2019 is officially here, bringing both new possibilities for personal growth and familiar threats to our planet’s survival. With climate change rearing its ugly head ever higher, untold amounts of plastic polluting our oceans, and an alarming global increase in human apathy, the Earth just isn’t as healthy as it used to be. In fact, it’s never been more urgent for each and every individual to lead an eco-friendly life. Those who choose to travel, eat, shop, commute, and live sustainably are doing their part to nurse the Earth back to health, but still, we need more people to take on this challenge.
If you’d like to spend the next 12 months protecting our planet, here are a few ways to get started. You can incorporate these 12 suggestions all at once, or you can add a new one each month, but either way, we hope they’ll make 2019 your most sustainable year yet.
Become a slow traveler
In a few words, slow travel is a way to meaningfully engage with communities and landscapes. It emphasizes the importance of taking the necessary time to explore, venturing off the beaten path, and connecting with locals. Essentially, slow travel is about savoring experiences instead of rushing through them — a philosophy that encourages sustainability in all its forms.
Along those same lines, slow travel aims to minimize the impact that visitors have on the environments they encounter. It champions alternative modes of transportation, like walking and taking the subway. It advocates for train travel over long-distance flights, bike rides over car rentals, and hard-to-find, farm-to-fork local restaurants over Hard Rock Cafés.
That said, there are plenty of other sustainable ways to travel, including planning a staycation or visiting unconventional destinations (the locales that haven’t been touched by overtourism). We definitely don’t need to stop exploring the world; we just need to rethink how we chase our adventures.
Watch what you eat
At its worst, food production depletes resources, degrades air and water quality, and generates pollution — and certain foods, like beef, are notoriously bad for the environment. (In 2010, the NRDC estimated that if every American cut down on beef consumption by a quarter-pound serving per week, the effect would be equivalent to taking four to six million cars off the road. That’s pretty crazy.)
Whenever possible, it’s best to eat organic foods (which growers produce without using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers) and locally grown produce (which doesn’t require emissions-heavy, long-distance transportation). Not only will this allow you to live more sustainably, but it will also make your diet healthier and support family farmers in your area.
Of course, you could also switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle: a diet that will improve your own health and place less strain on the planet’s resources. But this choice isn’t for everyone, so if you’re not quite willing to give up meat and other animal byproducts, you could opt for a simpler change, like implementing Meatless Monday. Either way, we applaud your efforts. Bon appétit!
Be a smarter shopper
Dollar, pound, euro, peso, yen — no matter which currency you use, it’s important to recognize your own purchasing power. As a consumer, you have more sway than you think.
There are plenty of ways to become a smarter shopper, including buying local products and frequenting farmers’ markets. After all, these simple practices will stimulate your local economy, decrease your carbon footprint, and make your errands more fun. (And as an added bonus, many major corporations make large-scale, environmentally friendly changes when they notice how much consumers value sustainability.)
Become a DIY guru
Plenty of common household items, including beauty products and cleaning supplies, aren’t quite as innocent as you may think. Whether the manufacturers use harmful ingredients, test on animals, or go overboard on packaging, the resulting products aren’t exactly environmentally friendly. And while many companies are beginning to roll out more sustainable product lines, it’s often better (and cheaper!) to create what you need at home.
To get started, all you’ll need are empty containers and ingredients that you already have around the house (such as honey, olive oil, and brown sugar). It’s probably easiest to begin with something simple, like body scrub or lip balm, but as you become more comfortable and confident in your DIY abilities, you can move on and tackle more complex mixtures. Just remember to have fun with it!
Eliminate a few single-use products from your life
The world’s population uses (and throws away) a lot of single-use products every day. Just take a moment to calculate the approximate amount of grocery bags, water bottles, plastic cutlery, paper towels, and feminine hygiene products that you use in a year. Got your estimate? Unfortunately, the actual number is probably higher than you think, since we tend to forget about our trash as soon as we discard it.
But on the bright side, you can easily phase single-use products out of your daily routine by replacing them with their eco-friendly counterparts. From canvas bags to reusable bottles, bamboo utensils, and more, you’ll be surprised by the innovative substitutes that you can find.
It can sometimes be expensive to replace single-use products, but the money you spend will go directly toward making your life more sustainable. (And in some cases, you’ll actually save money in the long term by not having to purchase disposable products over and over again.) Start by eliminating just three to five single-use products; if the switch is easy, keep going!
Think before throwing something away
On a similar note, it’s important to consider your options before dropping something into a trash can. Obviously, not every object has a long lifespan, but all too often, we discard usable items just because we’ve outgrown them.
Take clothing as an example. The average American throws out about 80 pounds (36 kilograms) of fabric every year, and 85 percent of used clothing goes straight to the landfill. The reason? Most of it is designed to fall apart after just a few wears. This type of apparel is known as “fast fashion,” and it makes up the clothing lines of most major retailers. When consumers purchase these low-quality items, they need to replenish their wardrobes more often, supporting this vicious, non-sustainable cycle. The continued demand for resources, textiles, and finished clothing items is much worse for the environment than most people realize. But apparel isn’t the only thing that people throw away too readily: furniture, electronics, books, and kitchen appliances all belong in this category too.
Whenever possible, donate, sell, or give away your unwanted items, and purchase with quality in mind. After all, extending an ordinary object’s lifespan is an easy, cost-effective way to live more sustainably.
