Labels follow us everywhere we go and they should be understood very clearly. It helps us in identifying various belief systems with a single word. Without this understanding, the person standing before will seem like they are puking a bunch of words “sustainable” “vegan” “zero-waste” “plant-based” “Minimalist” “Low impact”. All these words might sound like the same thing – “I’m obsessed with the environment”.
To understand why i have written this post, here are a few very important clashes in values found amongst the practitioners:
- Not all minimalists live zero-waste.
- Not all who live zero-waste, can live low impact.
- Not all that is organic is vegan.
- Not all that is vegan, is zero-waste
You may have heard of these words but don’t grasp the complete context of their usage in the above sentences. Some of these words are basic ideals and some are philosophies to live by. For the sake of this article I will be discussing 8 important words you will come across very often:
- Low Impact
- Low Waste
- Organic & Natural Living
After perusing through hundreds of personal blogs, educational videos, documentaries and Instagram bio of how people chose to define themselves, I have finally documented a brief description for each term that includes the motivations and purpose behind each movement. You may even find yourself identifying with or transitioning into these values.
“Capable of being sustained”
Philosophically, it is “making the best with the least” amount of resources.
It can also be described as “being able to use your resources efficiently such that it is sustained for as long as possible.”
Although this term is widely used by almost every tribe, the term itself has also become a hot trend and gets thrown around pretty easily for marketing gimmicks and green-washing tactics by large corporations. But the above explanation is the right way to use this term.
If you are being sustainable with the water at home, it means your judicious use of resources at home has conserved water.
If you are being sustainable with a certain product, you have probably found a way to extend the usage of the product for a longer duration than is normal.
Most Eco-conscious lifestyles are considered sustainable just by the virtue of the fact they help reduce excessive consumption of resources.
Economical is another term that is synonymous, albeit the assumed motivation is to save your financial resources. With sustainability, the motivational factor would be to conserve natural resources for a better future.
Veganism is frequently associated only with food habits to the unaware. But it extends to several other aspects of your life which may include the use of animal products.
- Leather made from animal skin
- Beauty products tested on animals
- Fabrics such as silk are avoided as the process traditionally involves moth cocoons boiled in hot water
- Meat obtained by slaughtering of animals.
- Honey or beeswax is extracted from the beehives.
- Wool and fur is avoided as it is derived from animal skin.
But even if the animals were treated gently, would that make the animal product vegan?
The basic philosophy of veganism requires one to reject the commodity status of animals.
By taking from the animals what we want without consent (consent in this scenario can never be possible) we essentially exploit them by assuming animals exist to serve human needs on this earth. Veganism rejects this mindset and explores alternatives by abstaining from every animal product. When we have the technological advancement to co-exist with the fellow beings on this planet, vegans see no reason to continue depending on animal resources in the modern world.
Fun fact, Human breast milk is vegan, if it can be taken with the mother’s consent.
As veganism evolved to create stricter moral codes, the ones who chose to only avoid animal products in their dietary habits began to use the term “plant-based diet”. This is a more diluted down version for those who did not wish to bear the pressure of vegan values in every aspect of their being. Plant-based can be used synonymous with the term vegan, but it can be open to dialogue if the person who chooses to call themselves plant-based on rare occasions might consume animal products. For example most vegans would not buy a thrift-ed wool, silk or leather product but a plant based person may choose it. Vegan alternative products are sometimes inaccessible in some situations. Compromises may have to be made on rare occasions to do the best they can with what is available.
“Plant based” also started catching on as a preferred term of acknowledging one’s dietary preferences to avoid the shaming and bullying when referred to as a vegan. “Dairy Free” is another term used to describe a diet which avoids only dairy products in addition to meat and eggs. It associates increased intake of plant-based diet with a clean healthy body. This diet is even prescribed trongly by many doctors to reduce the risk of heart diseases and diabetes. Climate scientists believe switching to a plant-based diet will reduce carbon emissions per person by 1/3rd of the current average emission per person.
