Books on Sustainability: 10 Best Reads for Beginners

Written by • Last Updated April 6, 2021

Did your New Year’s resolution involve living a more eco-conscious life? If you’re looking for a solid starting point, grab yourself a couple books on sustainability.

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of great (and not so great) sustainability books. Some put the climate crisis into perspective, while others offered up sustainable living tips and ideas for my own life. And trust me when I say–not all books on this topic are worth your time!

I firmly believe that lowering our environmental impact is a life-long process. And in order to accomplish our goals–whether that’s switching to a vegan diet or supporting slow fashion–we need to educate ourselves.

In a constantly evolving world, it can be hard to keep track of the most up-to-date advice. Not to mention the amount of books about eco friendly living that are dripping with misinformation.

After sorting the gems from the rubbish, these 10 titles are what I consider to be the best sustainability books for beginners out there.

Fair warning: some of these are gloomy reads. Facing the reality of humanity’s impact on the planet isn’t easy.

Nevertheless, these books are important and worth your time. And every single one will make you want to start forming eco-friendly habits ASAP!

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Woman sitting in outdoor hammock reading book on sustainability.

Shortlist of 10 Best Books on Sustainability

  1. 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste
  2. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
  3. Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork
  4. How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything
  5. How to Break Up With Fast Fashion
  6. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered
  7. Turning the Tide on Plastic
  8. The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis
  9. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
  10. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

101 Ways to Go Zero Waste by Kathryn Kellogg

If you only buy one book about sustainable living, make it this one

Kellogg has been a champion of the zero waste lifestyle for years, but her approach is friendly and judgement-free.

The 101 ways are organized into categories like “Kitchen and Cooking”, so it’s easy to quickly flip to the relevant section. Her tips range from product swaps to DIY recipes, and they’re all accompanied with the “why” behind the suggestions.

I learned tons of simple tricks from 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste, many of which I put into practice the next day. Some of my favorites include her all-purpose cleaner recipe and a tip about covering leftovers with plates instead of plastic wrap (why didn’t I think of that before?).

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

In this book, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart propose a revolutionary change to the fundamental way in which the world works: instead of reducing, reusing and recycling waste, what if there was no waste at all? 

McDonough and Braungart argue that in nature, the “waste” of one system becomes the nutrients of another. So we should make a system–a circular economy–in which everything eventually becomes either biological or technological nutrients for something else, leaving zero waste!

This is one of the staple non fiction books on sustainability. And if you get something out of this, you should also pick up their follow-up zero waste book, The Upcycle.

Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork by Anna Lappé

The way we consume food is killing the planet. But that doesn’t have to be the case. In Diet for a Hot Planet, Lappé lays out ways that we can live and eat more sustainably without losing out on nutrients and delicious food – and what will happen if we don’t.

Diet for a Hot Planet lays out all the disturbing statistics concerning greenhouse gasses and fossil fuels, and how what we eat is affecting those already problematic numbers. Lappe’s focus is on eating and sourcing local. She wants us to think about how our food is connected to nature, and whether or not everything we eat needs to travel 100s of miles to reach our plate.

Fun fact: One of the best books on eco living from the 1990s, Diet for a Small Planet, was actually written by Lappé’s mom, and inspired many to cut down on meat consumption or become vegetarian.

How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything by Mike Berners-Lee

We’ve all heard (and worried) about our carbon footprint, but exactly how does each of our choices, from groceries to holiday destinations, affect the environment? 

That’s what Mike Berners-Lee aims to tell you in the recently rereleased (and updated) version of his 2010 zero waste book. The amount of information in How Bad Are Bananas? is impressive, and there’s plenty of ammunition for readers to use in order to reduce their own carbon footprint, as well as lobby corporations and government. 

This expanded 2020 version of one of the most popular books on sustainability now includes activities that have crept into our everyday lives over the last couple of decades, such as Twitter, electric vehicles and the Cloud. Whatever your lifestyle, there are some surprising – and perhaps uncomfortable – revelations to be found here, even if you weren’t planning to indulge in space tourism in your lifetime.

Save me for later!

