By Devon Whalen
While you will find many articles and videos discussing with urgency our need to take action to save our world and our future by adopting sustainable practices, no one can solve these issues alone. Shocker, right? The thing is, failing to be a global superhero doesn’t mean that we can’t impact the world. Heck, if we’re talking about sustainability, many of their origin stories involve wanting to solve a problem at home and many of their subsequent stories unfold in their own cities. Arrow sets out to address those who have failed his home city of Star(ling) City. Batman fights crime in Gotham. The Flash and his team focus their energies in Central City. You can be the sustainable superhero in your own city. And if that still seems too daunting, start smaller. Be the green fighting machine in your own home and your own sphere of influence—whatever that may look like for you.
Committing to a More Sustainable Life
If you’re ready to be a superhero in your home or community, the first thing you need to do is make the commitment to a more sustainable life. Let’s break that down. You’re committing to progress- to a life that is more sustainable tomorrow than it is today. That doesn’t mean that you’re committing to being perfect and making drastic changes to meet some ideal definition of a sustainable life immediately. One thing that often prevents people from moving forward is being overwhelmed by all of the changes a person can make. Consider them as options—a buffet to choose from. Don’t think you have to take from every offered dish in one day. Sample the things that are most appealing today and try out new ones as time progresses.
Now that we talked about the difference between committing to an unattainable standard of a perfectly sustainable life and committing to a more sustainable life of progress, let’s talk about commitment itself. Commitment plays a role in behavior change, as articulating the commitment can be a type of social signaling to yourself, by which you shape your self-perception of your values and align your behavior to match (Baca-Motes, et al, 2012; Martin, et al, 2015).
Further, public commitments in which you share your commitments with others are more lasting and lead to more compliance with the intended behaviors (Fessenden, 2018; Martin, et al, 2015; Nyer, 2010). So if you are ready to take the first steps, please go ahead and take that pledge to a more sustainable life in the comments below and share it to your own social media! Don’t forget to tag us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: @GreenWhaleLLC
If I’m being honest, I don’t remember when I first made a mental or public commitment to sustainability. I know that I learned a lot about sustainable efforts from my former employer who espoused a value to sustainability and backed up their claim with employees and departments dedicated to changing the company’s practices. I assume it was from this exposure and learning that I adopted the value myself. What I do remember, though, is some of my earliest efforts to lead a more sustainable life.
It’s probably not surprising that recycling was one of my first forays into sustainability. It’s relatively low-hanging fruit for many people. I was especially fortunate to grow up in an areas and in a family that set the example early on. I was also super lucky to work for an employer that made recycling super easy and had a lot of education but what you can and cannot recycle. This is a change that has lasted.
What I have learned is that recycling is not the same in every place. Not only do different municipalities recycle different materials, but the manner in which they collect recycling and the way they want you to prepare it differs. Be sure to check out your local recycling centers and recycling management services to know the guidelines. You can also look up some best practices for recycling in general to be sure your materials are in the best condition to be recycled. Otherwise, you run the risk of your recyclable materials ending up in the trash instead!
I was actually upcycling many things before I even recognized its connection to sustainability. Back then, it was about creativity and being cheap financial responsibility. However, I came to recognize the benefits of reusing materials after some professional development with my employer and have been dedicated to the concept ever since. If anything, we’ve become MORE dedicated to the concept, since we now base a good amount of our business around the idea of repurposing material to extend its life.
Once again, the idea of composting was encouraged by my former employer. They even provided small composting buckets for our use in our homes and offices. While I have the hopes of someday figuring out composting and using it in a home garden, I had one-too-many forgotten compost buckets full of yuck to stick with this change. I will come back to it one day (that’s my public commitment, folks!), but for now, I’m focusing on other areas.
If you are interested in composting, you can check out the information found at these other great resources:
I jumped on this bandwagon pretty early. My collection of reusable water bottles and cups with lids and straws for my cold beverages get a pretty good amount of use when I am out and about. I also have a nice collection of reusable coffee go-cups that are getting much more use now that I’ve been making my coffee at home—more on that one later! And I’ve got a fantastic collection of reusable shopping bags, thanks to quite a few freebies given to me over the years. I am guessing that many of you are already in possession of some of those freebies or gifted items above, too. Are you using them? Do you know that there are places that will give you a discount if you bring your own cup?
