Bath Spa University student Emma Oliver explores how small steps can create a more sustainable future for everyone.
The sheer scale of environmental concerns is often overwhelming, and unfortunately this can make it seem like an impossible problem to tackle. For the younger generations, this can be incredibly discouraging. After growing up in a world of environmental turmoil, it’s difficult to identify the areas where you can actively make a difference.
For some people, a radical approach to promoting sustainability is just what they need to motivate them – and arguably, radical change is exactly what’s needed. Supporters of this approach are usually motivated by shocking statistics, clever use of hyperbole, and graphic images of marine animals choking on carrier bags or entangled in plastic waste. They’ll likely join protests and rebellions, voicing their opinions to those who need to hear it most. Often, this is what gains the most press coverage and publicity via social media.
Yet for others, this somewhat extremist attitude is what makes them shy away from environmentalism. Perhaps they don’t want to be labelled or associated with rebellious protests. For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t call myself an environmentalist. Why? Because I’ve never protested in the streets, shared harrowing images or even witnessed our devastating impact on the environment first hand. Sure, I’ve signed a few petitions here and there, and tried to educate myself as best I could, but I knew there was so much more I could be doing.
However, what I had started to do was transition my lifestyle into one that’s more environmentally friendly – and encourage others to do so too. I quickly realised that once you begin this transition, you continually expose yourself to new challenges, arguments, and solutions – and that’s all part of the journey.
During the first few weeks, it slowly began to dawn on me that absolutely everything we do has an impact on the environment. Of course, this should have been blatantly obvious from the start, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me. First, I ditched single-use plastic produce bags in the fruit and vegetable aisle, in favour of paper bags. Then I began thinking about the processing needed to recycle those paper bags – when instead I could be using reusable cotton produce bags, or even no bag at all.
It’s easy to quickly get caught up in this cycle of environmental guilt, but everyone has to begin somewhere. Try starting off by scanning your home or maybe even just one room. The bathroom is often a great place to start and is easy to overlook. Ask yourself how many disposable products are in the room. Which of these could you switch to a plastic-free alternative? Perhaps focus on this for one week and see how much of a difference you can make. Then, move on to another room.
Setting yourself small, realistic goals allows you to track your progress – and it’s important to feel proud when you’ve achieved them too. Along the way, you’ll have to make lots of decisions about what you value most. Do you want to concentrate on reducing your waste or perhaps your energy consumption? First focus on one of your priorities, then let the rest slowly fall into place. If you try and tackle too much at once, it’s likely you’ll lose your patience and give up entirely. But when you’ve accepted that this will be a continually evolving journey, it really does become much easier.
My journey began less than three years ago, when I moved away from home for university. For the first time, I was fully in control of my actions as a consumer. Plus, after growing up in a family of four, it came as a shock to witness the amount of waste a house of ten students could make. When the university banned all single-use plastic cups at water dispensers, it seemed every student on campus was suddenly carrying a shiny new reusable water bottle. Were they making a conscious effort to be more eco-friendly? No, perhaps not. But they were looking to save money and avoid paying £2.50 for a bottle of mineral water in Starbucks.
It’s great to see that this cultural shift in consumer behaviour is becoming more mainstream, with increasing numbers of people refusing single-use products. But it’s important to remember that none of these people will single-handed change the world. Sure, a reusable water bottle is a great investment, but did the consumer consider what resources were needed to produce it? Will it be used for years to come or be replaced in two months when they purchase a more fashionable one?
I truly believe that adapting your lifestyle is one of the most beneficial ways to actively make a difference – especially when ‘solving’ huge issues like climate change can seem so unattainable. For young people in particular, it’s the perfect time to start developing healthy, planet-friendly habits that will stay with you for a lifetime. If you’ve just moved out of your parents’ house for the first time, you have so many decisions ahead of you – and you have the opportunity to make conscious, eco-friendly ones too.
Research has proven that Millennials and Generation Z are more concerned about their environmental impact than any previous generation – and increasing numbers of them want their careers to have a positive impact on the world they live in. After all, they will be the consumers of the future. So, it’s crucial to expose these generations to the ways in which they can minimise the footprint they leave behind, rather than just lecture them about the environmental challenges that lie ahead.
When I began my final year at university, I had to take on what every student dreads: the dissertation. I was asked to either write a 10,000-word report or undertake a creative enterprise project. I knew I wasn’t the right person to write an in-depth research report about biodiversity, climate change or pollution. But what I could do was help others to begin their journey towards a more sustainable lifestyle. So, I decided to create Switch, an independent magazine celebrating even the tiniest steps towards a more environmentally friendly way of living.
If you’re looking to assess your current impact on the environment, I highly recommend using the WWF Footprint Calculator. I scored 75%, which means my carbon footprint is less than the average UK consumer, yet higher than the world average. The calculator provides plenty of personalised tips to help you achieve an even lower score, plus ways to visualise your impact. For example, my annual food consumption is equivalent to the emissions produced by a small car.
Ultimately, sustainability means more than just protecting our planet – it means that our lifestyles must be sustainable. To achieve this, we need a global cultural shift in consumer behaviour, and consumers must develop positive long-term habits to create and maintain a stable future. And as the younger generations will be those most affected, it’s crucial that we get them on board as early as possible.
Emma Oliver is a third-year Publishing with Media Communications student at Bath Spa University. After graduation, she intends to put her communication skills to good use by spreading awareness of how our lifestyles can be adapted to reduce unnecessary environmental impact. Despite being in the early stages of her own environmental journey, she looks forward to encouraging other people to begin their own. In April 2019 she will be publishing Issue 1 of Switch, an independent magazine which celebrates even the tiniest steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle.