Low Impact Living: A Beginner’s Guide to Sustainability

Written by • Last Updated October 20, 2020

Our planet has been in trouble for a long time. After two decades of dire warnings about climate change and overflowing landfills, you’d think low impact living would be the new normal by now. Unfortunately, our global response to the environmental crisis has been woefully inadequate.

It’s not surprising that we’ve relied on governments and big corporations to tackle a challenge this daunting. Any small changes we might make as individuals seem pointless when stacked up against wide-scale green energy initiatives or improved recycling programs.

But the sad truth is that (most) people in power won’t work on sustainability until it directly affects their position or bottom line. It’s the year 2020, and somehow we’re seeing negative progress in recycling and climate change.

Four blue recycling bins with cans and bottles coming out of the tops

If all this grim news about our planet’s future fills you with helplessness, you’re not alone. In fact, there’s a psychological term for it: eco-anxiety.

For a long time, I actively avoided reading articles about our planet’s future. Doing so would leave me frustrated, exhausted, and frankly depressed. I had a cynical outlook and felt that my daily habits didn’t matter, so I did little to change them.

And then one day, I realized I was being a hypocrite. I’d always been a staunch believer that everyone should vote, stand up for what’s right, and accept that one person can make a difference. So why should the decision to lower my environmental impact be any different?

I was tired of feeling helpless, and I was certain others felt the same way. This low impact living guide is for people like you, who are ready to take responsibility for the future and start living sustainably.

Table of Contents

1. What is low impact living?
2. Low impact vs. eco-friendly vs. sustainable…
3. Is a low impact life actually possible today?
4. How can I transition to low impact living?

What is low impact living?

To put it simply, low impact living is all about reducing your impact on the environment and Earth’s natural resources. It’s a lifestyle that aims to lower your ecological footprint through daily actions and habits, from shopping local to eating less meat to avoiding single-use plastics.

Longer-lasting choices, like buying a smaller home and limiting air travel, also play a role in low impact living. However, our day-to-day choices have a far larger effect on the world around us.

Woman in white dress holding pink produce bag with carrots insdie

Low impact vs. eco-friendly vs. sustainable… what’s the difference?

With so many terms related to living low impact, it’s hard to make sense of them all! Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Eco-friendly is a broad term that means not harmful to the environment. It’s applied to everything from cleaning products to clothing.
  • Sustainable describes a system of balance, where today’s behaviors don’t negatively affect society’s future quality of life. Think sustainable farming, sustainable tourism, and other practices that ensure we preserve natural resources for years to come.
  • Low impact means reducing the impact on the environment. It’s similar to eco-friendly, but with a bigger emphasis on cutting down use of nature’s resources.
  • Zero waste is all about creating as little trash as possible. While the ultimate goal is–you guessed it–zero waste, our current economy and capabilities puts it just out of reach.

RELATED: Zero Waste vs. Low Impact: What’s the Difference?

Is a low impact life actually possible today?

There’s a common misconception that a low impact life requires you to be an off-grid homesteader or a strict vegan who makes their own cleaning products. However, that’s simply not true. 

The best thing about low impact living is that there isn’t a rigid set of rules that define it. You can’t fail at it the same way you can “fail” at being vegan or minimalist.

Instead, consider where your actions exist on the spectrum of how negatively (or positively) they affect the environment. This lifestyle is built with every helpful change we make, whether that’s composting food waste or buying only sustainably-crafted clothing.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing nothing because you can’t do everything.

When it comes to low impact living, the most important thing you can do is start. If everyone picked up just a few of these low impact habits, we’d be on a clear path to a sustainable future.

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How can I transition to low impact living?

Calculate your carbon footprint

The process of calculating your carbon footprint is a great starting point for low impact living. By answering questions about your buying habits, energy use, and transportation, you’ll be required to reflect on all the ways your choices affect the environment.

There are multiple free calculators out there, but the WWF tool is the easiest to use. They’ve also developed unique tools for 10 different countries, so you’ll get more accurate results based on your location.

Wood kitchen counter with soap, brushes, towel, and white tile backsplash

Create a low impact household

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll reiterate that our day-to-day behaviors have a bigger total impact than the car we drive or the clothes we wear. Ditching plastic baggies and turning down the air conditioning may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but these little sustainable choices add up quickly.

