The True Cost of Sustainable Living

Throughout my journey towards sustainability, I have heard dozens of excuses from others about why they couldn't possibly live a more sustainable life. The most common was: "It's too expensive". And don't get me wrong, I completely understand why, at first glance, it can seem that way, but today we're going to be busting that myth.

I have been trying to reduce my impact for just over three years now. I was raised fairly sustainably, but it wasn't until I realized how much of an impact I have on the Earth, that I decided to double down. I realized that I spend less money now than when I was a mindless consumer. I deeply feel that sustainable living is inexpensive and that there is a huge misconception around that lifestyle.

To compare “sustainable living” and “standard living” as objectively as I could, I adopted a very practical approach to budgeting.

Why Do I Believe Sustainable Living is Inexpensive?

My consumption and my spending drastically decreased so I use the extra dollars on products and services that I know are sustainable. To me, sustainability cannot be expensive if learned and applied it correctly. Unfortunately, we understand it wrong due to several factors.

  • Social media and media pressure give a wrong image of sustainability. They push us to over-consume and make us crave what we do not have.

  • Greenwashing convinces us that we need a green alternative (or two!) for every single product we should give up. For instance, you do not need 10 organic, vegan, cruelty-free skincare products daily, even though they come in recycled packaging. The same conclusion for reusable straw: do you need them?

  • Misinformation spreads much faster than scientific peer-reviewed articles. Data and figures around the impact of fashion (read more here) are all over the internet. It often encourages us to take massive actions, such as a total wardrobe makeover, which creates far more waste, than slowly increasing the number of sustainable garments you own. Buying from ethical brands that manufacture their garments in upcycled nylon might seem like a great idea, but we later learn they release microplastic in water which ends up polluting our oceans (read more here). It's important to take a step back and look at your actions in a holistic sense.

  • Society itself still shares the wrong messages and expects us to look beautiful and successful while being sustainable. Success could be defined by how many green alternatives we own and how many eco-resorts we visited. I encourage you to read Why Women Will Save the Planet by Friends Of The Earth. A few chapters give a very understandable definition of green economies and explain why there are no other suitable alternatives. I believe that if we truly desire to be sustainable, we need to review our fundamental values and define our success based on intrinsic satisfaction. In his book, There Is No Planet B Mike Berners Lee shares a good list of skills we should develop to face challenges, including mindfulness.

If we go past misinformation, greenwashing, media, and societal pressure by educating ourselves and doing some inner work, sustainable living no longer appears to have such a hefty price tag.

Let's Do the Math!

Although the previous statement makes a lot of sense to me, the proof is necessary! I decided to analyze the spending patterns of a "normal" (unsustainable) lifestyle, a sustainable lifestyle as pictured by the media, and a real sustainable lifestyle.

I included the spending categories as defined by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics and focused on the categories that I believe are affected by the level of sustainability we adopt.

While I wanted to find peer-reviewed research clearly stating the money implications of a sustainable lifestyle, these were impossible to find. Besides, researchers still lack some data and time to conduct proper studies. For instance, we cannot measure the medical treatment savings generated by sustainable living yet as a few generations are necessary to gather a reliable data sample.

So, I used my common sense (and lots of Google searches...) and a color code to analyze the spending variations between the three lifestyles.

The color code is as follows:

  • In dark green: costs that are a lot lower compared to the "normal" lifestyle

  • In light green: costs that are lower than the "normal" lifestyle’s costs

  • In white: costs are the same compared to the "normal" lifestyle

  • In orange: costs that are higher compared to the "normal" lifestyle

  • In red: costs that are a lot higher compared to the "normal" lifestyle

To be able to do the math, I assigned numbers to colors: dark green: -2; light green: -1; white: 0; orange: +1; red: +2 and finally I summed them up.

Here are the results of my work :

After doing the analysis and the math, I found that a sustainable lifestyle as pictured on Instagram is more expensive (+5) than a normal lifestyle while a “real” sustainable lifestyle is a lot cheaper (-12). After doing that research as objectively as I could with the data I could gather, I did find that a sustainable lifestyle is not more expensive than a traditional one. The well-known impression that it must be more expensive is based on misconceptions and misinformation.

I hope that this post will put an end to the ‘sustainable living is expensive’ myth and encourage people to take the leap and join the sustainable revolution.

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