phones and laptops.
"Think about: What do you need versus what do you want?" suggests George.
At the very least, cutting back on online shopping and expedited shipping — which is bad for the environment and has serious humanitarian implications for workers — is one concrete step the eco-conscious can take. George calls this combating the "Amazon effect."
"Waste generation per person is rising in America, and a lot of it is the online shopping," says George. Giving up overnight shipping from Amazon and other online shops in 2020 will go a long way to reducing your carbon footprint.
For more tips on cutting back on your spending, read this article.
Climate change activist Greta Thunberg made headlines across the country by traveling by ship in 2019 rather than flying. You don't necessarily need to go as far as Thunberg, George says, though changing your travel habits is important. Airplanes contribute 12% of all U.S. transportation greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. If you travel by plane regularly, this is likely where you can make the biggest difference, says George.
"Air travel is a hard nut to crack. The only way to offset it is not to do it, or to buy carbon offsets," she says. Most airlines allow passengers to buy carbon offsets while booking their tickets, though, once again, the most fuel-efficient flight is the one you don't take.
If you drive a vehicle, George also suggests bundling tasks together so that you are spending less time in traffic idling and using less gas overall. If you have access to reliable public transportation, or can walk or bike to your destinations, try to make those your primary modes of transportation.
Around 30 to 40% of the food supply in the United States is wasted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which makes buying and consuming only the food you need one of the easiest and most impactful ways to reduce your carbon emissions, says George.
Cutting down on meat consumption is especially important, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An added bonus: Less food waste means less money wasted.
"People get really touchy when you start getting into what they eat," says George. But "you don't have to have meat at three meals a day, you can get by with a lot less than that."
Try substituting vegetarian options when you can, and when you do buy meat, George recommends free range or organic options, or cuts from your local farmer's market. Cookbooks and cooking sites specializing in flavorful vegetarian options abound.
George also says to be conscious of the materials used to package or consume your food. She suggests buying in bulk rather than single-serving food and to reuse plates, napkins, cups, cutlery, and so on, whenever possible.
One way to engage your family and friends in a conversation about sustainability without coming across as overbearing or critical is to gift them a sustainable good, like a reusable water bottle, beeswax food wrap or locally-produced items like jewelry or soap made by artisans, says George.
"I don't take well to other people telling me what I'm doing wrong, so I don't try to tell people what they're doing wrong," she says. Instead, "you can take the opportunity to talk to them about why you chose that sustainable gift."
It's easy to be cynical about whether or not our individual choices really make a difference, says George. But she believes that there is power — not to mention savings — in continuously tweaking our behaviors to be more environmentally friendly.
"I kind of think of sustainability as health," she says. "For most of us, you're always striving to do better and all of those cumulative improvements and cumulative ways to change your thinking add up to real change over time."
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