Progress, not perfection – taking steps to a more sustainable lifestyle

By Charlotte Wood

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the changes needed to our lives, in order to live more sustainably? I can definitely relate to this. I really want to be ‘better’, more eco-conscious, but it feels so time consuming researching all the options and cost factors to consider, that I often end up doing…nothing!

Chatting recently with a group of local business owners on Instagram Live, a series put together by Emma Smith @LOS Social Ltd, we discussed how small, incremental changes can have a powerful, snowballing effect. Even the tiniest shift in our routine or perspective can benefit our quality of life. Achievements, however modest, are always motivating.

We know that individual actions aren’t enough to halt or reverse climate change. The obesity crisis in the UK can’t be solved simply or quickly. One person’s efforts can never have the massive impact that multinational food-producing corporations could make on these two issues. Still, we can incorporate small changes to our day-to-day lives that will make a difference, even if they are subtle.

“Incremental change is better than ambitious failure.” – Tal Ben-Shahar

This simple quote is so accurate – and it applies to many aspects of our life – sustainability, the environment, well-being, and financial and personal success.

Well-being and the environment are closely linked and very close to my heart. I’ve been making small lifestyle changes using the well-known maxim of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. We know that cutting back on meat and eating a more plant-based diet may help weight management and protect against heart disease and certain cancers. Eating less meat in favour of plants may also have beneficial environmental impacts. These are some of the small changes I’ve made; ones that fit easily into family life:

  • swapping out nasty chemical cleaners for environmentally friendly, natural products
  • ordering from the local dairy and having milk delivered in returnable bottles
  • reducing the quantity of meat my family eats
  • researching and building on my knowledge of sustainable investment options for my clients
  • avoiding single-use plastics
  • shopping with the environment in mind and avoiding over-packaged products

There can be significant positive changes when individuals and organisations focus on the environment. If a typical household halved what is thrown away, it could reduce the amount going to landfill by half a tonne each year; so, if every home in the UK halved its waste, there would be 14,000,000 tonnes less rubbish going to landfill every year.

The impact of money we’re not spending

Our quest for positive change should also consider the impact of the money we’re not spending—our investments and pensions.

If you have investments and pensions, you can reflect your ethical and environmental views with your fund choices, no matter how big or small. Historically, investing ethically was aligned with lower investment growth. The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated that this is nonsense. As we would expect with significant global events, the investment markets did drop significantly for a while, and we experienced some volatility in the UK. However, what’s interesting is that the companies that weathered the storm were investing in green energy projects, plant-based foods etc. So, although there may be historical value to the ‘ethics means less growth’ argument, we know that is no longer the case. As consumers, we are driving demand.

Positive action

Most of us have been signed up for an employer or workplace pension at some time. Here, I’m talking about normal defined contribution pensions, and you know you have those if you receive statements that say, ‘your pension is worth £x amount’. That statement will also tell you how your money is invested. Generally, unless you have made an active decision, you’ll be invested in a default fund, often called a managed fund.

That fund will be composed of a diverse range of 20-30 underlying companies, but default funds are unlikely to be focused on sustainability.

Have a conversation with your pension provider and find out what sustainable investment options (if any) they have available within your scheme. Some will have a minimal range and may not have sustainable alternatives, and some may have a wide range. Whilst your pension provider won’t give you advice, they may be able to nudge you in direction of funds more aligned with your aims. It’s also important to consider your appetite for investment risk and how long it might be until you need access to your pension savings.

Supporting companies with an ethical ethos and environmental focus can be a more powerful mechanism for positive change than other small steps we can take as an individual.

Going ‘cold turkey’

When we tackle an aspect of life we want to change, it’s normal to begin with energy and enthusiasm and for our initial exuberance to wane over time. We all know that going ‘cold turkey’ is rarely a successful strategy. Radical change is unsustainable.

Small business owner Rachel Gilbert, founder of The Life Enricher, explains that we need the same nutrients as our earliest human ancestors, but our environment and food options have changed dramatically. We’re not to blame, and we must challenge our thinking that all fats and sugars are bad and calorie counting is healthy.

I’ve added Rachel’s suggestions to my hit list of achievable, positive steps toward better health and wellbeing:

  • Minimise your food decisions with menu planning. Know what you’re going to eat and when, and shop with a list. You’re less likely to make poor choices if you have well-chosen, nutritious food in the fridge.
  • Aim for 30 different plant portions per week. If this sounds like a crazy number, break it down – try adding 10 fruits, 10 vegetables and 10 salad items or pulses to your menu plan and shopping list.
  • Eat 80% whole foods. This meansanything that is as nature intended and unprocessed.
  • Avoid ultra-processed food. Rachel suggests that if your grandparents wouldn’t recognise a packaged product as nutritious food, don’t buy or eat it!

And my top tip… start now! Every small step forward is a foundation for more significant, meaningful change.

“How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” – Anne Frank

What small changes will you make to improve your well-being? Share your thoughts; I’d love to know.

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