If you're interested in reducing your carbon footprint and living a more sustainable life, there are countless things you can do to have a positive impact on the planet. One strategy is simply to buy less. And while that's realistic in some cases, the other side of it is making sure you’re purchasing sustainable products and supporting sustainable brands that are committed to doing the least amount of environmental damage.
But beyond taking a close look at the stores you shop at and the products you buy, the good news is virtually everything you do in your daily life is an opportunity to practice sustainable living, including the way you get around, the charities you support, how you eat, what you eat, how much garbage you create and so much more. It's easy to start leading a more sustainable lifestyle right now — and our environmental experts are here to help.
At the Good Housekeeping Institute, sustainability is important to everything we do and we've built a unique expertise on the topic that shows up in how our experts test and recommend products. From launching the Green Good Housekeeping Seal in 2009 and GH's Sustainable Innovation Awards in 2019, to hosting our annual Raise the Green Bar sustainability summit, now entering its fifth year, helping readers make more sustainable choices is a top priority for us.
Below, we've compiled some simple choices and changes you can start today that will have a lasting benefit to our planet.
First: What is sustainable living?
Living a more sustainable life, also commonly referred to as "green living," starts with understanding that sustainability is a broad term that can be defined in many ways. But generally speaking sustainable living refers to a lifestyle that avoids depleting the earth's natural resources by reducing demand for water, energy, trees and fossil fuels. It means striving to create less waste, and prioritizes the use of renewable resources and minimal consumption. It can also be defined as "the practice of making sure we don't deplete the earth's natural resources while maintaining a strong economy for future generations," says GH's Sustainability Director, Birnur Aral, Ph.D.
Put another way, sustainable living is all about making healthier choices for our planet and the people who live here. Examples of sustainable living include buying products made from recycled materials, avoiding fast fashion, and making sure your home isn't overusing water and energy. There's also a growing connection between social good and environmental sustainability and many organizations are increasingly tying together traditional sustainability efforts with mission-based work centered around a specific problem or issue.
History of sustainability
Today's sustainable living advocates often cite the seminal 1962 book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, naturalist and environmentalist, for rousing modern-day interest in sustainability. The book explored the adverse effects of fertilizers and pesticides on wildlife and challenged the practice of unchecked marketing claims by large corporations. It is largely credited with inspiring a 20th-century environmental movement that contributed to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970.
In the early 1980s, the United Nations formed the World Commission on Environment and Development with the goal of "uniting countries to work together to pursue sustainable development." It released Our Common Future in 1987, a report which succeeded in popularizing the notion of sustainable living with the public, and local and state governments around the world started introducing sustainability policies focused on recycling and renewable energies.
In 2015, the UN also spearheaded the Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty between global leaders aimed at reducing climate change. The U.S. left the Paris Agreement during the Trump administration but has rejoined under President Biden. Today the United Nations continues to champion sustainability through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability is now a guiding principle for a wide range of governmental agencies, corporations and other institutions.
Why is sustainable living important?
Living a more sustainable life is better for the health of the planet and all the living things that inhabit it, including humans. A sustainable lifestyle can mean less pollution, fewer greenhouse gases, less waste, healthier oceans and forests and so much more. Plus, as more people make the switch to sustainable living, more companies work harder to following sustainable practices during manufacturing and more policy makers advocate for improved environmental practices.
The bottom line: Sustainable living is about doing whatever you can to reduce your personal contribution to carbon emissions, natural resource depletion, water and chemical use and waste accumulation, while striving to make the earth a better place for all living things.
Simple ways to start living a more sustainable lifestyle
1. Start small — but start now.
One of the most important things to remember as you are transitioning into more sustainable living is little changes add up. And they can add up fast. So don't feel you have to overhaul everything all at once. Start with easy tweaks like switching to energy-saving light bulbs or drinking tap water instead of bottled (our environmental experts have assessed a wide range of water-testing kits to help boost your confidence), buying less overall, and being conscious about how you dispose of goods, from mattresses to clothing and beyond.
Check out the stories below for more ways to make daily efforts to live a sustainable lifestyle:
2. Get savvy about spotting greenwashing.
Even today, as people are more interested in sustainable living tips, "eco" or "green" claims can be confusing. When we put the question to over 5,000 people in the Good Housekeeping Institute's recent Sustainability Survey, 26% of people said they believed "green" meant "earth or environmentally friendly," 19% answered "reusable, recyclable or recycled," 13% said "eco-conscious" and 10% thought it meant "sustainable." Other write-in answers included: natural, organic, compostable, plant-based and healthy.
In reality, all of these things might contribute to making a product more "green" or "sustainable," but according to the FTC Green Guides, brands must explain why a product is green before they can legitimately use eco-friendly claims on their labels. Once you can easily ID the terms and claims – and spot the imposters – you will be better equipped to make truly sustainable choices.
3. Rethink your modes of transportation.
Walking, taking the stairs and riding a commuter bicycle are some of the easiest ways to get around more sustainably. That's because they require no energy (other than your own!) and emit absolutely zero greenhouse gases while helping to boost your own cardiovascular health. Driving a combustion-engine vehicle, on the other hand, is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
If distance puts walking or riding a bike out of the question, public transportation or car-sharing are good alternatives along with e-bikes and scooters. If you don't have your own bike, consider the growing number of rent-a-bike services popping up in more neighborhoods all over the country. If that's not an option for you, fortunately, most car manufacturers are making bold predictions about adding electric and hybrid vehicles to their rosters.
