A misconception I’ve often heard about the zero-waste, vegan, and many other social justice movements is that it is too hard, or you have to give up too much. And therefore I won't even try it.
While I do not deny that many of these lifestyle changes have their challenges, before we let those challenges stop us from making positive change, we need to reevaluate the core of these beliefs.
I don’t want anyone to think that I’m writing this to shame anyone. That is far from the point. My goal is to shed some light on the hurdles in our thought processes that we have to overcome when we start our zero-waste journey, lead more sustainable consumer choices, and integrate new ways of thinking about consumption and exploitation.
The All or Nothing Mentality
All or nothing thinking is recognizable in multiple aspects of our life, but I find it especially prevalent when it comes to movements like environmentalism and veganism.
Psychologically speaking, when we see the world through the lens of “all or nothing” thinking, all of our actions will either be absolutely perfect or a complete disaster. With this set of life rules, there is very little room left for compromise or compassion.
“All or nothing” thinking has also been referred to as seeing the world in “black and white,” leaving no room for gray areas. Meaning, everything must be logical, cut and dry, and based upon a textbook definition.
Unfortunately, I believe that these types of thinking are taught to us. We are taught to see failure as something to be scoffed at and not something to be learned from. Our sense of self often comes from our successes, but we will quickly dismiss all of the failings that brought us to our success.
When applied to sustainability and a zero-waste lifestyle specifically, we have a barrier within the name already. When we see the term “zero-waste,” it is a complete shock to our system. We think,
“I’m human. So, I will always produce some kind of waste. Being zero-waste is impossible.”
While this sentiment may be true, it is overlooking the overall purpose of the zero-waste movement. We only see what can’t be done versus what can be improved.
In all honestly, I prefer to use the term “low-waste,” as it is more approachable, but “zero-waste” has become somewhat of a buzz word in environmental movements, making it hard to escape.
Another example of this is when the concept of veganism comes up. Often, with minimal provocation, when any talk of being vegan comes to the table, we see it as an assault on our core beliefs. Preconceived notions about the vegan movement and stereotypes of vegans can drive people to think that if they were to be vegan, they would be giving up too much. Or that they are being judged because of the products they consume.
Within both of these examples, we are triggered initially by the name of the movement, and we haven’t even gotten into any of the lifestyle changes yet.
When we think of being zero-waste or being vegan, we assume that we must completely rid ourselves of all plastics and all animal products, or we will be seen as hypocritical failures.
While some participants in these movements do come off as self-righteous and a bit egotistical, isn’t that the case with any group you don't initially agree with? As a society, we always seem to take the most extreme cases and clump them in with the majority of well-intentioned activists. In fact, we are currently seeing this in the Black Lives Matter movement. Many people are quick to dismiss BLM because they are “looters” and “rioters.” When in reality, the majority of protesters are peaceful, well-intentioned social justice activists working towards a collective, humanitarian good.
When we look at the world in “black and white” or as “all or nothing,” it is easy to dismiss a change of any kind as it will either be "too hard" or "too radical" from the very start.
We’re Conditioned to Consume
This “all or nothing” attitude combined with the societal pressure to continuously consume, makes these lifestyle decisions even harder. Even when we have the time to spend looking for a more eco-friendly or sustainable product, we may find out later down the line that it wasn’t the best option.
What's worse is that the most eco-friendly and sustainable products aren't usually the most readily available. We have to go out of our way to find them. That in itself is a problem within our system, and a barrier we must overcome.
Even if we can narrow down our findings to a few reliable companies, then it comes to self-control. This alone may be the most significant hurdle that anyone faces when making a lifestyle change. We’ve likely been there when we’ve attempted to go on a diet of some kind… we cut out too much too fast, and it leads us to crave those treats we have sworn off for xx number of days. Then, when we finally allow ourselves to indulge, we binge, reversing any progress we think we have made.
Living in a capitalist society has set us up for failure in these pursuits from the start. We reward “quick fixes” and “instant gratification” with our hard-earned money and time. We are constantly bombarded with "buy this" or "these are better" advertisements wherever we look. Still, one must wonder when we fixate on materialistic things if we are missing out on the bigger picture?
With the COVID-19 Pandemic, it became apparent that our current system values money and consumerism over the lives of their citizens. If that is our example of accepted moral guidelines, no wonder it is difficult to make a sustainable choice when buying a toothbrush.
As I’ve moved towards minimalism in my life, I’ve learned that constant consumption should only a priority when it comes to oxygen and drinking enough water. As I’ve cut down on unnecessary material items, I find joy in the little things and appreciate leisure activities more. Plus, the less you consume, the less money you spend, which has saved me money to enjoy other things.
Change is Possible, No Matter Your Circumstances
Our addiction to consumption and “all or nothing” thinking are both issues to address within our selves. Our mindset is often what holds us back in other aspects of our lives as well.
Seeing environmental movements, or any social justice movement for that matter, as a black and white issue, is only going to drive you away and become discouraging if you try.
When I first switched to a vegan lifestyle, I was obsessed with ingredients and finding the perfect products. So much so that when I would have a slip up of any kind, I’d break down and question if it was even worth it. I remember one distinct time in a grocery store when I had to leave because I became so overwhelmed having to read labels and knowing what to eat that I was on the verge of a panic attack. I dropped my basket full of items and just left.
This mindset that we need to be “perfect” and can’t make mistakes is toxic, no matter the part of your life it dwells in. It takes time to break these habits, but for me, I found that awareness, community, and compassion are the most helpful.
As I educated myself more, reached out to others for help, and had compassion for myself when I would make mistakes throughout my journey, things became much easier. I would see my mistakes as something that I could learn from instead of something to beat myself up about endlessly.
No matter the issue we are facing, we cannot expect to be perfect. If we do, we make it far too easy to give up.
In my next post, I’ll be deep-diving into the most common misconceptions and reasons not to be zero-waste or vegan, and why we struggle to make sustainable lifestyle changes. Stay tuned for my upcoming debunking series.