Creating a low impact household–one where everyone is working together to make eco-friendly decisions–is the best way to scale your efforts.

There are dozens of ways to incorporate low impact practices throughout your home. Here are a few to start with:

  • Swap plastic food storage bags and containers for reusable silicone and glass
  • Choose biodegradable products over plastic ones, like those made with sustainable bamboo
  • Use refillable containers for soap, spices, grains, coffee, and other products you can buy in bulk or without packaging
  • Make your own basic cleaning products for countertops, windows, and other surfaces
  • Compost your food waste instead of throwing it away (food scraps can’t fully decompose in landfills)
  • Tackle some eco friendly home improvement projects
  • When possible, rely on open windows or extra clothing layers rather than artificial heating and cooling
  • Replace pre-packaged snacks like chips with less wasteful alternatives (oven-roasted chickpeas and stovetop popcorn are great for salt lovers)
  • Cook more meals at home using fresh, seasonal ingredients, and get creative to use up leftovers
  • Analyze and adjust your schedule to become a one-car household

Save me for later!

Shop local

It takes an enormous amount of energy and resources to transport products around the world. Global shipping is a significant driver of climate change thanks to black carbon emissions, refrigerants, and poor fuel efficiency.

Choosing to shop local not only helps the environment, but also supports your community. Next time you’re ready to place an Amazon order or head to a big chain store, do a quick internet search for a local business alternative. Or better yet, head to a secondhand shop (or online marketplace) to give an existing item a new life.

This principle also applies to food. Get as much meat, dairy, and produce as you can from your local farmer’s market, co-op, and specialty stores. Many mid-size and large cities have delivery and subscription services where you can buy direct from local farmers. By getting food straight from the source, you can eat with the seasons and avoid excess shipping, processing, and packaging.

Eat less meat

Putting ethics aside, eating meat every day is unsustainable. Our standard practices of factory farming and livestock rearing are a major source of carbon and methane emissions. And the amount of pasture land needed for cattle grazing has led to rampant deforestation in Latin America.

At this point, the problem with meat is pretty much common knowledge. And yet, it’s really hard to change our carnivorous habits. 

I could write a whole post on the reasons we struggle to eat less meat (assuming you come from a meat-eating culture). But despite the emotional, financial, and psychological barriers, there are a few tricks to make things easier:

  • Embrace other protein sources like eggs, tofu, chickpeas, and lentils
  • Learn to cook new plant-based meals instead of trying to remove meat from your favorite recipes
  • Use savory ingredients like miso, Worcestershire sauce, and olives to give dishes a rich, hearty flavor

Check out my post about cutting back on meat for more tips.

And remember: veganism is not the only option for eating more sustainably. There are several plant based diets that are not vegan, including vegetarianism and flexitarianism.

Be a conscious consumer

Marketers have latched on to the eco-friendly trend, but not always in a good way.

Words like “green”, “organic”, “sustainably sourced”, and “all-natural” have been popping up on everything from fish fillets to toothbrushes. It’s called greenwashing, and unfortunately, it’s mostly a marketing trick with no actual environmental benefits to back it up.

Right now, there’s little regulation over eco labeling. While many countries have implemented standards and certifications for organic products (ex. USDA certified organic and the EU’s Organic seal), terms like “sustainable” or “eco-friendly” are rarely controlled.

What’s more, there are multiple certifying organizations for “fair trade” and sustainability-related labels, each with their own criteria.

So what is a consumer to do when confronted with all these labels?

Well, you can start by shopping where you trust. It’s easier to do when you shop local and have the opportunity to build a relationship with the seller. But there are plenty of larger companies, like Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia, with proven track records of environmental stewardship.

Do your research into stores and brands. Websites like Good On You have made this process a lot faster, though it’s good to read the brand’s About page to see how and where the products are made.

And above all else, conscious consumers only buy what they truly need. Before you slap down that credit card, ask yourself if what you’re about to buy is necessary, multi-use, and long-lasting. There’s a reason the 3R’s start with “reduce”.

Are you ready to get started with low impact living? Join my newsletter below to get helpful tips and inspiration to find joy in your sustainable journey!

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