How to Break Up With Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo

One of the things that encouraged me to stop shopping for clothes I didn’t need was reading How to Break Up With Fast Fashion. This is definitely one of the best books on sustainability for anyone who loves to shop.

But while you might want to scroll past this title if you DON’T buy many new clothes, this book has an important message for everyone who cares about sustainable living.

The intent of this book isn’t to bully you into never buying clothes again, but to help you fall back in love with the clothes you already have. And to ask the question: do I really need that new item? After all, we all need clothes, you may as well be buying ones that are good for the planet.

RELATED: Fast Fashion vs. Slow Fashion: What’s the Difference?

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher

Originally published in 1973, this is one of the oldest books on sustainability, but it remains relevant today. Schumacher was an economist who argued that our modern western economy is unsustainable, and causing too much of a drain on resources.

Instead of increasing globalization, Schumacher suggests that we think small and focus on small and local businesses. By cutting out major corporations, who often use cheap labor overseas, we can actually help save the planet.

Although it is now decades old, Small is Beautiful was surprisingly prescient for its time. With globalization harming local economies and contributing to global warming, the emphasis on macroeconomics put forward by Schumacher is perhaps more important now than it was when the book was written.

Turning the Tide on Plastic by Lucy Siegle

The amount of plastic being produced every year is staggering: 300 million tonnes annually, with more than 8 million of those tonnes ending up in the ocean. By 2050, pieces of plastic will outnumber the amount of fish in the ocean. That is, unless we do something about it. 

Enter Turning the Tide on Plastic. Lucy Siegle’s book gives us some facts that throw our environmental situation into stark relief, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Siegle makes it clear that “this is not a war on all plastics”, as she highlights the plastic necessities in our daily lives, such as those involved in medical equipment and space exploration.

Turning the Tide on Plastic is one of the best books on eco living because gives great advice not only about how to reduce the amount of plastic in our daily lives, but also how to replace, reuse and recycle in order to change the course of our plastic dependency.

The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

In The Future We Choose, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac lay out two possible futures: one in which we work together, starting NOW to fix climate change, and one in which we do nothing. And as architects of the Paris climate accords, they know what they’re talking about.

This isn’t the most uplifting of sustainability books. But in order to know why sustainable living is the way forward, it’s important to know what we’re fighting for–and against.

Although sacrifices to everyday comforts must be made to achieve their best case scenario, the world they paint is one I want to live in. Their worst case scenario, however, is truly terrifying.

The Future We Choose lays out basic changes we can make, and how we can achieve the best outcome without having to give up ALL our favorite hobbies and foods.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

In the history of the Earth, there have been five mass extinctions of life, the most well-known of which was the death of the dinosaurs at the hands of an asteroid impact. Since then, scientists have been monitoring what they believe to be the sixth extinction, this time caused by humankind.

Elizabeth Kolbert documents the gradual demise (or near end) of a dozen species during the current extinction event.

The Sixth Extinction examines the way in which humans have had an impact on the planet like no other species, giving us a comprehensive and emotional history of the species that have disappeared–and are continuing to disappear–before our very eyes.

Be warned: The Sixth Extinction is one of the bleaker books about sustainability. Kolbert’s writing compels us to think hard about our place on this Earth and to question what it really means to be human. Are we parasites? Or cohabiters?

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has drawn on her background as an indigenous scientist to bring us this culturally-minded zero waste book. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer writes about the natural world from the point of view of both science and cultural tradition, and offers insights based around bridging the gap between these often-times separate and rival points of view. 

Through a series of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass uses the motif of “an intertwining of science, spirit and story” as Kimmerer urges the reader to recognise the symbiotic relationship of the Earth and its human population, and that we need to remember that animals and plants are our oldest teachers.

Her aim is to “encourage people to pay attention to plants”, and through her prose–which deliberately avoids using impenetrable and off-putting scientific language –makes Braiding Sweetgrass one of the more accessible books on sustainability.

Fiction Books About Sustainability

You probably noticed that all of the books on the above list are nonfiction. However, if you’re looking to teach younger readers about low impact living (or want some less dense reading yourself!), there are some excellent fiction books about sustainability.

Some of the most popular fiction options include The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, The Overstory by Richard Powers, and my favorite childhood classic The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

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