Spend less time in the car
This idea seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but many people still drag their heels at the thought of switching over to alternative modes of transportation. Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions increased in 2018, largely because the world population bought more cars and drove farther. Those trends were more than enough to counterbalance the positive effect of rising electric vehicle sales.
To implement this suggestion, you don’t need to do anything drastic, like sell your car. But, if you’re driving the same routes day in and day out, why not make your commute a little greener? If you can walk or bike to work, do it. If you can use public transportation while running errands, go for it. And anytime that you can carpool with a friend, you should. Don’t forget that every mile makes a difference!
Turn down your air conditioner and heater
This news might come as a blow, but air conditioning is another culprit driving climate change. These appliances use considerable amounts of electricity, and they work by removing heat from indoor settings and releasing it outside (which increases the external temperature, prompting many people to blast their air conditioners even higher). When older units aren’t working properly, they release hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), greenhouse gases that trap thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide does.
On the other hand, heating can hurt the environment too. Whether we’re burning fossil fuels or simply generating a lot of electricity to keep the house warm, we’re using energy and creating pollutants.
Many of us have to cool our homes in the summer and heat them in the winter, but the simple solution is to turn down your air conditioner and heater, even by just a degree or two. To compensate, you can stay comfortable by taking a quick but cool shower, piling on an extra blanket, or making other adjustments that you deem necessary. (Click here for alternative ways to cool your home and here for alternative ways to heat it.) You can also double-check your home’s insulation levels to make sure that your cooling and heating systems are efficient. Even if you’re not the property owner, you can get in touch with your landlord and ask about your insulation.
Conserve water and electricity
Again, this is a fairly obvious suggestion, but that doesn’t take away from its importance. After all, many parts of the world are currently experiencing severe drought, including California and South Africa, and pumping and heating water requires quite a bit of energy. With electricity consumption generating a decent amount of pollution, it’s definitely a good idea to take a look at your water and power usage.
This year, set a goal to shave a couple minutes off of your shower time, and turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth or washing dishes. You should also make it a reflex to turn off lights and unplug appliances when you’re not using them. (To make this easier, consider purchasing power strips with on/off switches, which will help you ensure that your devices aren’t draining electricity when they’re not in use — just make sure that your fridge always stays on!) These changes are so small that you almost won’t notice them, but they’ll add up in a significant way.
Spend more time in nature
Nothing motivates sustainability quite like a passion for the great outdoors. After all, the people who love nature are usually the ones who care the most about conservation, climate change, and other related issues. So, if you’ve ever marveled at a snow-capped mountain, sprawling desert, white-sand beach, or towering forest, it’s time to tap into that feeling of awe and wonder.
While none of the suggestions in this article are too onerous, this is probably the most enjoyable one — what could be better than spending more time outside? If you live close to incredible natural sites, like a U.S. National Park, it shouldn’t be hard to make this adjustment. But even if you live in a city, you can still visit urban green spaces more often and plan weekend trips to scenic getaways. Alternatively, you could pick up a new outdoor hobby, such as hiking, kayaking, skiing, mountain biking, or scuba diving. When you’re outside, you just might have a stroke of inspiration, an epiphany that tells you how to live sustainably or makes you realize exactly what we’re fighting for.
Not long ago, Jackson Groves used his love of nature for the planet’s good. Feeling inspired after a solo hike in Panama, he founded the Adventure Bag Movement, which urges others to pick up the trash that they find in natural settings, then post photos to motivate widespread change. The movement has quickly gained momentum, all because people are eager to give back to the natural world that they love so much.
Write letters to changemakers
Words have power. If you dislike the way that a company or government body is doing something, open a Word doc or a new browser, and start writing. CEOs and political representatives do care about what the public thinks, and if they hear the same feedback over and over again, they’ll pay attention. And, if you can convince your friends and family members to write letters too, you’ll be that much more likely to sway changemakers.
Maybe the excessive packaging on your favorite snack bothers you, or maybe your city’s recycling program has a long way to go. Whatever you’d like to address, be respectful and get your thoughts on paper; you never know what will happen.
If you need a bit of added guidance or inspiration, check out The Morning Fresh, a blog by outdoor advocate Katie Boué. We profiled Katie in our roundup of Instagram’s most inspiring environmentalists after she moved out West to work on environmental issues. Since then, she hasn’t stopped empowering others to use their daily choices as a protest statement about the importance of protecting the environment.
Stay informed and get involved
In our post-industrial day and age, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes and ears peeled for the latest environmental news. To begin, try following climate activists on Twitter, subscribing to relevant newsletters, or watching a documentary about wildlife. After all, the more you know about the planet and its current bill of health, the better a steward you can be.
Next, look around your community and see if you can connect with people and organizations that are focused on sustainability. There’s a good chance that somebody else has already put a lot of thought into the issues that you care about, so finding a meaningful initiative is often a matter of spending time on the internet and talking to like-minded friends.
Whether you participate in local beach cleanups or pitch in at a community garden, you’ll quickly realize the power of working together. No one can tackle a major issue alone, but with a little bit of collaboration and hard work, we can bring about the large-scale changes that we want to see.
All too often, individuals believe that they can’t make a difference. But it’s important to remember that a year’s worth of sustainable choices will have a huge impact (and that our combined yearlong efforts will be even greater). Your actions matter, especially when your friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow world citizens choose to live sustainably too. Together, we can do this!
If you’re looking for more environmentally friendly tips, check out our Sustainable Travel Series.
Header image by Giga Khurtsilava