Yike guys, I bought my locally baked apple cider donuts in plastic. I AM THE WORST.
“You don’t have to set yourself on fire to warm others.”
That was written on a slip of paper hidden inside a book. An artist found it and tweeted it, and that is where I saw it.
A version of this article previously appeared on EcoCult.
Readers, I can relate so much. I often feel like sustainability advocates are asked to set ourselves on fire, and then we ask our followers to do the same, calling it “easy!” Sure, it often sounds like a call to do the right thing, to get your priorities straight. To live our lives within our values. We point to a host of spiritual benefits, say in balance it totally improves our lives. But dig into it, and you realize it’s another way in which we demand the impossible from ourselves.
Because just look at the expectations. I’ve read the comments, I’ve seen the bile spewed at people who don’t conform to what we expect from the eco elite. Here are a few of the things we expect from “good” environmentalists:
1. Always pack a reusable water bottle, bag, utensils, straw, napkin/handkerchief, smoothie cup/mason jar, and non-toxic hand sanitizer. Go ahead and donate all your purses smaller than a large bucket bag to Goodwill. They are no longer suitable for your lifestyle.
2. Never buy a new phone. Hold on to yours until it breaks apart into little pieces, then buy a used one. Obviously, your Instagram pictures will be as grainy as a flip phone’s from 2008, but you are above such petty concerns.
3. Never fly on a plane. Even if it’s to do your job, or take a vacation to an eco-preserve. Don’t fool yourself, if you used anything but a train or a sailboat to get there, you are A HYPOCRITE. Paying to offset the carbon emissions is not enough to absolve you of your sin. Staycation. Always.
4. Never get in a car. Always ride a bike or walk. If a car is the only way to get there, spend the whole time “educating” the driver about the sad state of the U.S.’s infrastructure and trying to convince them to move to a “livable” neighborhood.
5. Grow your own food. If you live in an apartment, grow it on the roof, even if you’re not technically allowed to be on the roof. If you don’t have access to the roof, grow it on your windowsill. When you kill your third basil plant, which is supposed to be the easiest thing to grow, don’t tell anyone your secret and go buy another one.
6. Expend the bulk of your emotional energy trying to figure out how to “educate” people around you on your choices without making them feel bad or defensive. Know that it’s working when your friends show up to your apartment and profusely apologize for the fact that they brought strawberries in a plastic container. Tell them, “No, no, it’s fine! I don’t care! Oh, but these aren’t organic. Ummm…”
7. Say, “No thank you! I actually don’t_____” in a falsely sweet voice when people offer you things like cupcakes, gift bags, a gift certificate to a high-end hair salon, and other treats. They think they are being nice, but you know these objects are the tool of the devil, to suck you back into the consumerist economy.
8. Feel guilty and inadequate about the things that are sort of in your control but not really, like the straws that arrive in your cocktail drink, the gifts you get from your family for Christmas, the plastic cups your beer comes in at a festival, and the packaging wrapped around the product you ordered. Make yourself feel better by arguing with the people who give them to you, and berating the organization who subjected you to plastic via social media.
9. Pack snacks of nuts and fruit, in case you find yourself in a situation where organic, local, vegan food is not available. If you forgot, don’t eat. It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. Hunger is the feeling of being right.
10. Only buy sustainable fashion.
11. But not sustainable fashion that is too expensive. That is elitist and out of touch.
12. Actually, only buy secondhand fashion. New fashion is for the unenlightened, drone consumers who don’t know better.
13. Don’t use air conditioning or a hair dryer–that uses too much electricity. Get a paper fan instead. Air dry your hair.
14. Throw out all your conventional beauty products, including your anti-dandruff shampoo. Try all the natural remedies, and when your mother comments that you have flakes in your hair, buy a new bottle of dandruff shampoo but hide it when friends come over.
15. Only own 100 items, including an altar to Marie Kondo. Take Instagram photos of all the beautiful white space in your apartment. This is what success looks like.
