I am sure you heard about sustainability before, but you might not know exactly what it means, why it matters or where to begin when trying to obtain a sustainable lifestyle. So in this blog post I will be getting clear on what sustainability is and share valuable tips to kickstart your own sustainable journey.


What is sustainability?

First of all, there is no universally agreed definition of sustainability, so I went looking for one that comes closest to what I believe sustainability stands for.

Sustainability: 1) The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level. 2) Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.
– Definition from Oxford Languages

In this definition the emphasis lies on the environmental aspect of sustainability. It is well known we are damaging the environment faster than it can recover and this is the biggest reason many people start their sustainable lifestyle journey, including me.

But I have learned that sustainability is not just about environmentalism. In fact, there are three pillars of sustainability

  • Social Sustainability (People)
  • Environmental Sustainability (Planet)
  • Economic Sustainability (Profit)

Drawing of the three pillars of sustainability

If one pillar is weak, the system as a whole is unsustainable. This is how, on a big scale, a lot of issues arise in the world we live in today. What we often see is that profit is made at the expense of planet and people. If you keep that up long enough, which we already have, it is going to result in big dilemma’s.

International governmental organisations like the United Nations now try to manage these global dilemma’s with their Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). But don’t just assume that they are going to fix the problem for us. In December 2015 nearly 200 countries committed to the Paris Climate Agreement, a global action plan to fight climate change. But President Donald Trump announced in 2017 to withdraw from this agreement (the exit will not be final until November 4th 2020, one day after the presidential elections), to put America first (read: the American economy). And just like that the American government is back to choosing profit over planet and people. Even though I am not American, I care for this because these consequences reflect back on all of us. 

I wanted a change. And although you might think how much can a single person really do? It is the only thing you CAN do. Start with yourself. Like Ghandi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

The changes to make your lifestyle more sustainable might not look like much, but if we all choose to make a small change, together we are making a big one. So let’s get into it.


5 tips to obtain a sustainable lifestyle

1. Buy less

We are currently living in a materialistic society where consumption is being highly encouraged, with the idea that consumption is positive and will fuel economic growth. But like we already saw in the three pillars of sustainability is that economic growth (profit) does not mean it goes hand in hand with social and environmental development. Better yet, it is said consumerism contributes to environmental degradation and negative psychological effects.

So why the negative psychological effects? Well, living in a materialistic society the majority of us unconsciously rely on products to make us happy. A big house, a nice car, a closet full of clothes. The “happiness” you get from these purchases is short lived. I hope you understand happiness can’t be bought. Studies show that materialistic behaviour is linked to decreased life satisfaction and happiness, and increases depression, anxiety, racism and antisocial behaviour. The good news is that people who rely less on physical materials are generally happier.

A girl with red nails shopping for jeans

As for the environmental aspect, it is quite easy to comprehend that higher levels of consumption means higher levels of production. Therefore more energy is needed and more materials, which equals to more waste, pollution and exploitation of natural resources. On the long run, these effects can even limit economic activity. Told you, if one pillar is unsustainable, the whole system is.

So now you can see that buying less is a big step towards a more sustainable lifestyle. Something that might help you is the “no spend challenge”: challenge yourself not to buy anything for a designated amount of time (except for necessities like groceries and gas). Let’s say you choose to not buy anything for one whole month. In this month pay attention to your actions and your thought patterns. You will see how a lot of your shopping is unconscious and habitual. At least, that is what I experienced myself.

2. Use less plastic

I am sure you heard it before, but plastic forms a big threat to the environment, the animals and our own health. Some say plastic lasts for so long, every single piece of plastic ever made still exists, and will continue to exist for at least 500 years.

Although it’s not that black and white, it is true that most plastics will not biodegrade, since they are unrecognizable to the bacteria that normally break down organic matter. Over time plastics will only “break down” into smaller particles (called micro-plastics) when it’s exposed to the sun’s UV rays. This process is called photo-degradation.

