The term “eco-friendly” gets lumped into the realm of responsibility a lot, but what does it really mean?
Does it require living an absolutely zero-waste life, composting every single coffee ground, never succumbing to fast fashion, and traveling only on a bicycle made of recycled materials? If we measure success on those unbending terms, it sounds pretty overwhelming.
Plus success isn’t linear, especially for a multifunctioning adult.
Sure, I’d be killing it at being eco-friendly if I could get a steady rotation of minimally packaged groceries delivered to my house, only use metal straws, and get takeout prepared in my personal, reusable bento boxes. But that would be difficult, if not impossible, for me.
And again, achieving perfection is not how any of this adulting stuff works.
So what does it mean to be a responsible pal to the planet? For starters, although it requires some changes and some sacrifices, it’s not all or nothing. Yes, people who litter are jerks. But no, that one time you bought a bottled water last year isn’t causing the polar ice caps to melt.
For the folks who are actually trying, we have to consider how our realities come into play. Let’s unpack it.
If I were expected to be an all-in, absolutely flawless caretaker to the environment, I would automatically get a big #FAIL. It wouldn’t matter if I wore only compostable shoes and bathed just once a month in a rain barrel. I fail because I need to use three asthma inhalers every single day to keep my lungs functioning properly.
In 2019, a study reported that metered-dose inhalers (MDI) contribute to global warming via their greenhouse gas emissions. The study led to headlines such as “Asthma inhalers as bad for the environment as 180-mile car journey” and “Asthma carbon footprint ‘as big as eating meat.’”
I was diagnosed with asthma when I was a 2-year-old. I can’t ditch any of my medications, especially not with climate change making my condition progressively worse. I do, however, stick to a mostly plant based diet. So there’s that.
My point is not to say I’m so great because I’m vegetarian and that all the meat-eaters are somehow bad friends to the earth. “Ethical eating” has a lot of facets, after all. My point is that I can do some things for the environment, like giving up meat, but not all the things, like giving up breathing. And the same goes for other people.
That’s how being responsible works when it comes to taking care of our relationships, too, especially our closest ones. Each relationship is unique. Not every friend can give me all the elements of friendship all the time. And it would be impossible for me to provide that to each of them.
In addition to inhalers, plastic straws have come under fire, especially in the last few years. But for some people with disabilities, straws are a daily necessity. And it’s not my job, or yours, to tell someone they can’t use one.
Policing others’ sustainability practices might feel like you’re being kind to the planet, but that’s not practicing compassion to people around you. None of us can tell just by looking at someone whether they need a straw — and frankly, it’s not our business.
Likewise, it’s not my job to tell people to eat bugs rather than beef or xeriscape their yard rather than water their lawn. If someone wants to live a greener life, that’s great, but their eco-friendly choices are up to them. Not me. And just because a method is deemed sustainable does not mean it’s always accessible or affordable.
Maybe you’re someone who constantly thinks about reducing your carbon footprint or you have a friend who does. It turns out, some people might simply be wired to lessen their impact on the environment.
A 2014 study found a “green” personality type. The study, which evaluated 345 adults in the U.S. for their earth-friendly behaviors, found that those who strived to reduce greenhouse gas emissions tended toward three of the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, and extraversion.
That means people who are open to new experiences, careful and responsible, and extroverted are more inclined to be stewards of the environment.
If this is you, remember that not everyone has the same mindset. Even if people want to do right, or better, by the environment, many are just learning what a carbon footprint really is, let alone how to reduce it.
It doesn’t mean they don’t care about the planet; it may just mean it doesn’t come as naturally to them at the start. For others, trying to reduce a carbon footprint is on the very low end of the to-do list for adulting. They may have other concerns that take precedent, such as getting to work on time or managing their mental health.
And if we learned anything from our inner child, making any kind of practice more difficult — or shaming someone for not doing enough — is a surefire way to make them not want to participate at all.
They don’t all have to be the same ways. Or all the ways. As your needs change and evolve, so will your life and your ways. Part of adulting is rolling with the punches and figuring out what works for you — and what doesn’t — so life isn’t just monotonous misery.
When a sustainability effort isn’t affordable or accessible or doesn’t make sense for your life, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed at being eco-friendly — or at being an adult, for that matter. Cut yourself some slack. Chances are there are plenty of other methods you haven’t tried and could slowly adopt, rather than thinking it has to be an all or nothing lifestyle.
You might have major compassion for our ailing planet, but don’t forget to have self-compassion too.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.