All or Nothing in Sustainability: Is it Worthwhile?

There is a pervasive belief amongst cultural discourse that for any of our sustainability efforts - avoiding animal based products, minimizing plastic use, supporting independent designers over big corps, etc- to be worth it, one must be doing 110%, completely eliminating any trace of a carbon footprint, and never ever ever falling back on any of these practices.

But is there credence to this “all or nothing” principle? Is it true that if you eat 100% vegan and shop at your local farmers market with your reusable bags, does an Amazon purchase negate all of that effort? Or if you make your own soaps and grow your own food, the second you make a purchase from Nike you might as well put a stamp on your forehead that says “climate destroyer”??


For one to get to the bottom of this argument, we must understand one thing above all: This is not a world where most have the luxury of going all or nothing with their principles. Be it the pervasiveness of animal based products in our every day necessities, the convenience factor of places like Amazon or local box stores, or the ultimate affordability of fast fashion retailers… Going all or nothing is extremely hard if not impossible for most, and you will drive yourself crazy nitpicking your every single move, which leads me to my main point: The all or nothing principle is actually counterintuitive to a happy and sustainably lived life, in that you will spend more time scrutinizing yourself and overthinking than will be worth it while it will remain unlikely that you can truly live sustainably in every single aspect.

One also must consider the abundance of conflicting information that inundates us constantly. Go vegan to help the environment - but almond milk and agave nectar are destroying habitats and communities! Shop at thrift stores to avoid fast fashion waste - but you’re driving the prices up! Recycle everything that you can - but most of what you put in your recycling bin ends up in the landfill anyways! Drive an electric car instead of gas - but they’re so resource and labor intensive that the carbon footprint is the same anyways!

All of this is to say that sometimes, even the actions we know to have positive impacts can and will likely still come with cons, and it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to live a life that isn’t impacting someone somewhere - no matter how sustainably lived that life is. This begs the question: What is the value in a 100% sustainable life if you’re unhappy because you’re constantly overanalyzing your every move? Being so worried about whether what you’re doing is right or wrong or positive or negative that you’re constantly in your own head, and can’t ever take a moment to indulge in a facet of life that brings you joy

But the opposite is true too - your life shouldn’t necessarily be all indulgences: to live a responsible, happy, and truly balanced life, one needs a healthy practice of discipline with an awareness of the consequences that their actions bring with them. Between all and nothing, we must find a middle ground that works for each of our own individual lives.

So how do we find that middle ground? Here are a few eco-conscious points to live by in an effort to live more sustainably:

Know the impacts of your choices
Be aware of both the positive and negative impacts your choices have, both in terms of impact on your direct/personal sphere as well as the unseen and easily ignored indirect sphere of the world outside. This applies to shopping habits, consumption habits, and general lifestyle habits.

Understand greenwashing and do your research into companies
Many major corporations today are aware of the growing concern for the climate crisis. In an effort to maintain business as usual and keep profits up, companies will use marketing tactics and false promises to make you believe that you’re supporting an eco friendly brand when in reality, any climate positive actions they may be doing are outweighed by egregiously harmful business practices, or worse, they may not be promoting what their image makes you believe at all. For example, name brand detergents quite literally using the color green and putting eco friendly buzzwords on their packages without changing the hazardous, non biodegradable chemical formula used in the product at all, or brands slapping “not tested on animals” with a cute bunny on their label without actually being leaping bunny certified.

Know what’s in and out of your control
Ending all climate, habitat, and community destruction is not within the power or responsibility of the average individual, which is why one needs to focus on the immediately accessible options for living a more sustainable life and making our world a better place to be. You might not be able to single handedly stop rainforest destruction, but you can check ingredient labels for palm oil before you make that purchase. You might not be able to put a stop to modern day slave labor in the fashion industry all by yourself, but you can choose to support local thrift organizations, support an independent designer, or learn to upcycle your own clothes.

Know what practices work best with your lifestyle and feel comfortable experimenting
It’s easy to be an idealist and plan to flip your whole life upside down in a day in the name of sustainability, but it’s way harder to do so in practice. Most people who make many dramatic changes all at once will fail very quickly and revert back to their old ways, which is why it’s much better to make small changes, one at a time, while focusing on the changes that make the most sense for you. If you eat meat every single day, instead of aiming to go vegan all at once, try implementing a few meatless meals throughout the week, or choosing a vegan protein instead of the whey protein you normally drink. If you’re often swamped with plastic grocery store bags, get a few reusable bags to keep in your car. Don’t feel bad about experimenting and failing until you find practices that work for you.

Practice discipline where you feel you need it
An uncomfortable yet necessary part of life is practicing discipline in order to better yourself and your surroundings. If you have a fast fashion shopping addiction, you do need to practice some discipline and reduce your consumption habits, if only little by little. If you’re on a meal kit subscription service, consider learning a few recipes that you can shop for and cook yourself to minimize plastic waste, food waste, and overall carbon footprint. Learning to sacrifice the convenience factor, even in small ways, can go a very long way for you.

Know that you’re not a bad person if you can’t yet give up one of your conveniences
It’s quite easy to find ways to beat yourself up if you can’t live up to one of the standards you view as being important for aiding the climate crisis. While you should be wary of making excuses for the sake of preserving convenience, you also shouldn’t take it out on yourself for things that are outside of your control, or practices that aren’t realistic or feasible for the lifestyle you live.

I want to mention that the takes detailed in this article are not the end all, be all, either. Some will find no trouble living a 90-100% sustainable lifestyle, and this may be due to many factors including, for example, privilege, location, or previous lifestyle habits. It’s also very important to mention that the main climate polluters are not the average individual: we are merely consumers at the hands of mega corporations who function with little if any regard for the destructive effects wreaking havoc on our one and only home, which is why it’s all the more important to be conscious of who you’re supporting and how you’re interacting with the world outside.

We are all a part of a coexisting ecosystem on this planet, and all of our choices have an impact - no matter how invisible the impact is to us. Live responsibly and consciously now to build a better future for tomorrow.