How To Be Sustainable(ish) With Jen Gale: Making Minor Changes For Major Effects
Focusing on small everyday actions, rather than imperfections, is how we can have a huge positive impact on our planet. Blogger and author Jen Gale is showing us how to embrace the 'ish'.
Wed 4 Mar 2020
‘“Sustainability”: it sounds really dull doesn’t it? But if we say “sustainable-ish”, automatically people get it."
Like the message in her book, Jen Gale is simultaneously everyday and extraordinary. She first stepped into the sustainable(ish) street when she and her family took on the challenge of buying nothing new for an entire year. Her 365 days of making do and mending everything from washing baskets to birthday presents opened her eyes to the stacks of ‘stuff’ she had in her life. She saw how we are constantly being told to consume more and new and now, and how the planet is paying for it.
This led to a lot of lifestyle shifts, a hugely popular blog a Ted talk and a new approach to life. She’s bought all of this together in The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide.
Full of tips, advice and resources for how we can all become more eco-friendly, the book is a key that offers everyone access to a life that doesn’t look drastically different to the one they lived before the reality of the climate crisis dawned on them.
It shows how the run of the mill can actually be revolutionary. Tiny tweaks, habitual changes and an embracing of hiccoughs can empower each one of us to make a huge difference, however messy, muddled and hectic our life is.
Being Sustainable(ish) Has No End
While she has truly become a trailblazer for the movement, Jen is keen to acknowledge that she has neither dreadlocks nor the desire to chastise anyone for their actions. She sees becoming sustainable(ish) as a steady train she’ll be on forever.
“I feel like it is an ongoing journey. It's the balance between acknowledging the things that you've done and how far you've come, giving yourself a pat on the back, and then gently encouraging yourself to take the next steps.”
An area she is working on at the moment is travel and transport in her daily life.
She says, “I'm fully aware of the fact that it's our default setting is to just jump into the car. Especially with the kids, or if you're in a rush to get somewhere, just for short journeys when really we should be trying to walk or bike.”
Much of her book and its message boils down to these kinds of psychological, habitual shifts. These are all part of the steady evolution in Jen’s opinion.
“I don't know anybody who says 'I've nailed it and I'm here now! Look at us, aren't we doing such awesome stuff?! I think some of that is because there are lots of societal shifts that we need. As individuals we can go so far, then we do need big shifts in policy and businesses. I think there's probably always going to be more stuff to do.”
The Power Of The Individual
That is not to say that Jen isn’t a huge proponent of the power of the individual, and that’s what she aims to ignite in the Sustainable(ish) Guide.
She says that she constantly gets asked the question: ‘Can individuals really make a difference?’
“I passionately believe that we can. It's not an either or situation. It's not that we need governments to take action or we need businesses to take action, or we need individuals. We need everybody doing their bit” she explains.
When it comes to the responsibility of governments, businesses and other powers that be she makes the oft forgotten and important point that, “The CEO of BP is an individual. He, the prime minister and our MPs could all take individual responsibility and move environmental issues much much higher up their agendas.”
That does not mean the burden of responsibility is lifted though.
“The changes we're seeing around the use of single use plastic,” Jen says “are coming about as the result of pressure from individuals, consumers and families getting behind bigger campaigns from charities and things like that. It shows what can be done when you garner public support and get all those individual voices coming together around an issue. So yeah, I absolutely think that as individuals we can make a difference.”
Focusing On What We Can Do For The Planet
It can be challenging enough to find the time and the wherewithal to shift our own habits, but if our immediate nearest and dearest don’t ‘get it’ it can feel like even more effort.
Jen’s children were very little when she began her journey. “It's something that changes as the kids grow up and get older,” she says.
“When we did the year buying nothing new they were 3 or 4 and 1 or 2, so it's obviously not something that we could have deep and meaningful conversations about.”
Now, however, they are understanding more and more.