Napkins & Paper Towels
The next items that I began cutting out were napkins and paper towels. I honestly cannot tell you the last time I purchased a napkin for regular daily use. We use cloth napkins—even the toddlers—for every meal. Our guests think we’re fancy, but we use them so regularly I don’t even think of it that way! There are some occasions when I still favor a paper towel, but I bought two rolls of paper towels over six months ago and we’re still not out of them. Instead, I use rags—many of which are upcycled T-shirts—for most occasions that used to warrant the use of a paper towel. When I am handling food, I may forgo the worn rag and opt for one of the amazing Un-paper towels created with love by my mother-in-law. Our kids eat their frozen popsicles wrapped in those un-paper towels and my husband wraps his breakfast toast in an un-paper towel for the road. It’s amazing how little we rely on paper towels these days!
Years ago, I said “bye-bye” to plastic and single-use feminine products and went with a menstrual cup. Not only has this reduced waste, it has a lower risk of toxic shock syndrome than tampons. For an added bonus, my menstrual cup saves me money over single-use products each month.
While I have not cut out all single-use options in my kitchen, I have significantly reduced my reliance on plastic wrap, foil, and zippered bags by repurposing jars and utilizing reusable containers for leftovers. When my kiddo doesn’t eat all her apple, I drop in a cleaned-out pickle jar for later. When we’re traveling with a sandwich, I toss it in a Tupperware container. We’re not perfect in this area by any means, but we are making conscious choices to do better.
Party Time Swaps
In the last few years, I have been trying to be more sustainable when we host birthday parties. I haven’t completely gone away from plastic and paper that enhance the theme and décor for our kids’ birthday parties, but little by little we’re making changes. The first change I made is that we do not use single-use party cups. I bought some canning jars and we use those to serve beverages at our parties for the adults. For the kids, I personalize reusable cups that reduce the need for a paper or plastic cup while also serving as a party favor. Speaking of which, I don’t like party favors that don’t have a solid purpose, so I don’t buy them just for the sake of having a party favor. The cups have a purpose and serve as a memory of the event. Sometimes I add a little something in them—crayons for an Elmo party, marshmallow snowman kit for a Frozen party, etc. And sometimes, I don’t. The next step to my more sustainable birthday parties will probably be silverware instead of plastic utensils. I have my eye out for an inexpensive set at the thrift store to ensure that we have enough forks to go around so everyone can enjoy the yummy birthday cake.
Bonus: Hair Ties
While not technically a single-use item, I was definitely guilty of being pretty careless with my hair ties. I would take them out of my hair and lose them. Or they would become so tangled with loose hairs that I threw them away. Then I read this fantastic article that changed my ways. I wish I could remember the blogger or the name of the site, but I do recall that she said she only owned one hair tie and it was one she found in a parking lot. She talked about not having purchased a hair tie in a long time. My mind was blown. I was purchasing packages of hair ties all the time! So, I didn’t go so far as to find a hair tie on the ground, but I rarely every buy hair ties now. Honestly, I cannot even remember the last time I purchased hair ties for myself. I use my hair ties until they’re completely stretched out. When they accumulate the loose hairs, I take a minute and cut the hair off. It doesn’t take long and the hair tie is as good as new—or close enough, anyway.
A Family Commitment
When Robert and I were dating, he was quickly exposed to my earliest efforts to be sustainable. While he wasn’t always thrilled about my anti-paper towel stance, it didn’t take him too terribly long to adapt. Now we fight over the beautiful un-paper towels and he reminds me to break down the boxes for the recycling. We’re on this journey to a more sustainable life together as a family.
Those are some of our early steps and the evolution of our commitment to sustainability. I hope that they can help you frame the journey and the way your small efforts can add up over time. We’ve continued to add new practices—more on those later—and we know that you can, too! Let us know what you’re currently doing and what your next step will be in the comments below.
Baca-Motes, K., Brown, A., Gneezy, A., Keenan, E. A., & Nelson, L. D. (2013). Commitment and behavior change: Evidence from the field. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(5), 1070-1084.
Fessenden, T. (2018, March 4). The Principle of Commitment and Behavioral Consistency. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/commitment-consistency-ux/
Martin, E., & Warner, L. A. (2015). Using Commitment as a Tool to Promote Behavior Change in Extension Programming. Journal of Extension, 53(4).
Nyer, P. U., & Dellande, S. (2010). Public commitment as a motivator for weight loss. Psychology & Marketing, 27(1), 1-12.