What is Sustainability Lifestyle Activism?

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Impending environmental doom.

It’s an issue a lot of us are concerned about, but apart from becoming a conservation biologist or otherwise dedicating your career to the environment what is the everyday average person supposed to do?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in lifestyle activism.

Now, there is a lot of misconception about what lifestyle activism actually means, in my research for this post I found very little consensus about what actions qualify as lifestyle activism or not. The most common theme? That the term was used in a negative way and seen as lesser than true “activism”.

The problem with this is that nearly every article I found critiquing lifestyle activism failed to compare it to anything other than “activism” in a general sense, simply presuming the reader might intuit what it is exactly that the writer believed true activism to be.

Overtime, I discovered the particular brand of activism many of these critics were comparing lifestyle activism to can be more specifically defined as civic change. Activism aimed at civic change involves addressing issues through political channels and pushing through governmental policy changes. This includes actions such as voting, lobbying, attending marches, or calling your senators. Lifestyle activism includes basically everything else from posting on social media, buying activism merch, reducing personal waste, and shopping at the farmer’s market. This brand of activism aims not to create civic changes but cultural changes and engender shifts in how we live our day to day lives.

However, as I mentioned before there is very little consensus on how lifestyle activism is actually defined. I have seen both attending marches and becoming an artist who focuses on social justice both negatively referred to as lifestyle activism.

However, I just find this hate of lifestyle activists a bit confusing. What is wrong with activism becoming a part of the broader American lifestyle? Isn’t that kind of the dream? Isn’t it wonderful that it doesn’t make you an outcast to have attended a climate strike or women’s march?

Particularly when it comes to sustainability, I feel that there is a unique and strong connection to lifestyle activism with the low waste, minimalist, and plant based eating movements all becoming trendy and gaining a lot of steam. Environmentalists are more or less expected to make lifestyle changes such as having reusable water bottles, coffee cups, and shopping bags in a way feminists or other activists aren’t expected to. I’ve never seen feminists encouraging each other to ditch fast fashion so as to not take advantage of vulnerable women the way I see environmentalists ditching fast fashion so as to not take advantage of our vulnerable planet.

Isn’t it admirable to not be able to just talk the talk but walk the walk as well? If you protest fast fashion outside city hall and encourage governmental policy for sustainable clothing production it’s going to look hypocritical if you’re always shopping at Forever 21.

At the end of the day I believe that all this hate on lifestyle activism is uncalled for and unhelpful. The amount of sustainable products and alternatives that have popped up for consumers, governments, and businesses alike in the last decade is staggering. These changes can only happen if there is a public interest in and desire for sustainability, lifestyle activism is the engine that drives these cultural changes.

Now, I say none of this to detract from modes of civic activism at all. Voting is important. Lobbying is important. Calling your senators is important. I just don’t see any reason that the importance of civic activism has to detract from the power and potential of lifestyle activism.

For there to be policy changes people have to care enough to fight for those changes, and the way to get more people interested is through cultural shifts that are driven by lifestyle activism. Civic change alone isn’t going to create interest in the hearts and minds of the people.

As much as sharing posts on social media is generally considered to be the most lazy form of activism, no one would ever argue that social media hasn’t been instrumental in spreading ideology and awareness about sustainability. Sure, one individual sharing a post doesn’t change the world. But to focus on that fact completely misses the point that millions of people are posting and sharing and that does create massive cultural changes.

Take for example the video of that turtle with a straw in their nose, sure no one individual is a hero for having shared that video. But you’d have to be blind to not have noticed the sudden changes taking place after that video went viral. Coffee shops have changed the shapes of their cups to ditch the straw, some restaurants have stopped giving them out altogether, and a ton of people have begun to carry their own reusable straws.

Even the most commonly cited form of lazy and false activism has created potent, fast, and tangible changes.

Even if most people who shared that turtle video aren’t engaged in any other forms of activism does that really mean they shouldn’t have shared that video? Would the environment be better off if these folks had not shared the post?