This term has been used vaguely and can encompass several principles of minimalism, low waste and plant based at once, but one common guiding principle you can understand by the term “low impact” is, training your habits in order to reduce your carbon footprint, Low impact basically means “Lowering the carbon impact I create”
Carbon footprint is what you have due to the emission of carbon (that takes place in production of materials you use) via the daily choices you make in your lifestyle such as food, travel and household maintenance. By altering certain lifestyle choices you make, you can considerably cut down on the carbon footprint you contribute on an average. Riding a vehicle is a misguided example of explaining your contribution to carbon footprint as one only imagines the exhaust smoke emissions. Carbon footprint goes beyond just that, it includes the carbon emitted right from the production of raw materials required to construct the vehicle to begin with. Living low impact lifestyle is all about lowering your personal carbon footprint
The below habits can be associated with low impact living.
- Depending less on fossil-fuelled vehicles-
Riding a cycle, sticking to public transportation, consuming locally grown vegetables
- Avoid consuming excessive electricity-
Taking the stairs, using line drying vs machine dryer, managing Air regulators, switching to renewable energy sources at home.
- Reducing consumption to step away from the demand for excessive production-
Buying only what you need, living minimally, preferring home-made products or small local businesses, buying second hand.
Even the most extreme low impact lifestyles cannot achieve zero carbon emission. Hence the term was coined as “low impact” as you will be hard-pressed to find someone who creates “zero-carbon impact”.
“Zero Waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators, or the ocean.”
While the above Wikipedia definition for this movement is sufficient, it is important to note that zero waste values aspire and aim for a system that has no waste and our current economic systems does not allow the same easily. The veterans and experts of zero-waste lifestyle have been known to proudly show off a glass jar of waste produced in 4-6 years, inspiring many to change their wasteful habits. Many forget this glass of jar is a symbol of the fact that we do not live in a Utopian zero-waste society and we have a long way to go in achieving the same globally.
The need to avoid sending any trash to landfill arises from the growing problem of ocean’s plastic pollution. The trash problem is choking our biosystems and posing a serious threat to our bio-diversity. Aquatic animals, birds and wild life are often found dead on our shores and cities. They confuse trash for food and consume plastic till they choke. Their bodies when dissected reveal all the plastic that is consumed. This is the main cause for the rise in activities such as plogging, trash picking and beach cleanups amongst local communities.
Apart from the compassionate motivations to create a system that can live without trash, It also makes economic sense to design a circular way of living. Zero waste lifestyle encourages us to question the linear economy and its drawbacks, where items are only designed to be discarded. Zero-waste encourages the idea of sharing economy and re-purposing of resources. They have a strong aversion to anything disposable.
Below are some common lifestyle habits associated with people living zero-waste.
- Shopping second hand to extend lifecycles of products
- Avoiding disposable packaging which is most often plastic
- Carrying re-usables that can be repeatedly used for a lifetime,
- Upcycling trash into products of value
- Composting organic waste
- Buying items available package free and avoiding plastic in any packaging
“Low waste” is a preferred term used by those feeling the pressure to achieve zero waste in their journey. It softens the expectation of leading a perfect zero waste life with only a tiny mason jar of trash that many find intimidating and unrealistic. Low waste lifestyle can be open to dialogue that under the present scenario, not everything can be prevented from going to landfill and our system does not truly allow us to live zero waste. Many people do not have access to the right resources in order to lead a zero waste life and have to settle for what they can manage in their area/country. Hence low waste lifestyle, synonymous to Zero waste, promotes we can only do our best and reduce our waste as much as possible.
One could argue that minimalism only serves your personal needs by clearing the mind of unnecessary clutter and it didn’t actually start as an environmental movement. Minimalism is also popularly adopted by those working to clear their debts, live frugally and attain financial freedom at an early age. But many chose to include it as an integral part of living a sustainable life.
