Sustainability 101

Top 10 Sustainability Tips and Tricks for Beginners

Talia Vicars
Sustainability Tips Tricks For Beginners 1

The world of sustainability is very complicated and it can be challenging to know where to start. To make the biggest impact, should I stop using all plastic or go vegan? How about…neither…or both? Don’t fret because we’ve got you covered on the top 10 ways you can get started on your sustainability journey. 

Here’s the round-up of our top tips and tricks:

#1 Only buy new when you need to

#2 Avoid single-use plastics 

#3 Switch from ziplock bags to reusable bags

#4 Swap virgin toilet paper for toilet paper made from recycled fibers

#5 Spend time outside 

#6  Listen to BIPOC and queer voices 

#7 Celebrate Meatless Mondays

#8 Shop with reusable shopping bags, but don’t feel guilty for using a plastic one

#9 Vote with your dollar

#10 Download Finch’s browser extension

For the rationale behind these can-dos, read on…your journey is just beginning! Remember, determining what’s most impactful will depend on where your priorities lie – if you’re trying to focus on reducing your emissions or water use, some choices may be more important than others. This list is intended to give you a well-rounded foundation when it comes to sustainability – incorporating both human and planetary dimensions. 

#1 Only buy new when you need to

When we only buy new when we need to, we’re investing in a more sustainable future. First things first, only buy anything when you need to. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best thing you can do. If we consider all of the emissions, water, raw materials, and human impact associated with just one purchase, imagine all of the reductions we can make by just resisting the urge to buy every trendy thing in sight.

When we actually need something, which we all do, consider buying intentionally. A good place to start?  Try buying local or used. By buying stuff that’s made locally, we’re taking greater responsibility for our emissions and most likely emissions along the way. Transporting products (the distance between production and consumption) can account for a large percentage of a product's total associated impact because of the energy (and water!) needed to move it. In 2020, 27% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation. Regardless of what you’re shipping, the way that we transport things around the world has some serious environmental impacts – A good rule of thumb? If you are able to walk or take public transportation to the store, you’re best off shopping in person. If you’re driving miles to get to the store in a gas-guzzling car, online shopping with ground shipping may be the better (read: less carbon-intensive) option. Additionally, used items – from furniture to clothes — are often much higher quality and simultaneously less expensive. Keeping things in use (and out of landfill!) reduces the impacts associated with the production of items, while also allowing you to get that instant gratification of something you're excited about.

Here are some resources for gently used items:

Clothes:

Furniture:

  • Local auction houses and antique shops

#2 Avoid single-use plastics 

Single-use plastics have unfortunately become a common staple of modern life. The good news is that avoiding them doesn’t have to mean inconveniencing ourselves. 

It’s a no-brainer that single-use plastic can be really bad for the environment, contributing to pollution and harmful toxins, and posing a serious danger to wildlife. Over 76% of all plastic is either sitting as waste in a landfill, has been burned (incinerated), or lost in the natural environment. That’s a serious yikes. When plastics degrade (under the sun or in the ocean), they create microplastics. Microplastics can cause cell damage, endocrine disruption, and a whole other host of problems in the human body, not to mention the planet. 

Just consider avoiding single-use plastics as a rule from now on in the name of climate, waste, water, microplastics, health… all of it. Single-use plastics are the worst, and buying one reusable item and using it forever is almost always the better choice. (Check out our blog post on the Sustainability Paradox to better understand why we used the word “almost”). Because so many of us have needs centered around convenience, while also wanting to reduce planetary harm, make intentional swaps for common single-use items. For example, have a set of reusable travel cutlery and be the coolest kid at the lunch table. 

Check out our blog on how to recycle to properly dispose of plastics you do end up using. Don’t fret – nobody is perfect. In fact, sometimes it is better to use the plastic option. Refer to #8 on this list!

#3 Switch from ziplock bags to reusable containers

Speaking of single-use plastics, ditch the plastic ziplock bags and opt for a reusable option.

Just like the single-use plastic cutlery from recommendation #2, ziplock bags fall into this category. An easy switch is opting for reusable baggies or containers for your snacks and small items made of silicone or glass. While plastic comes from non-renewable resources like crude oil, supporting the fossil fuel industry, silicone comes from silica…which is derived from sand. Basically, to make silicone, silicon is extracted from silica, passed through hydrocarbons, and mixed with other chemicals. The whole sand thing sounds great, but it also can be mixed with plastics. Yikes. Look for high-grade (or medical-grade) silicone to avoid this. While silicone isn’t perfect, it doesn't break down into microplastics, which we can all agree are the devil. Another option is glass, like highly durable glass products like Pyrex. In a comparative environmental assessment of glass and PET plastic, glass outperformed in energy use and emissions… but only if its reuse factor was 80% or higher than PET plastic. Basically, keep your silicone and glass containers in use. 

#4 Swap virgin toilet paper for recycled toilet paper

We all wipe. Make it a little easier on the planet by choosing TP made from recycled materials. No newly chopped trees!

Today, Americans use a staggering 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper every year. About 1.5 pounds of wood and 37 gallons of water are required to make just one roll of our precious TP, amounting to a total of 54.8 billion pounds of wood and 473 billion gallons of water annually just for the production of toilet paper in the US.