16. Meditate every day on why you feel the need to look pretty. Eventually, reach enlightenment and realize that beauty is a societal construct, and stop buying new clothes, getting your nails done, getting your hair cut or colored, and using makeup.
17. Pack your lunch every day for work.
18. Cook dinner for yourself every night. Unless you’ve been invited to dinner. In that case, only say yes if it’s at a farm-to-table restaurant.
19. Say no to invitations to hang out with your friends on Sunday. You need seven hours meal plan, pack your reusable mason jars and bags, walk to the farmers market, take a train to natural foods store, swing by the tea shop downtown for loose leaf tea, then cook it into handy lunches for the rest of the week.
20. Compost your food. Find the nearest garden that takes it, wake up early on Saturday and schlep it over, only to find that it closed early at noon. Surreptitiously look around, then put the compost in the nearest trash can.
21. Source all of your furniture by walking around the city for several weeks and looking for furniture that has been put on the curb. When you get bedbugs, fret over whether the bedbug service is using a “green” method.
22. Adopt three stray cats. Switch them to pine litter and feed them vegan cat food. Try to bring the used litter to the farmers market to compost. When they turn you away, cry a little.
23. If you are out and about and can’t find a recycling can for your kombucha bottle, stuff it in your person or go from restaurant to restaurant, asking them if they can recycle it for you.
24. If it’s mellow, let it yellow. Ignore the fact that your tiny bathroom smells like pee all the time.
25. A the end of summer, spend two days canning and pickling produce from the farmers market, so you won’t have to buy out-of-season food during the winter.
26. Expect your partner to follow all these same rules. If he/she does not, ask them if they really love you.
27. Install a bidet in your bathroom, or use cut up shirt rags instead of toilet paper. If you must use toilet paper, buy the thin, scratchy recycled kind. Hang a sign in the bathroom to educate your guests about your new, waste-free system.
28. When a natural skincare product makes your lymph nodes swell, ask the maker about it. She’ll tell you it’s your body expelling toxins. Double down on using the natural skincare product.
29. Be skeptical of making money. If you do start making a lot of money, hide it, or give it away. Real environmentalists are perpetually poor.
30. If you find yourself in a situation where you are very, very thirsty, but forgot your bottle of water, DO NOT buy a bottle of water. Go into a restaurant and ask for a glass of water. If this is a fast casual restaurant without reusable cups, ask if you can stick your face under their tap. If they say no, then go straight home to get your water bottle and skip the rest of your errands and meetings.
So, when are we supposed to fit in living our lives? Seeing our friends? Working? Why have we put this massive burden on ourselves to spend more money, spend more time, starve ourselves, alienate our friends and family, in order to pursue this vision of perfection? Sure, we can start getting closer. But we will never reach the land of no impact, no matter how we try. Not unless we have support from the system, from business, from legislations, and from the people around us. No wonder most sustainability advocates I know are women. We’re used to trying to reach impossible standards for beauty, sexuality, career, and motherhood, with little to no support from men. Why not pile another thing on top?
I guess it took a male advocate, Bill McKibben, to come out and say it:
Changing the system, not perfecting our own lives, is the point. “Hypocrisy” is the price of admission in this battle.
Yes, even McKibben, famous climate action advocate, has forgotten to bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Until the system is changed, we will have to make compromises. We will have to make choices that are better, not perfect. Yes, we should do our best. But sometimes we mess up! Sometimes what we thought was eco-friendly turns out not to be. We should stop berating ourselves and others for making imperfect choices, and focus instead on changing the system. Making it so that all music festivals serve food on compostable plates, that the health department lets cafes refill your cup, that there is always recycling available.
What to Do About Bottled Water
Just take bottled water. As sustainability advocate Erin Schrode told me, “If I’m somewhere and I need water and the only thing to buy is a bottle of plastic water, it kills me inside, I have a fight with myself. There is major inner turmoil, but I buy it. I will go extended periods of time where I probably should be drinking water but I don’t because I can’t fill it up.”