How to make more sustainable choices when shopping
1. Ditch single-use bags and bottles.
One of the biggest contributors to the global waste epidemic is plastic pollution. When you consider that Our World in Data estimates 381 million tons of plastic was produced in 2015, it's no surprise that this amount — the equivalent to roughly two-thirds of the world population — is wreaking havoc on the health of global wildlife and our planet's oceans and marine life.
The good news news reusable is becoming a much more common personal choice and is also being mandated by municipalities around the globe through plastic bag bans and more. Below, discover our top-tested favorites, from reusable products from grocery bags to water bottles and more, as well as easy ways to reduce waste at home:
2. Learn about ethical fashion.
While the fashion industry has been the target of intense scrutiny by sustainability advocates, examples of sustainable living can be found. It's important to remember truly sustainable fashion (also called “ethical” or “slow” fashion) takes into account an item’s full life cycle, including sourcing, shipping and end of life, as well as the people and resources it affects.
That said, our pros suggest buying secondhand whenever possible (and selling your unwanted clothes online). Since the ultimate goal is to produce less and use things longer, the most sustainable fashion is anything pre-owned.
3. Buy from truly sustainable brands and companies.
"Corporate sustainability is thought to have three pillars: people, planet and profit," says Aral. "For any business, this means ensuring the health of employees (and people related to that business) and minimizing or even reversing its environmental impacts should be just as important as turning a profit, for it to be sustainable in the long run."
So do your research when seeking out products and brands that are committed to sustainable practice by looking for brands that promote specific sustainable practices including reducing water and hazardous chemicals used in production or use of recycled materials or sustainable fibers such as organic cotton. You can also look for sustainable and recycled materials, and trusted third-party emblems like EcoCert Cosmos for organic cosmetics, Fair Trade Certified ingredients or GreenGuard Certified products.
Brands that impress GH Textiles Lab analysts include Patagonia, Levi’s, ThredUp and Eileen Fisher. For help with choosing sustainable brands, follow our experts' advice below:
4. Shop organic when you can.
Opting for organic clothing and bedding is a great step toward sustainability. Why? "GOTS certified organic fabrics follow strict environmental standards throughout the entire production process," according to GH Institute Textiles Director Lexie Sachs. "For starters, organic cotton and other natural fibers are grown using less water and without pesticides and other potentially harmful treatments. Then the rest of the manufacturing steps – from the dyes and finishes to the ethical conditions at factories – must also comply with specific criteria."
Here are some of the best organic products you can buy, vetted by our experts:
5. Look for sustainable packaging.
Packaging is generally defined as the products used to wrap or protect goods, including food and drink, and home and personal care items. It covers everything from culinary containers and detergent bottles to packaging for beauty products and all those delivery boxes. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency or EPA, over 80 million tons of packaging waste ends up in U.S. landfills every year. In Europe packaging waste is estimated at 77.8 million tons annually.
Choosing sustainable packaging is one way to offset the massive waste in landfills. But sustainable packaging can also help the planet in other, less expected ways. For example a moisturizer that uses less packaging is lighter to transport, which means fewer greenhouse gases are released on its journey from the manufacturing facility to its final destination in your bathroom. That's also why the experts in the Good Housekeeping Institute introduced our Sustainable Packaging and Sustainable Innovation Awards, which recognize products that use minimal packaging materials and practices.
How to live more sustainably at home
1. Make your own cleaners and home products.
While you can purchase environmentally friendly cleaning products, making things from scratch at home is a perfect example of sustainable living. It allows you to use things you already have on-hand, thus reducing the need to buy more. And it means you can re-use or upcycle other items to give them new life — which all leads to less trash and waste, less packaging and less overall consumption.
And you don't have to stop at cleaners — our scientists and cleaning and beauty experts have great step-by-step instructions to help DIYers to make everything from homemade soap to hair masks and body scrubs:
2. Green your plate and your kitchen.
Did you know animal agriculture is the second-largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and is a leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss and water pollution? These statistics shared by Climate Nexus citing multiple trusted research sources, including the United Nations, help support the value of making more sustainable food practices.
In their session "Greener Plates for a Better World" at Good Housekeeping's 2020 Raise the Green Bar Sustainability Summit, celebrated author and actress Tracy Pollan, food columnist Mark Bittman and regional farming advocate Kathleen Finlay spoke with GH’s Registered Dietitian, Stefani Sassos, M.S., R.D., about the topic. Together they stressed that plant-based eating, cooking at home and prioritizing local and seasonal foods were smart ways to eat more sustainably.
Eating vegetarian just one day a week can save the annual greenhouse gas equivalent of driving 1,160 miles, says Sassos. She also recommends peanuts as a great plant-based protein source. A nutritious swap for meat, these legumes are filled with protein, heart-healthy fats, fiber and antioxidants. Lesser-known fact: They’re as good for the planet as for you, thanks to water-efficient growing practices that use a mere five gallons of H2O per ounce (some nuts need more than 15 times that and meat needs!).
3. Reduce food waste.
In the United States alone, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration estimated that between 30 to 40% of the food supply ends up as food waste. In 2015, we Americans threw out 133 billion pounds of food. For context that's like leaving a quarter of your groceries behind every time you go to the store.
Composting at home is one of the most effective ways to minimize the amount of garbage your family sends to the landfill. Not only does this reduce methane gas (a major factor in climate change), but it also controls trash can odor and gives you rich fertilizer. You can start by picking up one of the GH Institute Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab's picks for the best compost bins, but if at-home composting isn't for you, look to see if your municipality has a composting program; if not, let your public works department know you’d like one. Some farmers’ markets even take food matter for composting.
Below our GH Test Kitchen and GH Institute Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab compiled some great ways to reduce food waste: