Updated: Jul 7, 2020
To continue my I Can’t Go Zero-Waste article series, I will be deep-diving into 8 common reasons why it is hard to make impactful lifestyle choices. For each one, I’ll tackle it from both a zero-waste and vegan standpoint and provide useful tips and tricks for you to try along the way.
Zero-waste, minimalism, veganism, sustainable living… all of these seem like a rich, white person thing to do, don’t they? Well, surface level, yes, I’d agree that they can be expensive than the “standard” consumer-based American lifestyle.
But once you get to the bare bones of it all, you’ll find out that you're saving more money than you’d think.
Why the High Price?
So many zero-waste, low-waste, or even “green” products have a high price tag that can boil down to a few key factors:
They’re meant to last longer.
You are paying the actual price for the materials, labor, and distribution.
You’re only going for aesthetics, not functionality.
Consumer Warning: If there is an obviously high mark-up that is making a product outrageously expensive and you can't figure out why, it is more than likely “greenwashing.” Meaning, it isn’t actually eco-friendly, and you don’t want to buy that product because it’s a scam exploiting the environmental movement.
Products Are Meant to Last Longer
One of the many types of items that those transitioning to a low-waste lifestyle want to invest in is "reusables." These often fit into the realm of food storage containers, reusable cloths/towels, cleaning supplies, and others.
These reusables tend to have a pretty high price tag attached to them too!
One of the many reasons this is true is because when something is intended to last say... maybe the rest of your life, it needs to be made from durable materials. Companies will not be able to cut corners here. It needs to be top-notch.
Take this example regarding paper towels. When we buy paper towels, they're meant to be single-use. We clean with them and then throw them in the trash-- goodbye! Then, we have a product like FinalWipe, a reusable wipe meant to replace paper towels, Clorox wipes, and the like. A pack of six paper towels will be cheaper upfront, but they aren't meant to last as long and they won't have as many uses.
If you buy a 6-pack of Bounty paper towels from Walgreens, Wal-Mart, or most grocery stores, you’ll be paying at least $12.00. Depending on the size of your family and frequency of use, let’s say that package lasts you about one month.
$12 per month for paper towels = $144 per year
Instead, you could purchase a dozen or so wash clothes, bar rags, or FinalWipes for $15-50 that will last you a minimum of 5 years.
$15-50 for a one-time purchase = paper towel reusable for 5+ years
$144 per year for paper towels = $720 for 5 years
You’d save $670 in 5 years, even if you went with the more expensive reusable paper towel option.
Then you have other items like deodorant. Recently, I’ve started using crystal mineral rock deodorant that can cost anywhere from $4-20 per stick. That may seem expensive, but when you look at a popular deodorant brand like Degree, they’re selling their deodorants for at least $4-6 per stick. On average, one stick of Degree deodorant will last about a month. High-quality crystal rock deodorant sticks should last one year with daily use.
This same idea applies to commonly disposable items like:
Ziploc Bags vs. Stasher Bags
Bottled Water vs. a Water Filter + refillable water bottle
Dryer Sheets vs. a Dryer Ball
Toilet Paper vs. Bidet
Hand and Dish Soap Bottles vs. Refillable Containers
You’re Paying The Actual Price
One major issue within our globalized economic system is that we always seem to find ways to cut corners in order to make things cheaper with a general disregard of the ecological footprint. When you look at the entire lifespan of a product, we must consider the cost from start to finish, not just customer purchase to trash pick up day.
Fast fashion is an excellent example of this. When we buy clothes, we often are looking for the best deal that is both functional and fashionable. This means we probably gravitate towards synthetic material hybrids that include plastics and non-organic cotton blends. The most affordable clothing items will also almost always be made in a foreign country by overworked and underpaid laborers.
All of this only to have a shirt that after 6-10 washes are faded, broken a seam, or even changed sizes. (Not to mention all the ecological and human exploitation along the way)
When companies and manufacturers can cut back costs by buying cheap materials like non-organic cotton and pay slave wages to workers, of course, it will be less expensive than organic cotton, ethically sourced and produced, carbon-neutral clothing.