At the end of the day, this idea that lifestyle activism is bad and civic activism is good, is just a false and oversimplified dichotomy. Both are vital and important to achieving sustainability goals and saving our planet. So, why don’t we just stop wasting time hating on people who aren’t doing activism the way we are and just focus on working together.

The Simple Pleasure of Making Things

Convenience.

Here in the US and much of the western world we are living in a time in which we have never had more convenience in our lives.

Cars let us go where we want exactly when we want to, online shopping gets goods to us without us ever needing to leave the couch, and we are able to contact one another instantaneously.

However, I’ve recently come to believe that all this convenience has robbed us of a simple and classic pleasure.

The joy, satisfaction, and pride that comes with making things on your own.

For me, this realization came when I found myself in the market for a yoga mat bag. Now as an eco-minimalist I don’t want to buy anything that isn’t ethically or sustainably made and I realized an eco-friendly yoga mat bag was going to cost me quite a bit more than I hoped to spend.

I checked second hand apps for a couple days, but in all honesty I got impatient and so after those two days I was bored of the hunt and decided that the only logical choice would be to make a bag myself.

Luckily, I had an old pair of jeans I’d been saving for months in hopes of finding a way to repurpose them. I stopped wearing the jeans because the spot where my thighs rub together had gone completely threadbare so I didn’t think I could resell them. However the rest of the fabric was in great shape.

So armed with some internet tutorials and the grace of my mother being willing to remind me how a sewing machine works (and let me use hers) I got to work making my own yoga mat bag.

Now, I’ve been doing this eco-minimalism thing for about 8 months and this bag isn’t the first thing I’ve made on my own. However, it is the most elaborate and time consuming thing I’ve made myself so far. My previous DIYs have all been rather simple, just quickly combining a few store bought ingredients into a jar.

But this project was different, the only brand new material I used for this bag was the thread.  Even the sewing machine I was using had been thrifted by my mother.

What made the process truly satisfying were the moments when the tutorials didn’t have all the answers. Every pair of jeans is a little different, and I soon realized that my particular pair of pants wasn’t going to become a yoga mat bag in the same exact way as whatever pair of pants other people used.

This gave me the opportunity to creatively problem solve, and because making this bag wasn’t super easy for me I was able to feel so proud and accomplished once I finished it. I was nervous about trying to make it in the first place because I haven’t sewn in so long and have never been a highly skilled seamstress. Yet it was the challenge of my inexperience that really made the process so satisfactory.

Now let’s roll back and think about how it would have gone if I had simply shelled out the cash for an expensive and eco-friendly bag. Surely the bag would have been of great quality but I would’ve missed out on the opportunity to hone my sewing skills, be creative, and feel that satisfaction that comes only from accomplishing a task with your own two hands.

Shortly after making this yoga mat bag I also found myself in the market for some shopping bags to use at bulk bins. I initially popped onto amazon to look for the standard zero waste organic cotton or muslin cloth bags but I stopped myself. I could afford to buy the bags, but I also had a whole pile of old t shirts I was waiting to repurpose and remembered that using what’s already in your home is always the most eco-friendly option.

And thus I made my own bags again! Completely free and no worries about the carbon footprint of shipping or ethical sourcing of materials. Bonus points that all the t-shirts I repurposed were uniform shirts given to me by my employers over the years, so no initial costs for the shirts themselves either.

I often see repurposing or making things yourself recommended as an alternative for when you can’t buy the sustainable/ethically made version of an item. And I didn’t even realize that I’d taken on this mindset until after making all the bags.

So, I encourage you to try to repurpose something around your house and make it into an item you otherwise would have bought, even if you can afford the most ethical version. You may be surprised at how fun and satisfying the process is, so much so that you’ll forget about the inconvenience of having to do it yourself.

Eco-Minmalism vs. Minimalism: What’s the difference?

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Eco-minimalism is a rather new term that’s been popping up more and more online lately. But what exactly is the difference between minimalism and eco-minimalism? Isn’t minimalism already eco-friendly? Why does this new term even exist?

