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Interview with Sustainabalex

A fun discussion on her journey to achieving a zero-waste lifestyle, the challenges of social media, and goals for the future!

Sustainable Living Qs

1. What does sustainable living mean to you?

For me, living sustainably entails adopting consumption habits that impose the smallest possible impact on the planet. There is a spate of evidence pointing to the negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture, overconsumption and plastic pollution. In light of that evidence, I’m vegan and a minimalist, produce very little trash, and shop almost exclusively secondhand. The way I see it, if I am not dedicating my life’s work to mitigating the climate crisis (which, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I would have labelled as the most pressing world issue), I should live in such a way that minimizes my contribution thereto.

2. How long have you been on your sustainable journey and what inspired you to start?

I’ve been engaging in some of the behaviours mentioned above for years, but not necessarily out of concern for the environment. For instance, I went vegetarian in 2013 and subsequently vegan in 2016, but those changes were initially out of concern for animal welfare. Yet as I learned of the environmental cost of eating animals and their by-products, the environment rose to the forefront of my decision to remain vegan.

The tipping point of my so-called sustainability journey was in April of 2019 when the Ontario government challenged Canada’s federal carbon tax in court, claiming it to be unconstitutional. I was upset and honestly quite frustrated that my provincial government was fighting against a measure aimed to nudge individuals and corporations to make meaningful reductions to their carbon emissions - reductions that would only begin to keep worldwide emissions within the UN’s 1.5oC warming target by 2030. At that point I had just completed a M.A. in Economics and committed to a Ph.D.; had I not made that commitment, I likely would have looked for work in the environmental sector. So instead of dedicating my career to the environment, I dedicated my spare time to on one hand ramping up my efforts to mitigate my carbon footprint, and on the other to encourage others to do the same. That’s when I committed to a minimal and low-waste lifestyle and began my sustainabalex Instagram account.

3. What has been the biggest challenge on your journey to sustainable living?

Giving up animal products was not that tough for me: even as a kid, I was never a huge fan of meat. Reducing my waste was relatively more difficult. For example, I used to buy 12-packs of individually-wrapped vegan protein bars every week. When I committed to reducing my waste, I had to reconsider many consumption habits I took for granted, from the food I ate to the bathroom products I used.

The second hurdle to reducing my waste was a mental one. I was initially under the impression that low-waste swaps would be inaccessible and much more expensive. I was pleased to be proven wrong: bulk food is often less expensive than its packaged counterpart as you are not paying for the materials and advertising that go into the packaging, and stores with bulk sections are surprisingly common. It only took about a month or two for low-waste living to become second nature to me.

4. The first step in participating in a sustainable lifestyle may seem daunting, what would you recommend as a way to get started?

To answer this question I will appeal to my economics background. One thing microeconomists know to be true is that the more costly an activity is, the less likely an individual is to engage in it. This “cost” may be a literal financial cost, but it may also embody the slightly more nuanced toll of exerting mental or physical effort.

With this insight in mind, and making the (reasonable) assumption that adopting a new habit is more costly than modifying an existing one, I often recommend people begin by addressing an existing behaviour instead of attempting to undertake a new one. In my experience, many people are much more open to reducing their impact by, for instance, improving their recycling habits or reducing their food waste than eating less meat or buying unpackaged goods, as the former two habits incorporate activities that they already engage in.

5. In your opinion what is the biggest barrier in starting sustainable living?

I want to emphasize that making sustainable changes to your consumption habits should not be viewed as an all-or-nothing activity. Many people falsely perceive sustainable living as a dichotomy - either you’re fully vegan or you’re not; either you can fit years’ worth of your trash into a jar or you can’t - and hesitate to make small or gradual changes for fear that these measures will not have a large enough impact. In that sense, I believe the biggest barrier to be overcoming the mental hurdle of believing that you have to go all-in, or else you’re not doing enough. One of my favourite quotes on this topic is, “You cannot do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good you can do.” In other words, everyone needs to be a part of the solution to the climate crisis, and no action is too small or too late to count.

Social Media Qs

1. Can you introduce your social media platforms, and talk about what inspired you to start it?

As mentioned earlier, in early 2019 I came to the realization that I needed to ramp up my sustainability efforts; that’s when I started my sustainabalex Instagram account. About a year later I started my website/blog. I write weekly blog posts in which my goal is to provide readers with background information about an environmental issue (overconsumption, waste disposal, food waste, etc.) and leave them with easily-implementable tips to minimize their contribution to the issue. On my website I also have resource pages to educate readers about the true footprint of activities we take for granted, and links to programs and companies that make sustainable living easier for consumers.

2. So far what has your experience been like using instagram and your blog?

Instagram is great because it’s a very widely-used app with a lot of traffic, so I can anticipate to reach a wider audience. However, one can only communicate so much information in a photo caption or story, which is why I like coupling my Instagram posts with a blog post. The blog posts are not that long (typically less than a 5min read), but they allow me to provide a more comprehensive overview of the topic at hand and tips to address it.

Promoting myself on Instagram has been a learning process in which, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve done well so far. The influencing I’m trying to do is different from traditional influencing: I’m not trying to sell a brand or a product, but rather communicate valuable scientific facts and convince viewers that they must act to prevent an ecological crisis. Yet I’ve adopted some influencer-esque behaviours - such as attempting to take “aesthetic” photos - as I’ve found that those tend to draw the most attention. It’s also been difficult balancing Instagram and blog posts with my Ph.D. work; many influencers do well because that’s their full-time job. I wish convincing people to adopt sustainable lifestyles were as simple as posting an unedited, candid picture and stating some facts, but on Instagram people are drawn pretty things so I’ve had to cater to that preference.

3. What are your goals for your platform in the next year or two?

I’m hoping to continue my weekly blog posts, although I anticipate that this will become more challenging in the coming months as my Ph.D. work ramps up. I’m hoping that, despite my increased workload, I manage to reach a larger audience over the next year or two and successfully encourage my readers to make meaningful changes to their consumption habits.

4. You’ve mentioned studying social media for your PhD research, what direction would you like to take this research?

To clarify, I am interested in the mechanism which drives social influence and not social media per se. In behavioural economics, there is a theory which posits that individuals evaluate gains and losses relative to a neutral reference point, and negative deviations from that point (i.e., losses) are perceived more strongly than gains of equal magnitude. Economists have yet to develop a convincing theory of how reference points are determined, and I believe that social influence has a larger role to play in this than the current literature suggests. I’m hoping the insights from my research on this topic will help me to understand how to effectively communicate the realities of the climate crisis and successfully convince individuals to change their behaviour in order to address it.

5. Do you have any critiques/comments on the way sustainable lifestyles are portrayed on social media currently?

From what I’ve seen, I’m not the only sustainable living advocate who has felt the need to post aesthetic photos in order to attract viewers’ attention. But beyond this, it bothers me when other bloggers advocate for buying new, so-called sustainable living products instead of encouraging viewers to use what they have, buy the product secondhand, or even not buy it at all (seriously, who needs a tongue scraper?). This ties back to the notion that “pretty” posts - or in this case, posts with “pretty” new products - get more attention, even though buying new, unnecessary stuff contributes to the overconsumption problem I’ve written about on my blog. In the future, I hope to see other sustainable living advocates favour using what you have and shopping secondhand, and emphasize that buying new items should be a last resort.

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