I’m a treehugger. For four years, my day job has been campaigning at environmental organizations. I’ve carried a clipboard and begged strangers to sign petitions, marched in demonstrations against climate change, and even dressed up in a hazmat suit to protest oil drilling. (That’s me cleaning the stuffed dolphin. That’s also me looking miserable behind a very poised and not-sweaty Kate Walsh. Sometimes life isn’t fair.)
I’ve lived as an environmentalist much longer than I’ve worked as one. Every day, I try to live as simply and sustainably as I can. But that’s not always so easy. Very few of us are lucky enough to live exactly as we want to. There’s always money, time, and other people getting in the way. And if you’re a teenager, those other people are probably your family, who also (if you’re lucky) pay for almost everything in your life. Which is great, but how can you live a sustainable life when your parents drive you around in a gas-guzzling SUV while blasting the A/C and chugging bottled water like there’s no tomorrow?
It’s not going to be easy, but you can make a difference, even when the odds are stacked against you. Here’s my three-step process to living an eco-friendly lifestyle while living with other less eco-friendly people:
Step One: Reach people where they are.
Most people are willing to admit that our environment is messed up, but they don’t want to take responsibility. Sometimes it’s because they can’t, or choose not to, see the big picture (“It’s those other people causing this mess!”), or they feel helpless about big problems. It’s easier to ignore what’s happening, or assume that one person’s actions can’t make a difference.
Everyone hates being told what to do, and parents/caregivers probably hate it even more because they’re used to telling you what to do. This is a very frustrating phenomenon when you know that YOU’RE RIGHT and THEY’RE WRONG, but you just have to accept it and find a better way to make your argument. The important thing to remember is that they’re not entirely wrong. One person is a drop in the bucket when there are seven billion of us fouling the planet. Your small efforts to live better won’t singlehandedly turn back climate change, and that piece of litter you accidentally dropped isn’t going to wipe out a species. But making small changes for the better does make a small difference in the world, and could make a big difference in your life.
You can start by explaining small-seeming changes to your family (“We need to cut up six-pack rings so animals don’t get caught in them!”). And: If you’re living sustainably, you’re living simply. You’re not using as much stuff, you’re making more things from scratch, you’re buying from your own community…these things have the added side effects of making you feel good AND saving money. And that’s where you’re going to reach your parents (if your parents are wealthy or not budget-conscious, maybe skip to the next step, or try to sell them on “feeling good”). Your parents probably already care a little bit about conserving electricity and heating/cooling, because they pay for that. I give you permission to lecture—just a little—when your siblings stand in front of the refrigerator for ages or open a window while while the A/C or heat is running. Your parents will take your side on this one!
The cost of all your disposable household items adds up, both in price and in the size of your town’s landfill. There are all sorts of reusable, or longer-lasting, alternatives out there. Another easy suggestion that will make everyone happy is to introduce your parents to LED light bulbs. These are a little pricier than other types of bulbs, but they last practically forever. And at the moment, they’re the most energy-efficient option out there. Cloth napkins make every meal feel fancy, and cut down on your family’s napkin/paper towel budget. Better yet, start dusting and mopping up spills with old cloths (old socks, ratty towels) or buy some microfiber cleaning cloths, and you can cut out paper towels entirely! Are your parents bottled-water addicts? All those single-use bottles are terrible for our planet, and expensive. Buy a couple of reusable bottles, and keep them in the fridge if you like chilled water. Remind everyone to take a bottle with them before you go out for a long day—they might roll their eyes at you, but will appreciate it when they don’t have to pay $4 for water at a concession stand.
Basically, anything that will save your family money in the long run is fair game here. It’s still going to be a series of small battles—especially if you’re asking your parents to pay more up front for a reusable item. You’ll have to start slowly and replace things one by one, but once your house is stocked, people will use them! Which leads to my next point…
Step Two: Set the scene.
People want to do what’s easy. You can talk about climate change until you’re blue in the face, but unless your family is already eco-conscious or willing to listen (in which case, you don’t need this article!) you’re probably not going to convince them to do more than turn off the lights when they leave the room. So instead of telling everyone why they’re doing everything wrong, make it easy for them to do it right. This is going to require a little extra work up front for you, but in the end, everyone will benefit.
Buy some canvas shopping bags at the store (or, again, convince whoever does the shopping to buy some for you). They’re pretty cheap, so it’s a small thing to ask, and your family’s shoppers will soon grow to love them. Seriously, I’ve never met anyone who tried out a reusable grocery bag and hated it. Three or four plastic shopping bags worth of groceries will fit in one canvas bag, AND it’s easier to carry than traditional plastic or paper. There’s literally no downside (maybe making sure they’re clean. But that’s it).
But remember, PEOPLE ARE LAZY. My mom (who is only lazy in this respect and is otherwise a perfect human being who always reads her daughter’s work—I love you, Mom!) owns like 12 reusable grocery bags. And they’re all either full of random stuff or lost in the bottom of a closet. They only make it to the grocery store when I’m there to remind her. Likewise, it very well might be up to you, as the person who cares, to make sure these bags end up back in the trunk after shopping. Just do it—it’ll be worth it knowing that your family isn’t contributing to the turtle-choking plastic bag epidemic.
And setting the scene doesn’t end with bags. There’s so much more you can do that will make your house environmentally friendly, and your parents’ lives easier. Want to make your own eco-friendly cleaning supplies? Go for it! It saves your family money, and no one will complain about you taking an interest in the household chores.
How about setting up a compost bin? You might catch some resistance for this if you live in an apartment, but it’s a no-brainer if you have a yard, or even just a balcony. Just ask everyone to put their apple cores, eggshells, and carrot shavings in a special bucket, and then dump it in a bin outside at the end of the day. They’re going to throw all that away anyway, and if you’re the one taking care of the bin, it’s zero extra work for everyone else.
And now that you’ve got a compost bin helping to create some soil, you might as well start a vegetable garden! Depending on how much you plant, this one could be a little work, but gardening is one of my favorite chores. There’s something so satisfying about picking a pepper or tomato off a plant that YOU GREW, and I swear food tastes more delicious that way too. BONUS: This is how you sneakily make your family eat more local, organic vegetables—how could they not, when their own flesh and blood put so much work into it?
At this point, you’ve probably noticed that I’m telling you to do everything. Sorry about that. The sad truth is, if your family doesn’t care about something, you can’t MAKE them care. My family is pretty good about humoring me and letting me go off and be a crazy environmentalist, but I know they still use plastic bags when I’m not around. (MOM! The grocery bags are RIGHT by the door!)