Well fear not, I ,your friendly neighborhood eco-minimalist, am here to help. The term was coined by late architect Howard Liddell around 2000, it was originally used in the discussion of green construction projects to make builders more carefully consider the impacts of the building process, not just creating flashy environmental features.

Though when the word started being used as a lifestyle term is a bit harder to pin down, and by my personal observation it seems to have quite suddenly exploded. I’d never heard the term last October when I began exploring minimalism and environmentalism, and despite hardly changing who I’ve been following online I’m suddenly seeing the word everywhere used by creators who had been living the principles without calling it eco-minimalism previously.

Alright, with that brief history out of the way, what does eco-minimalism actually mean? In short it describes someone who strives to live a life style that is both eco-friendly and minimalistic. Because environmentalism and minimalism have principles that are easily aligned many people interested in one are attracted to the other.

Those initially attracted to environmentalism will learn that consuming fewer things is one of the best ways to reduce their footprint and those initially attracted to minimalism usually begin by wanting to minimize their belongings and then become interested in minimizing their footprints as well.

However, there are some instances in which minimalist and environmental principles can clash, and that is where the term eco-minimalism comes in.

Let me give you a common example to explain what I mean. Say you are decluttering your pens, you realize you have more than you need and want to get rid of some. A minimalist will keep only the number of pens they feel they need and say sayonara to the rest, they’re likely to throw out, donate or give away the rest.

What might an eco-minimalist do differently? The most environmentally friendly thing a person can do is use up everything they already have before getting rid of it, and an eco-minimalist is more likely to keep the pens. Why?  Donating supplies is admirable but donated items are often not used or resold and will end up in the landfill unused anyway unless given to specialized programs. The pens could be given away to friends or family but unless those people are environmentalists too they likely also have way too many pens and won’t use them. So the best way for our eco-minimalist friend to avoid these pens being sent to landfill without being wasted is to keep them.

This is the most environmentally friendly choice but not the most minimal.

Another example from my personal life. Bobby pins. I currently have a bob length haircut and plan to keep my hair this length for the next year or so. At this length I just don’t have any use for bobby pins and won’t need them anytime soon. But, when my hair was long I utilized bobby pins pretty frequently.

Should I get rid of the pins? Someone focused only on minimalism would say yes, as an eco-minimalist I say no. Sure, I won’t need them soon but I will definitely grow my hair out again in my lifetime and therefore it is worth it to me to keep the bobby pins to avoid impacting the planet in buying new pins a few years from now.

Now of course there are some complications to this. Because minimalism is often defined as striving to do only the things that add the most value to your life, if being eco-friendly is valuable to you than eco-minimalism is minimalism. No new term needed. However, I think it is still important to add this new terminology to our collective vocabulary and explore the differences.

Focusing only on minimalism is just going to look a little different than striving for both lifestyles. An eco-minimalist will probably own more, especially the first few years of their journey because they’ll be working through a backlog of whatever it is they might have previously been stockpiling if they aren’t able to get rid of it sustainably. Whether it be pens or bobby pins or anything else.

Now, if before you began your eco-minimalism journey you never fell into the trap of buying months or even years worth of a good by accident, congrats! That’s awesome!

But for most of us that is not not the case, several eco-minimalists online including Shelbizlee and Heal Your Living on youtube talk about being shopaholics prior to beginning their current lifestyles. And even if you weren’t a shopaholic, you likely just went along with consumer culture like myself and ended up with way more pens than you ever needed.

So, why is this important to talk about? Because you can definitely be an environmentalist and clutter your house with second hand goods or dumpster dive treasures. You can be a minimalist and be wasteful by getting rid of all your stuff to buy a whole bunch of new things in fulfilling a “minimal” aesthetic.

It’s important to acknowledge that while minimalism and environmentalism attract similar people the lifestyles can still clash. Acknowledging that fact makes it easier to reconcile the differences between minimalism and environmentalism; reduce the pressure people often feel to get rid of something when it’s more environmentally sound to keep it, and stay focused on the true values of the movement.

Which I believe benefits both people and planet.

Are you an eco-minimalist? Leave a comment and share a story about a time your minimalism and environmental goals have clashed.