In my everyday life, I feel like I’m doing pretty well when it comes to the environment. Sustainability has been a huge part of my life for as long as I can remember, and it’s rare that I don’t make decisions with the planet in mind. Compared to most people I interact with on a daily basis, I know I am doing well on that front.
I grow a lot of our own produce, I hang dry my laundry, I walk and take the bus as much as is feasible for our current lives. We live in a smaller home and have made significant upgrades over time to make it greener. I bring a reusable coffee mug and water bottle at all times – I’ve completely done away with single use “to go” beverage containers. I haven’t bought a single piece of clothing or pair of shoes for myself in two and a half years. I’ve ditched disposable menstrual products and toilet paper for cloth alternatives.
That said, I still drive a car. I eat meat (even if most of it is ethically purchased from local farms). I buy my son the single serving nutrition drinks that he loves. I fly in an airplane a few times a year. And one of the big energy upgrades we made to our little home? It’s a 98% efficient furnace, but it’s still powered by natural gas.
The perfectionist guilt that comes with leadership
Before writing this blog, I considered myself to be a pretty decent environmentalist. Over time, I’ve pushed myself to make changes that are more and more in line with those beliefs. I biked and walked/ran to work often enough before I had my son, but plenty of things I do now are newer. I pay attention to the trash I create, especially single use plastics, to a much stricter level than a did when I was younger. And the decisions I make now that are harmful to the earth come with a whole lot of guilt.
Some of this guilt absolutely comes from the fact that climate change is here, and it’s just going to get worse. The irrevocable changes to this planet aren’t a future concern, they’re a now concern. And the longer we plod along slowly in pursuit of doing better, the worse it’s going to get. The best we can do now is work on damage control.
And yet? The biggest reason that I feel the burden of this guilt of non-perfect environmentalism is that I have somehow found myself a leader in the personal finance space when it comes to sustainability. I share the details of my clothing ban, I track my trash publicly, I write about how to travel more sustainably and how to make simple changes to your life to tread lighter on this earth.
Time and time again, I’m now called out as a “model” sustainability person, especially within the personal finance space. And that’s simply not true. I do things environmentally right maybe eighty percent of the time, but that means I fall flat the other twenty percent. Sometimes it’s because I just don’t know or it doesn’t cross my mind. But sometimes I’m fully aware, and I do it anyway.
Sometimes it’s because I’m tired. Sometimes because I don’t want to rock the boat (though often enough I do). Sometimes it’s just because I want to do or consume the thing, and too bad that it’s the wrong choice for the planet.
And if it wasn’t for the fact that I want to hold myself up to the standard of being a leader in this space, I think I could give myself a lot more grace about those choices. But when I know there are so many eyes on me, that I’m sharing my story in part to encourage people to make better choices, it feels extra heavy when I make the “wrong” ones. Or any choice that is less than perfect zero waste.
The beauty of “mostly” right
And yet, when I think about the advice I would give anyone else, I know that holding myself to that standard isn’t really fair. I’m human, I’m definitely not perfect, and I deserve to be able to accept those imperfections in myself. That doesn’t mean that I stop striving toward doing better, but that it’s okay that I’m not perfect now, nor will I ever be.
That extends well beyond the sustainability stuff. I’m not a perfect mother, or partner, or friend. I’m not perfect with money, or working out, or gardening, or decluttering (definitely not decluttering). But I’m working on being a better human in general, and that encompasses all of those things. And just like I would tell anyone else, doing things mostly right is pretty dang awesome.
Changing the world with “better,” not “perfect”
If everyone focused on doing things better – let’s say, eighty percent better – the world would look completely different. If we all chose to forego the disposable coffee cup four out of every five times. If we all cut out the unnecessary driving trip most of the time. If we skipped those new pair of shoes and the new pants – but bought that new jacket. If every single person with the means to do those things better – most of the time – our planet would be completely changed. (And, of course, big business would have to follow suit as well, because it’s not just up to individual actions)
I would so much rather inspire a hundred people to go out and switch their toilet for an ultra high efficiency one than inspire one person to go off grid and be net zero sewer (ie composting toilets, rainwater and gray water capture, etc). To be the reason that a thousand people finally remember to bring their water bottles and their coffee mugs when they are out and about. That impact is so much greater than being the reason that one person went full zero waste for a year.