When we are paying the actual cost of the materials and the labor to produce the items, no matter the item, it will surprise us. We are used to searching for discount items for the benefit of our pocketbooks, but this habit has us overlooking larger issues for our short term gain.
Instagram influencer, zero-waste blogger, or magazine-worthy aesthetics have flooded the zero-waste movement with a consumeristic lens. We are bombarded with perfect ideals of how your zero-waste life should look, while most people avoid talking about the less photogenic sides of zero-waste.
Things like matching glass food storage container sets, copious amounts of mason jars, and even reusable straws are unnecessary and flaunt the idea that looks trump functionality, defeating the purpose of being low-waste.
To be a frugal zero-waster, you have to be okay with imperfect things and not having everything match. By making do with what you have and thrifting what you can, you will be hard-pressed to fit into the quintessential "instagramable" mold of zero-waste aesthetics.
The good news is that since going zero-waste is a deeply personal process of self-discovery, finding systems and low-waste functions for your belongings can be an exciting part of it all. It may take some trial and error, but once you get past being perfect, it becomes a much easier journey.
Pro Tip: If you're just starting out your zero-waste journey, consider taking a break from social media in an effort to "minimize" your life. This will help you focus on you in a more targeted and direct manner without the influence of others.
Less is More
The way you perceive the world can alter your perception of being zero-waste from the beginning. You can be cynical and a perfectionist about everything and things may end up being more expensive up front forcing you to revert to old habits. This is why a part of being zero-waste means transitioning your mindset toward minimalism.
Start shifting your mindset to a "less is more" mentality.
A pinnacle part of the zero-waste movement is an anti-capitalist view. When you refuse to buy something, you are voting with your dollar and boycotting something you do not support (i.e. plastic). Within anti-capitalism, you have anti-consumerism, which encourages you to buy less or only buying what you need.
To successfully live low waste affordably, you have to buy less stuff. It’s as simple as that. After all, zero-waste living and minimalism are not new ideas, we've just been told differently our entire lives.
Do What You Can, When You Can
Now, if you go into zero-waste by purging all of your plastic and buying brand new reusables all at one time, of course, it will be expensive! The secret to success when transitioning to low-waste, sustainable living is to take it slow and do what you can, when you can.
First, you should be using what you already have. I mean, you’ve already paid for it, so don’t feel bad for using it just because it is plastic. When you’ve used it up or need to replace it, buy something more sustainable and durable.
Another part of using what you have includes reusing containers. Going full-on zero-waste cold turkey is a recipe for disaster. Only a few people will be able to pull that off. You’re inevitably going to continue to buy containers, especially when it comes to food packaging. So, if you can, reuse them as a replacement for Tupperware, storage containers, or even to keep jars as cups. You’ll then know you can recycle them when they’ve reached the end of their life with you.
Second, buy secondhand and thrift as much as possible. It is tempting to want to buy new for aesthetic reasons and time restrictions. Still, finding ways to fit in shopping at thrift stores, rummage sales, online market places, or even asking friends can save you a ton of money, and give something old a new life. Thrifting can also fill the void for those that love to shop.
Third, repurpose items as much as possible. One fun repurposing project I worked on a few months ago was turning old shirts into reusable product/bulk bin bags. Not only do projects like this give you a fun activity to do, but it saves you money and will divert trash from the landfill.
Lastly, invest in high-quality items when you can afford it. Take time to research, ask questions, and compare options before you go out and buy something. Impulse buying because it “looks” like a sustainable alternative isn’t always going to work out, and it keeps you trapped in a consumeristic mindset.
If you need a reusable, weigh all the options, find out if it is ethically made, and see if there is someone that can give a firsthand review of the product. Remember, once you own it, you want it to last. It is meant to be reused for, sometimes, the rest of your life. So, spending a bit more money upfront in those instances will save you money in the long run, but depending on your life situation, you may need to save and budget to be able to afford it.
Next Article in the Series: Being Vegan is Too Expensive