Let’s look at some ways for plastic to “leave” this earth:

  • Landfill: In a landfill, plastic will only break down if there is enough sun exposure. Most of the time that is not the case when everything ends up on a big pile. But if plastic does start to break down or gets sun exposure because it is littered somewhere else in the environment, there are many dangers to this process. Micro-plastics eventually turn into nano-plastics (smaller than 0,1 micrometer) and will leach into the soil and water, with the ability to enter our food chain. Let’s not forget that these plastic particles contain chemical additives such as phthalates and BPA. These additives, called endocrine disruptors, are know for their hormonal effects and can disrupt the hormonal system. They have been linked to developmental and reproductive problems as well as cancer. 

  • Incineration: As you can imagine, burning plastic will instantly release all these chemicals into the air, posing a big threat to vegetation, animal health and human health. And since plastic is made from fossil fuels such as crude oil, natural gas and coal, this will also release an incredible amount of CO2.
  • Ocean litter: When plastic is dumped in the ocean it is not any better. Not only can sea animals get entangled and harmed or even killed by larger pieces of plastic, but micro-plastics can be just as dangerous. Plastic waste floating in the ocean has better exposure to sunlight, so photo-degradation will take place quicker, creating micro-plastics. Birds, marine animals and fish will mistake the micro-plastics for food and ingest it. This will build up in their stomach, causing their death. People that eat fish should be extra aware of this, since the micro/nano-plastics & toxins fish have ingested are now entering their body.

Bird entangled in plastic

Normally I would tell you to use your (plastic) items as long as you can, instead of littering the environment. But as you know now, there are certain chemicals that should be avoided. That is why I would suggest to replace plastic items that come in contact with your food or water and even plastics that you put into your mouth like your toothbrush. You can easily replace these items with more sustainable options like a bamboo toothbrush, a reusable bottle or stainless steel lunchboxes. I do encourage to reuse your plastic items in a less harmful way and not immediately throw them away. I like looking on Pinterest for ideas to up-cycle plastic items.

I am aware I have not touched on recycling plastic. You might be surprised to hear that only 9% is being recycled and IF plastic is recycled it cannot be recycled indefinitely, but only once or twice. But I’d like to save this subject for another time. The most important thing is that you are more aware of the plastic items you bring into your home and that you understand plastic is not only littering the environment but it is also harmful for our wildlife and your own health.

3. Eat less animal products

Animal agriculture is a massive, if not the largest, contributor to climate change, deforestation, water pollution, species extinction, desertification and world hunger. 

But today I will not get into detail and bombard you with facts and numbers about the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, how many acres of land are desertified or the total of species that are lost every day from rainforest destruction. Although if you would want to, you can access that information here

The only thing I want you to understand is that, apart from the “obvious” fact that animals are being killed for our consumption, there is far more going on because of animal agriculture. 

Isn’t it heartbreaking to hear that not only animals are being killed because of animal agriculture, but humans are dying as well? Around 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases. That’s more than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. And I am not even talking about how many are severely malnourished. We are feeding half (!) of the world’s crop to animals raised for meat, eggs and milk, instead to those in need. And did you know that just 15% of these calories are then passed on to humans when we consume meat? The world’s population and thus the demand for food will only keep growing, but so will the demand for meat… unless we make a change.

With eating less or no animal products you are lowering the demand and stop contributing to the big toll on the environment and world hunger. And keep in mind that with eating less meat, dairy & eggs you are also improving your own health.

Two dark coloured hands holding a small amount of rice

4. Take a look at your carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.

I used to think that our carbon footprint is mainly formed by the energy we use and our choice of transportation. But there are other major contributors that need to be addressed if you are looking to lower your carbon footprint. Now before you think I am starting to repeat myself: Yes, this is where the first, second and third point all make another appearance. It’s a system, you guys, I’ll keep saying this until you are bored of me.