And those hundred people, the thousand? Those smaller changes have the opportunity to grow into so much more. But if I’m going to really speak to doing things mostly right, then I need to let go of the burden of feeling that I need to be perfect.
Where do you land on sustainable actions? What inspires you best to do better?
52 thoughts on “I’m Not A Perfect Environmentalist – So How Can I Consider Myself A Leader?”
I think most people are willing to do what they can with what they have. So perfection is far too overwhelming. It’s like teaching. I don’t expect my students to write perfect papers (is there such a thing?) – I just want them to show growth over time based on their skill set. The same is true for life, I hope.
It’s always just so much easier to give that advice than to take it 🙂
I also struggle with perfection. I always have. It’s great that you recognize the struggle from within. For the longest time I didn’t realize this was a problem for me. For some reason now that I recognize it I am to push through it. I think you are doing great things in this space. Just keep being you. You don’t need to be a perfect version of you, just you. Cause we all know you are super amazing!
Yeah, it’s easy to get into the head space of thinking perfectionism is a virtue – now I’m thinking it’s more of a crutch than anything. Working on that for sure 🙂
Well I for sure think differently about my consumption since following you online! Not out of guilt or being shamed by the internet (because that doesn’t work), but because I can better see the importance of the little things I do and have made changes in my home and life. You’re awesome!
Oh thank you so much for this! Really appreciate you sharing 🥰
It is absolutely imperative that government makes the change and business follows suit or everything we do is futile….that being said these are the big ones for us to tackle
– Stop driving so much, our convenience and privilege factor creates a huge footprint
– Flying is the #1 worst thing we can do
– Recycling in most places just goes straight to the garbage, Reduce Reuse like you do is key
– Meat consumption needs to be massively cut due to the resource and carbon footprint it creates
Keep sharing the message Angela 🙂 While we might not get perfection it is crucial we do the work as my last blog article spoke.
Technically, having one fewer kid is bigger than flying I think 😉 But yeah. You know I agree with all of this. The high stakes part is definitely part of feeling the need for perfection.
I thought you might touch on the children topic down the road as you have such a large following in that demographic but 100% you are correct
The next guest post is all about that actually 😄
I completely agree with this! I’ve written a lot about food waste in the past, and I have a similar attitude about it. It’s really, really hard to get rid of that last 10-20% of food waste…but if most people in the world reduced their food waste by 80%, that would have an enormous impact.
Aiming for a big improvement instead of perfection feels more manageable and sustainable to most people anyway…and we want people to be in this for the long haul! Better to be 80% green-ish for the rest of your life than to try for 100% and then flame out in a few months.
The same advice is good for savings and personal finance in general, I think. Or perhaps, for most things in life 🙂
I think it’s so important to hear both messages: DO SOMETHING and also, doing something now is more important than waiting until you can do it perfectly because you’ll never do anything if so. (Much like with giving!!)
When I read about the things you do, I do review it against what we do and I see where we fall short but I also view it as areas we can choose from to do better rather than a flail of self-flagellation.
Thanks for that insight – and agreed. It is so easy to otherwise push things off until they’re “just right” instead of just getting started.
I personally feel that a “perfect” leader is harder to relate to. Perfection is simply unattainable. Any leader who tried to make us believe otherwise would only push us further away. It’s just too defeating to feel so far away from any goal. To preach that you can NEVER have slip ups, NEVER drive a car, NEVER purchase your kid his favorite drinks – it’s altogether too easy for anyone to just give up and say it’s too hard. I love that you keep it real, and don’t expect you to be 100% sustainable, but rather give me ideas of how to improve one small step at a time. And that’s just what you do =)
Thank you so much 🙂 And the nevers that emanate from the Internet make even me feel like I’m not nearly good enough, and I have to remember if I feel that way, I bet everyone else does too.
Angela! I feel exactly the same, and I’m only doing about 90% of what you do. I think part of being a leader/teacher is showing your real journey and how you yourself are learning as you go. We all learn along with you.
As always, I love reading your content. You inspire me to do better!
