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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Living a Sustainable Life Doesn’t Have to be Expensive

It's a common misconception that sustainable living is too expensive for the average person. In truth, it can be more affordable than established norms, but it requires changing our mindset and doing more with less.
A person sewing a button onto a piece of clothing.

(Image: Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels) 

A sustainable lifestyle is often lamented as too expensive, and thus unrealistic, for the average person. In truth, sustainable living can be more affordable than established norms. But it requires changing our mindset and doing more with less.

Though consumers say they are highly concerned about climate change and want to live more sustainably, the increasing cost of living has led 41 percent of global consumers to say higher prices are the top barrier to purchasing more sustainable products, according to the consumer insight company Euromonitor International.

Still, rising prices inadvertently made the general public more sustainable as people consumed less. Not only are more consumers seeking out secondhand clothing and repairing items, they’re also using less water and energy, and wasting less food, according to Euromonitor. All of these are more sustainable and affordable choices. 

Items marketed as "sustainable" often do come with higher prices. Instead of buying a bunch of sustainable-labeled stuff, we can center our attention on using what we have for as long as possible, choosing quality over quantity, and eliminating waste to the best of our ability. This is true for clothing, food, transportation, and everywhere else that we use resources and contribute to carbon emissions. While some products are more sustainable than others, sustainability itself is a lot more than green-labeled, feel-good products.

Make a difference with what you wear

The fashion industry and seasonal trends play a huge role in increased waste, carbon emissions and overconsumption. The advent of fast fashion has an undeniable impact, with 60 percent more garments purchased per capita now versus 15 years ago. While fast fashion brands have exacerbated the problem by producing an excess of trendy clothing that’s often only worn once, the underlying issue can be traced back to stuffed closets and styles that expire after a couple of seasons, which were part of the fashion industry since long before the word fast was attached.

It’s indisputable that humans owned fewer garments and wore them longer when we had to make our own. While no one is saying that you have to learn to sew, an old-fashioned approach to clothing is a legitimate path to sustainability. Instead of a new outfit for every day of the month, focus on quality pieces that can be mixed and matched and worn or traded until the end of their (much longer) lifespan. 

Instead of cheap synthetics that shed microfibers into water and food systems, look for high-quality clothing made from sustainable fabrics like organic cotton, bamboo and hemp, for example. Bamboo and hemp in particular require very little water to grow, and they fix carbon into the soil. Additionally, new, innovative materials are appearing on the market like mushroom leathers and biodegradable wood pulp-based fabric

While clothing made from natural fibers will cost more, by focusing on quality over quantity, you will save money with a sustainable wardrobe in the end. Doing so does require a change in mindset, especially when we feel pressured to stay on top of every trend and never wear the same outfit twice. Perhaps it’s time to use that peer pressure to the planet’s advantage and fawn over repeat pieces as they reappear in the office instead.

Achieve sustainability by eliminating food waste

Food waste is a huge barrier to sustainability, both on a societal level and for individual households. Anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of all food in the U.S. ends up in landfills or as compost. While much of this can be attributed to pre-consumer waste, the average American household wastes roughly three pounds of food every week — resulting in substantial carbon emissions and water waste, as well as the unnecessary use of fertilizers and pesticides. At a cost of roughly $1,500 per year, the average household could save a good amount of money and live more sustainably just by eliminating food waste.

These recuperated funds could also be used to purchase sustainably labeled foods, but labels aren’t everything. Eating local, seasonal produce is more sustainable than buying something organic that was shipped halfway across the world. Additionally, eating less meat and consuming fewer processed products goes a long way toward sustainability.

Better ways to get there

Electric vehicles (EVs) are the wave of the future, but are they always the sustainable choice? Producing any new vehicle, whether it is gas-powered or electric, creates an enormous amount of carbon. And the less you drive, the less sustainable it is to purchase a new EV, or any new car for that matter. We rarely give proper credence to more sustainable ways of getting around: taking public transportation, carpooling, bikes, mopeds, motorcycles, or using our own two feet, all of which are cheaper. 

Of course, depending on where you live and work, these may not be realistic options. Unfortunately, most U.S. cities are designed in a way that almost forces the use of personal cars and trucks. But if living sustainably is your goal, it’s worth looking for solutions where you can and accepting mild inconveniences for the greater good when possible.

If you have to commute long distances or have other needs that require a lot of driving, it may make sense to buy an EV and ensure it lasts as long as possible. However, upgrading every few years is not a sustainable choice, regardless of what type of vehicle it is. This will not only save on carbon emissions, but it’ll save a lot of money.

Make sustainable living the norm

By using and wasting fewer resources in every aspect of our lives, we can make sustainability the norm while saving money — eventually leading to the whole becoming more than the sum of its parts. It won’t look the same for everyone, but doing so requires a commitment to giving up consumerism in favor of minimalism and making what we have last. Eventually, these choices will impact the larger system and force change at scale. 

Can you live 100 percent sustainably? Probably not. Doing so would likely require opting out of modern society and living off-grid. One way or another, we have to produce and consume — through the work we do, the food we eat, the commutes we make, the leisure we take, the places we live and so much more. But that’s precisely why we should focus our efforts on the areas where we can make the biggest difference.

This story is part of Money Month in TriplePundit's 2024 Sustainable Living Challenge. Learn more and take the challenge here.

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of Baja California Sur, México. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.

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