So, what are the big contributors and what can you do?:

  • Animal products
    As you might have already guessed after reading #3, this is one of the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint (one that is often overlooked, but not by you!). Animal agriculture is a big fat polluter and if you eat meat & dairy (especially red meat) you are contributing to that. If you are trying to live more conscious and lower your carbon footprint, one of the best things you can do is to lower your intake or stop eating meat, dairy & eggs all together.
  • Clothes
    Okay, so this is a big one for me since I love shopping. But the fashion industry is actually the second largest polluting industry in the world, just after the oil industry. As for carbon emissions, the industry is responsible for more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Say what?! Cutting down the amount of clothing you buy can definitely lower your carbon footprint. So, like I suggested in #1, try the “no spend challenge” and see how much of your shopping is habitual (and not needed). Another way to lower your carbon footprint, when shopping for clothes, is to buy natural fibers or buy second hand. Who doesn’t love a good vintage find?
  • Other (plastic) consumption
    Every item in your house has a carbon footprint, and plastic materials tend to have a very BIG carbon footprint. Why? Remember I told you plastics are made from fossil fuels? Plastics is among the most energy-intensive materials to produce. And just a quick scan around your house shows you that a lot of the materials you buy are in fact… plastic. Sadly also a lot of materials that quickly end up in the trash are plastic, making their way to landfill or our oceans. And you already know what that means. So if you want to lower your carbon footprint, this can be done with buying less (plastic!) things you don’t actually need.

    Ahh don’t you love how everything just all came together? Okay, let’s move on.

  • Energy
    Oil, gas and coal are the dirtiest ways to get energy. Instead, you can opt for renewable energy. Renewable energy, often referred to as clean energy, comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished. Solar energy, wind energy and hydroelectric power are all good examples for renewable energy. You can also do small things around your house to save energy, like replacing your lightbulbs with LED, making sure you leave no lights on, turn down the thermostat etc. 

Windturbines at sunset

  • Transportation
    Well, what can I say. We all know flying emits a huge amount of CO2, therefore if you want to lower your carbon footprint you should stop flying, right? Basically, yes. There are people that choose not to fly, but stay home or travel by car or public transport, and I admire them greatly. But for me, there are two big reason why I still choose to fly. The first is that I love to travel. If you have read my about page, you know that my first intercontinental travel opened my eyes for the negative human impact on this earth and was the start of my sustainable journey. I wish everybody could travel in a conscious way, see the beauty of the world and therefore help to preserve it.
    Secondly, I am in an international relationship. That means that if we want to visit his family or my family and not spend 20+ hours in a car/train/bus to do that, we have to fly.

    Luckily, there are programs out there that allow you to offset your carbon emissions from your flight. You simply enter the details of your flight and they calculate the amount of CO2 that is emitted. At Mindful Flights they will compensate your emissions with United Nations certified projects which you will pay for. And that’s it, you are flying carbon neutral. So if you still choose to fly, this is what I would recommend doing to offset your carbon emissions. 

5. Use your voice

If we want to stand a chance, we have to vote for those who know the importance of sustainable practises. Those who will protect the environment, the people and our economy all together and those who can see sustainable development is the only way to a prosperous future. The clock is ticking.

Even though I am definitely not a fan of politics, voting is a big way to make a change, not only in your country, but worldwide. So I suggest you make use of it.

To get back to the example I used in the beginning of this post: If only all eligible voters had voted for the American presidential election in 2016, there would most likely have been a different outcome. And with that different outcome the US would still be a part of the Paris Climate Agreement. That is huge. Again, I am not American, but caring about this goes beyond country lines. Let’s see what 2020 has in store for us, I hope it’s more positive than the rest of the year has been. One can only dream (unless you’re American, then go vote).

Final thoughts

So that’s it! I hope you learned something new and enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing this post for you. If this all seemed pretty overwhelming to you, remember that nobody is perfect and we are all trying to live more sustainable at our own pace. Just start by doing something small and don’t forget to celebrate your wins! Of course more blog posts will follow, so I can hopefully help you along the way, holding myself accountable in the process. Because I’m not perfect either! Let me know if you liked this post or if you are have any questions in the comments below. I would love to hear from you.

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