Thank you so much for sharing that! And one of these days I’ll share all the things I’m doing wrong… 🙈
I love this piece! It’s not about doing it perfectly but putting in the effort to do your part. 80% is fantastic. Can you imagine if everyone did that much? I have reusable straws for the kids which I use when I don’t forget them at home 😉
We finally got some reusable straws a couple weekends ago and so far we’ve done a good job remembering to take them with us – the kiddo is in love 🙂
I’m excited to read your thoughts on Drawdown – specifically where readers can focus their energy to get the biggest bang for their sustainability buck.
I’m currently reading The Story of Stuff but Drawdown is next!
I hear you, Angela. Being caught up in doing something perfectly gets in the way of progress frequently for me. I appreciate your inspiration though and your gentle informative nature gets me thinking differently at times (ahem, too much tape on cardboard boxes, for example). I find that I want to do better but sometimes I can’t get over the friction of changing something. Or I do change something to be more environmentally sustainable and it seems not worth it after testing something out on multiple occasions. There is a refill store in San Diego, for example and some of the products I’ve gotten frankly just suck and I’ve gone back to buying my Costco sized bottle of whatever because I know that it’s better than buying multiple small bottles but I get frustrated. Then you layer on the literal cost of going to a refill store – I spend 4-5X as much on the stuff. But then I remember that it’s on us – me, you, whomever can afford to spend more on products, to make those choices because we can and we MUST. Regardless, I appreciate your motivation because it does help nudge me in the right direction…. I thought of you on Friday when I brought my kiddo out for froyo and we brought our own bamboo spoons to eat it. We still used their waxy paper container to get our treats, but saved 2 more plastic spoons from going in the garbage. Keep preaching about the planet. We are listening.
It’s so easy to get overwhelmed feeling like you need to do all the things right all the time. I’ve never been to a refill store, but I love the idea. Don’t love the cost mark up you mention though…
Last time I went, I spent $89 on stuff that would have cost me no more than $20 but I am being generous with the markup because I didn’t get as much volume of shampoo and conditioner as I would have. They have rent to pay for their space and have to make a living off of the place, so I get it. I am just having a hard time committing to it after a 6 month trial period because I don’t love the products either. The ppl who own the place are super nice so I’m experiencing so much cognitive dissonance about it!
Yikes, that is a SERIOUS upcharge. The problem with that is that kind of spread makes it hard to ever go mainstream.
There’s no such thing as a “perfect environmentalist” in the Western world. We consume things, even the most conscious of us consume way more than a person in a 3rd world African country. It’d be impossible to live and not do it. The key is to set the example and try your best and you do that.
That’s very true. Hard to be “perfect” unless fully off grid homesteading, and then likely not even then. Even so, I’m definitely not even close to that 😉
Like Dave said, a zero waste home is nearly impossible to achieve in our society. I would say that your inspiration to others more than makes up for the 10-15% of improvement you’re struggling with. Our greatest impact comes from our ability to change the way others think and behave around the environment (or personal finance, for that matter). Keep leading the charge!
Thank you for that! And I will keep working on pushing the envelope for my home and others.
I appreciate this post, Angela. As other commenters pointed out, it is challenging to be a perfect environmentalist in the countries in which you, I, and most of your readers find ourselves. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try hard and prioritize it, but it does take more effort and awareness. If we don’t put that effort in now though and educate ourselves about more sustainable options, potential climate disasters could put us in situations far more challenging with a far steeper learning curve.
I have to admit that as someone who lives in a Florida tourist destination in which the combined storm water and sewer system can get overwhelmed if we get too heavy a rain leading the city to at least twice in the past 5 years dump the sewage waste into our Bay, I would LOVE to convert somebody in my town to a compost toilet, grey water system installation, and water catchment. Hopefully, there would be a ripple effect and that person would influence another person, who would influence another person -possibly leading to our city government subsidising the purchase and installation of compost toilets for those who wanted them (a girl can dream….).
I keep waiting for that wave of people making big changes – I’m hopeful that maybe, just maybe we’re getting closer to that.
We so struggle with this. We’re FAR from perfect and there are days where we take pride in our imperfections. But then there are the days where we feel like phonies for having not made the progress we believe we could’ve or not being better in other areas of our lives.
In particular, we want to be better environmentalists, treat our bodies better [wellness], spend more time being present and disconnected from tech and on and on and on. For what it’s worth, just know that you are making way more of a difference than you think you are. In fact, your influence on others and their subsequent actions are far greater than anything you could do on your own. Hang in there!