Here’s how it does that. It teaches you how to lead a fulfilling life by simplifying your relationship with objects around you. It saves you from the clutches of consumerism by changing your buying habits. Changing your buying habits is the most essential part of living sustainable. Thus minimalism gears you up for this.
Minimalists insist we do not need too many objects in our lives to keep us satisfied. You can simplify by running less behind objects, and more behind experiences. You only buy an item if it adds value to your life. If you can’t see any substantial value-addition, you can move on to remove it by Donating, selling or discarding it. In Japan, a woman named Marie Kondo explores minimalism by the KonMari method to declutter your home and spark joy in your life. This book became extremely popular and introduced minimalism as a tool to bring happiness in your life. It essentially explains how you must only keep the objects that truly spark joy in your life and give away the items we keep due to external influences such as status symbol or social obligations.
- Encourage sharing and borrowing of items from your community.
- Renting something if the product is required rarely.
- Keeping a small wardrobe with only the pieces you love the most.
- De-cluttering the items that do not add value to your life.
- Frequently updating yourself on what is adding value to your life.
- Avoid gift giving of objects unless absolutely required.
- Encouraging experiences such as an event, ride, vacation or movies.
- Downsizing your home to only the amount of space you will need.
A minimalist home can look really neat and devoid of any excessive clutter. Such empty spaces help in thinking clearly and creatively. A minimalist finds it easier to connect and build strong relationships with friends and family, by focusing on only what matters in their life and letting go of trivial chaotic situations created by owning excessive items.
Organic and Natural living
As the name suggests, the one important principle of natural living is to make sure all products used are made from organic ingredients, directly sourced from nature, free from chemicals that may harm their own health or the health of the planet via disposal. This usually extends to beauty products, hygiene products and food items that one might consume. Ensuring everything is derived from raw natural sources consoles one that they treat their body with the best. Eating food that’s grown pesticide free is important as well.
Products can either be home made to save money or they can be bought from beauty brands that explore organic products. While there are a plethora of good quality homemade organic beauty product companies online, beware of a few brands who may misuse the term “organic” for green-washing.
Organic lifestyle is very appealing to those who love traditional old school solutions for beauty products. Many suffer serious allergies from certain chemicals so they find alternatives in organic products. Sticking to Ayurveda or homeopathy instead of finding quick solutions in Allopathy medicines is also an example of natural living.
Imagine all these lifestyles as an entry point to one room. Everyone is inspired to start their journey and they all enter from different doors. Consciously or not, they begin to learn a combination of principles from others who entered from another door. Expanding the knowledge base and learning to set priorities for oneself is key to sailing through this without going insane. No one is expected to live every lifestyle perfectly and you probably can’t even live strictly by the door of principles you entered from. But finding a balance between what works best for you and focusing on what matters in fighting climate change can you help you in transitioning yourself into an eco-warrior.
There is also an unfortunate tendency to feel there is no middle ground. Either you give up all the harmful vices and be a perfect Eco-conscious medieval saint or else you are doomed to identify yourself as a passive human being, indifferent to climate change. You will be surprised that majority of the people around the world are living in a “transition period” for years and manage to create their own boundaries which they feel comfortable in sticking to. Once you are in the game of course, if you have even a slight tendency of obsessing over details, you will naturally end up pushing yourself to do better. That’s how people end up loving their lifestyles while the outsiders watch them perplexed by their “love” for the environment. Granted there is a growing urgency to do better, with all the terror and gloom brought to you by climate change, but oftentimes it’s just a competitive nature of human beings to excel at whatever they do. These lifestyle changes bring creativity, health benefits, financial savings, guilt-free pride and many other pros, and so they find themselves getting addicted to living as a holistic conscious consumer.
We usually assume and mix up several stereotypes about a person when he or she starts living an eco-conscious lifestyle. While the stereotyping seems harmless, it could lead to ridicule and lack of support from their peers, alienating the person who wants to try their hand at living consciously. Understanding these terms will help you in navigating your way into this versatile community. You might even choose to identify yourself with one of these labels, if you see similarity in value systems that you may already be practising.