With the current focus on climate change and the renaissance of the youth strike movement, the discussion of sustainability has become particularly prominent in the media. Vegan and vegetarian cookbooks fly off the shelves, fashion connoisseurs pioneer the latest faux leather shoes and accessories, we buy paper-packaged meal deals. The effort of the general public is commendable. Lessons on sustainability have wriggled their way into the curriculums of more environmentally-conscious schools; I’ve sat through assemblies on the importance of recycling, seen the canteen introduce ‘Meat Free Mondays’, and yet the recycling bins are lined with non-recyclable black bags, the food is wrapped in plastic within an inch of its life, there is a meat dish offered on ‘Meat Free Mondays’, and as a vegan I’ve never been able to eat well in school. It often feels impossible to make a difference as a young person when many of the surrounding adults and establishments prevent you from doing the basics.
I often hear my peers talking about how they’re living sustainably, but struggle to escape the ironies of their actions. They sip water from aluminium water bottles bought via Amazon; imported from somewhere in Asia and likely made on a production line of underpaid workers, their parents drive them to climate strikes. The faux leather belts everyone’s wearing are usually bought from Primark, the biggest contributor to the enormous issue that is fast fashion. The coffee in the grande, iced, sugar-free, soya milk vanilla lattes they buy every day was harvested and ground by kids in Latin America.
The problem is not so much their ignorance, it’s a lack of education. How many fifteen year olds actually read the newspapers that highlight paths to sustainability? If you aren’t aware of the consequences of your actions, or the alternatives, you aren’t going to change them.
I think a lot about my carbon footprint. Until recently, I too was not aware of the impact of some of my favourite foods, and my favourite products. I buy a lot of books, and I hadn’t realised how harmful this was, partly due to the absence of education on the topic, but, focusing on the solution rather than the cause, I set out to find a more environmentally friendly source. ‘World of Books’ are an amazing online book retailer, shipping second hand books around the country at a competitively low cost, preventing used paperbacks from going to landfill. They’re a certified ‘Certified B Corporation’ too, meaning that they dedicate themselves to considering the impacts of their decisions on workers, customers, the community, and the environment. While this is largely a good solution to my obsessive book-buying habits, anything that makes its way through the postal system incurs carbon emissions of some degree. So if you’re looking to avoid this too, get online, or talk to the people around you, and find out the best independent or charitable book shops in your area. Burgate Books in Canterbury is a favourite of mine; they have an incredibly broad stock and the money made goes to Pilgrims Hospices. Shopping locally and independently is really important in the age of Amazon and online suppliers; making the effort to support small businesses and donate to charity while reducing your carbon footprint.
My personal favourite (and somewhat controversial) topic to discuss in relation to living sustainably is diet. I was raised vegetarian and made the transition to vegan two years ago, and while at the time the decision was born from a desire to eat more healthily, combined with a squeamishness regarding eggs and an intolerance for cow’s milk, I’ve been made aware over the past year or so of the impact that pastoral farming has on the environment, and its contribution to climate change. Meat production requires huge quantities of energy; the crops grown to feed the animals take up water and land, and their raising, slaughtering and transportation are dependent on energy produced predominantly through the burning of fossil fuels. Livestock and their by-products account for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Contrarily, I've recently discovered that some of the most popular meat and dairy alternatives are also rather destructive when mass produced. It takes 1400 litres of to produce half a kilogram of tofu, and equally for every one almond that goes into the production of the popular milk alternative, 5 litres of water are used. Both, however, remain more sustainable than animal products when the bigger picture is considered.
Learning to cook is, in my opinion, invaluable. Fast food culture is massive among young people, and not only is it decidedly unhealthy and largely centered around the consumption of meat, it is not sustainable. The production methods behind the food sold are often inhumane and environmentally damaging. Through learning to cook for yourself, not only is your dependence on food conglomerates reduced, but opportunities are opened up; for creativity, future financial and domestic independence, and socialisation.
Fashion is and always has been an almost intrinsic aspect of being a teenager; a fundamental of self-expression and perception. While the situation is still far from ideal, there is a growing understanding of the problems associated with buying clothes too frequently, and the need to avoid ‘fast-fashion’ chains. Being young and exposed to the pressures of social media, influencers and trends, it can be very easy to be sucked up into buying from retailers that reflect current fashions at a low price. The feelings of satisfaction gained from saving up for an item of clothing that catches your eye in a shop window for weeks or months before finally buying it are laid aside. I myself am undoubtedly guilty of making the occasional purchase from such establishments, but I’m trying pretty hard to shop sustainably. Charity shops are great, offering a range of clothing at a very low price, although it can be a challenge to find specific things, and I know that many people my age are ‘too cool’ for this kind of shopping. Depop has risen in popularity recently, an app in which ‘Instagram meets eBay’; you can browse and buy new and secondhand clothing and accessories from independent sellers across the country, I’d definitely recommend it. Buying second hand saves clothes from going to landfill, and is generally lighter on the wallet. When buying new clothing there are now many brands that use recycled materials and some that actually donate to environmental causes, so it’s an area worth looking into. It’s taken me some time to get there, but I am learning to make infrequent investments in more expensive, high quality items that won’t need replacing for some time, and that can be repaired before they are. Take the time to learn to sew, and how to make other basic amendments. The ten minutes it takes to repair one item with a few stitches could save quite a sum of money needed to replace it, and the huge volumes of water and the labour that goes into production.
While it can sometimes seem impossible to make a difference and to live sustainably as a young person, and it is undoubtedly difficult, the journey of moving towards a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and healthy existence is a rather exciting challenge, with immeasurable rewards. I encourage you to have a go, to swap even just one of your habits for a more sustainable alternative; perhaps the changes we make will influence older generations to try a little harder, to provide a fuller education on the matter, and maybe even to put recyclable bin bags in the recycling bins...
Written by: Freya Farmer.