Instead of relying on virgin pulp, look for recycled content or “tree-free” fibers like bamboo. 15 million trees is wayyyy too many trees going down our toilet drains each year. If we all switched to recycled toilet paper (i.e. toilet paper that’s made of recycled pulp…no one is asking for you to recycle your used toilet paper…), we could dramatically reduce this number AND keep tons of paper pulp out of the landfill. 

Still not convinced? Deforestation has a direct impact on climate change (because trees help sequester carbon and when those trees are cut down, that carbon dioxide is released into the air and fewer trees mean less can be stored), so this is also a pretty meaningful way to take climate action.

#5 Spend time outside 

You heard us. Consider this a Finch-prescribed Doctor’s note to get that sunshine, vitamin D, and fresh air rush.

While it might seem silly, it’s actually great for both human health and planetary health to spend time outdoors. Before you start complaining about the rain, the heat, or the cold, spending time outdoors is linked with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors (PEAB) regardless of the quality of environmental conditions. Get your PEAB on and touch some trees! Additionally, time spent in nature in childhood is correlated with sensitizing them as adults to the urgency of climate change. If you have little ones, make family playtime an outdoor excursion.

#6 Listen to BIPOC and queer voices

When it comes to learning and getting the news, diversify your sources of information if you haven't already.

The unfortunate reality is that the history of mainstream environmentalism is one of exclusionary practices. John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and often credited as the Father of the National Parks, did use slurs and restricted the participation of all people in his version of environmentalism (hint: We don’t claim you, John Muir!). Indigenous people are the actual first environmental stewards, if not credited for their contributions to sustainable practices. In fact, Indigenous people currently preserve 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. To recognize their contributions is more than just naming it – it’s about listening to their voices and concerns. This is true for centering all diverse values, philosophies, and ideas – meaning listening to people of color, queer people, and other historically marginalized groups. This kind of centering (and decolonization of John Muir’s version of environmentalism) is shown to create innovation and environmental resilience. 

Here’s a list of some of our fav intersectional BIPOC and/or queer content creators to follow on Instagram:

@IntersectionalEnvironmentlist

@SlowFactory

@PattieGonia

@ClimateDiva

@TheConsciousKid


For some additional resources to get you started on your sustainability journey, check out these books and read about it!

#7 Celebrate Meatless Mondays

Cutting red meat out of your diet once a week means you can still have your carnivorous fix and reduce negative planetary impact. 

Cows (ahem, ahem, burgers) create a lot of methane. It’s time to talk about cow flatulence – Yes, farts and burps.  In fact, cows and other livestock animals produce 40% of global methane emissions. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas that is approximately 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The digestion of a high fiber diet emits methane as a byproduct. Choosing to go burger free once a week can reduce your emissions significantly and can annually save the amount of GHG emissions equivalent to driving a car 348 miles. The burger in that quarter-pounder has the emissions equivalent to charging a smartphone for six months…just imagine the emission reductions we could make collectively if we all celebrated Meatless Mondays! Not to mention, this practice can have ramifications outside of just personal emissions, including water and land use, biodiversity and species loss, and soil health.

#8 Shop with reusable shopping bags, but don’t feel guilty for using a plastic one

It’s fair to say that many of us have had the experience of having a million reusable bags shoved in a closet or in the trunk of our car and then forget to bring them into the store with us. Instead of buying another reusable bag, opt for the plastic option. Yes, it’s okay. 

Plastic bags need to be reused more than three times to offset their carbon footprint. A slightly thicker polypropylene bag needs to be reused more than ten times. And, the cotton tote would need to be reused more than 100 times to offset its carbon cost.  Our resident scientist did some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations when he went to his neighborhood corner store this week. He went six times and each time declined a plastic bag. By the end of the week, refusing the plastic bag had saved the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as driving his car ~31.3 miles. Whoa! Try to remember your reusable bags, but when you don’t, don’t beat yourself up and skip buying another reusable tote. 

#9 Vote with your dollar

Consider spending your money with companies that align with your personal values system.

When it comes to popular narratives around sustainability, we’re often force-fed the idea that what we do matters the most. While individual contributions do absolutely matter – heck, this is why Finch exists in the first place! – your contributions to the climate crisis are microscopic compared to that of massive, multinational corporations. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t recycle or be mindful of your purchases… actually, it’s quite the opposite. In the infamous words of Amazon Labor Union leader Chris Smalls, “...the people are the ones who make these companies operate.” While Smalls is referring to employees and workers, this is also true of consumers. 

Our point is that just 90 companies are responsible for almost ⅔ of historic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2017 report. So, how can we change the behavior of these companies? We can choose to either buy from them or not. This is a growing movement – in fact, 59% of consumers say they’ll boycott brands that don’t address the climate emergency.

We all have companies on our no-no list; check out Ethical Consumer’s resource for current boycotts to create your own. Just remember that everyone is capable of change –  if companies make tangible improvements, we’re totally open to putting them on our yes-yes list. 

#10 Download Finch’s browser extension

When it comes to shopping for actual products, we encourage you to download our browser extension…because we make it just that much easier to make more sustainable choices. We rank products based on six environmental footprints and real reviews to make sure we’re suggesting products that consider people and the planet, and that actually work.