That’s because the system is stacked against her. Water fountains are disappearing. Our culture requires we don’t take the time to have a sit-down meal, instead grabbing it–and the water to go with it–to go. Offices stock water bottles to offer to guests instead of glasses and pitchers. Bartenders scowl at you when you ask for water and specify that you want it in a glass. Gyms stock bottled water at the door, and airports make you empty your water bottle, then only offer anemic fountains which take five minutes to fill your bottle halfway.
Here’s my view: If you’re out in this heat wave, and you forgot your bottle of water, don’t punish yourself. Just buy the bottled water. Try to remember to bring your bottle next time.
A Better Bottled Water Choice
All this brings me to my decision to proudly rep Boxed Water. I first discovered Boxed Water two years ago when I was on a family vacation in Michigan. My uncle and I decided to hike a dune, but when we arrived, I realized with horror I had forgotten my reusable water bottle. I went to an ice cream shack, and there they had Boxed Water. Not only was it beautifully designed, it was a less environmentally harmful alternative to typical bottled water.
Founded in 2009 in Michigan, Boxed Water is trying to offer another choice. It is municipal water (that they pay for, unlike Nestle) which is purified in a 5-step process with UV, carbon, and reverse osmosis filtration, and thus is free from chromium, arsenic, MTBE, chlorine, fluoride, and trace pharmaceuticals. It’s packaged in a box that is 74% paper–sustainably harvested in Canada–and 26% plastic. (They have to line it with a thin film of plastic so the water doesn’t soak through. The cap is so that, unlike milk cartons, you can close it again.) Box containers are also better than glass because glass is both heavier–more carbon emissions–and doesn’t have much of a market for recycling it.
While Boxed Water isn’t technically in a “bottle,” these cartons are disposable, causing some eco-advocates to raise an eyebrow.
The thing that makes it a lot more sustainable, however, is that the bottles are shipped flatpacked to the plant, which uses a lot fewer trucks, and drastically lowers the carbon emissions involved, compared to shipping plastic water bottles. According to one expert, a typical half-pint mixed-medium box is responsible for 8 grams of carbon emissions, compared to 50 from a PET plastic water bottle.
Plus, they are part of 1% for the Planet–1% of their annual sales support reforestation and water relief through partnerships with The National Forest Foundation and . And you can get two more trees planted by posting a picture of your Boxed Water on Instagram with #retree in the caption.
Oh, also? It tastes really good.
I make it my business to learn as much as I can about products making sustainable claims. I learned about Bottled Water, and I love what they are doing, which is offering a choice that is better than typical bottled water, a market segment that is still growing, by the way. Yes, you should pack a reusable water bottle and drink tap whenever possible. But when you find yourself in need of water, it’s a great choice. If people who currently couldn’t be bothered to have a reusable water bottle, who buy bottled water because it looks fashionable, because they think it’s healthier, because it’s convenient, switched to Boxed Water, it would do a huge amount of good in terms of carbon emissions and plastic.
Instead, I’m called a #greenwasher by a commenter. She didn’t want to start a discussion, she just wanted to tear me down and point out that I’m not perfectly sustainable. Well, she’s right. I’m not. I’m human. I buy things. I create waste. I forget my water bottle. I don’t always eat organic. I kill my herb plants. Does that mean I’m not allowed to advocate for better choices? If that were the case, then this whole movement would come to a grinding halt. None of us are perfect. We do our best.
There are more than 8,000 places in the U.S. to buy Boxed Water instead of Nestle, or Dasani, or Fiji (which is actually shipped from Fiji, by the way). In New York, Boxed Water is sold at Target, Bird Bath and City Bakery, 7-11, and Bloomingdale’s, with more outlets on the way. Find out where it’s sold near you here. Then find out if it’s recyclable in your county here.
Then stop feeling like such a bad person and move on to the next eco existential crisis. I know you have 34 more left in your day.
Also by Alden: I Tried It: Dosha Balancing Consultation for Glowing Skin
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Photos: Alden Wicker