Logically? I absolutely know that – especially when it comes to the impact of my day job.
Emotionally? I always feel like I’m falling way short 🙂
Great post, Angela. Can’t sacrifice progress for perfection, otherwise nobody would do anything about anything. You ARE an example, keep rockin’!
Thank you!! And I absolutely agree – so easy to freeze up and do nothing otherwise.
Thank you for your authenticity in this post. My husband and I have been making a lot of changes in our life to become more “zero-waste” but we are also not perfect. We still keep a roll of paper towels around and use it more than we both like to admit, among other things. It’s hard not to feel guilty for those things, but I think you’re right, if we all got better at making good environmental decisions, the world would be very different! And I think it’s great that you share your advice on it because other people can model it and make those better choices too!!
I think that those gradual changes are the ones that are most likely to stick, anyway. Too many big ones and you’re likely just to revert back to old ways versus a gradual lifestyle shift.
Striving to be perfect is not humanly possible but working hard and doing your best is something we really appreciate and is key in inspiring others. Thank you Angela for doing that and making me more aware of cutting down on waste. You have certainly been an inspiration for all of us and you continue to do so.
I definitely appreciate getting the opportunity to be a leader in this space, and it makes my heart so happy to hear of the impact I’ve had.
I’m afraid I’m not very sustainable. I’m trying to make myself get back into cooking so that I can stop using the diet meals that come in single-service, plastic-laden containers. But so far, no go. But I don’t drive as much as the average person, I have my own water bottle and I try to be careful about recycling. Unfortunately, that’s about it. I know I should try harder — especially with cooking — but I’m such a picky eater that it gets exhausting just contemplating what I want to eat. But the easy way is usually not the right way so…
And if that’s the hardest thing for you to change, maybe there are other changes that would be simpler and make as much or more of an impact? I’m thinking maybe a toilet swap? 🙂
I sometimes wonder if this translates over to to healthcare. I broke my elbow when I was in high school several years back and had a pin put in to support it after surgery. It is often optional do remove the hardware after surgery. Every once and a long while I overdo it at the gym or weather causes some slight aching. I have been told if I have the pin taken out it ‘could’ help with the pain because ‘sometimes’ the pins are the cause. It seems to me this service is more of an elective decision since the pain is so infrequent.
I am certainly not advocating for delayed care where it doesn’t make sense, but it does seem like our overuse of the healthcare system may be part of the problem with pricing, etc. My wife is from Canada and I get the impression my elbow scenario fix would be slow or maybe not even approved up there. Here, I could have it taken out next week if I wanted to. The financial and other resources to have a hospital on standby ready to make that happen in a short turn around (if I wanted) are pretty significant. That may or may not make any sense!
PS: I somehow broke my other elbow on a trail run two years ago, so maybe I am the problem.
Ouch! Breaking elbows sounds majorly painful.
I completely connect with this article. I always try to remember that it’s better to have a hundred people practicing sustainability imperfectly, than to have one person practicing it perfectly.
Hard to remember sometimes when you’re beating yourself up about not being perfect 🙂
Accepting that we are human and can’t live up to all the internal and external expectations is one of the hardest things we are tasked with in this life!
Know that because of your influence so many of us have sustainability at the forefront of our minds instead in the background. I find myself constantly thinking about things we can change around the house to be a tad be kinder to our planet.
So much easier to be kind and understanding of others than of yourself! 🙂
Thanks Angela, for sharing this significant point with all readers! I agree with you that having more people taking more environmentally-friendly actions is the way towards making a real difference in our world. For example, at his workplace my hubby set up a recycling box for used household batteries. A few days ago, he happily took 11 pounds of batteries to be recycled. Yes, he drives, but that doesn’t mean he can’t encourage battery recycling. We all can and need to do what we can for our environment!
Awesome!! Battery recycling is one that gets left out of the conversation quite often.
Loved reading the article and all of the comments. This is something I am writing about also. It caught by attention, because I was feeling a little imposter syndrome. Like what do I know. I am not doing everything myself. Thanks I needed that reality check. That I can’t do it all, but I can do something. I see this blog was written just before Covid. hit. I would be very interested to see how we coped during that time. You have some awesome followers. thanks
Appreciate the kind words – and glad they resonated!