“Last year we watched David Attenborough’s '7 Worlds, One Planet'”, says Jen. “One of the episodes is quite heartbreaking, with walruses running out of beach space and throwing themselves off cliffs. That really hit home. We had some tears and some conversations afterwards about the things that we can do as a family. But also the changes that are within their power to make.”
This begs the question, how can we talk to children about the climate crisis without really scaring them?
“This applies to everybody”, Jen says. “We all need to be able to talk about it in a way that's not overwhelming and terrifying. And I think we need to focus on the actions that we can all do.
Because it is paralysing and overwhelming, even as grownups, when we start to really think about things.”
“We need to focus on the actions that we can all do. Because it is paralysing and overwhelming, even as grownups, when we start to really think about things”
Getting ‘Into’ Sustainability Doesn’t Have To Cost Extra
So how do we start that conversation with people who do not want to have it?
Sustainability has become a huge part of Jen’s life now, but it was the challenge of buying nothing new that got the ball rolling for her. Could offering people incentives that have nothing to do with preventing climate change be the answer? There are, after-all, plenty of other positive repercussions to consuming less.
Why not present it as a means of saving money and being less attached to our ‘stuff’’?
Jen agrees, “It doesn’t really matter how we get people to start reducing their consumption. Without wanting to stereotype, a lot of people in my community have said that saving money is what appealed to their partners.”
“It’s not going to cost us any extra money", she continues. "People often think it’s going to cost them more, or be harder, or take more time. But, the bottom line is we need to be consuming less. And if we’re consuming less, we’re spending less, and that is a really good ‘in’ for people.”
"People often think it’s going to cost them more, or be harder, or take more time. But, the bottom line is we need to be consuming less"
Gentle Rebellion Can Empower Us
“We’re so tuned as a society to consume, and so driven to consume lots of almost subliminal advertising.”
Rather than focusing on the exploitation, however, Jen sees it as an opportunity to exercise our individual autonomy.
“I think once you become aware of how you’re being manipulated it can become sort of satisfying or mildly rebellious to say ‘no, I’m going to stick with the phone I’ve got for another six months, or a year.’ You can unleash your inner rebel.”
Once the penny drops and you see the shiny ads and the Insta stories for what they are, you can practice Jen’s exercise, “It’s about just taking a breath and asking: ‘Do I want this? Or am I being told I want this?”
“It’s about just taking a breath and asking: ‘Do I want this? Or am I being told that I want this?”
Can Anyone Care About The Climate?
Jen’s epiphany came from buying nothing new. Could the unsustainable scales really fall from anyone’s eyes?
From talking to friends and other mums in the playground, Jen’s gut feeling is that,
“Most of us are aware of the climate crisis, and plastic pollution. But, I think there’s this definite disconnect. People want to do something but they don’t really know what they should do. What they should do first, how they should do it. And, obviously, we don’t want to throw it all up in the air and make massive big changes.”
What’s more, in Jen’s book, all climate nemesis are not created equal.
“Plastic pollution campaigns have been so successful because it’s so tangible and visible,” explains Jen. “You see plastic in the ocean and you can quite feasibly think: ‘That could be mine’. Whereas, it’s very easy to say ‘I’ve turned my thermostat down 1 degree and I don’t see and difference.”
The Language Around Sustainability
In her book, Jen highlights the shift we’ve made from talking about ‘global warming’ a couple of years ago, to calling our current state of affairs an ‘emergency’, a ‘crisis’. In the face of this increasingly extreme vocabulary the tone of the Sustainable(ish) guide is extremely approachable. Rather than being judgemental, it’s relatable. Without putting too fine a point on it, the book is titled ‘Sustainable(ish)’!
Exclusivity is not Jen’s game. This was a conscious choice for her, and she deems the language around climate paramount for fostering change.
“By saying ‘Sustainable-ish’- everyone relates straight away. ‘Sustainable’, ‘sustainability’: it sounds really dull doesn’t it? It doesn’t sound exciting or sexy or anything like that, but if we say sustainable-ish, automatically people get it. That ‘ish’ allows for the wiggle room, it allows for us to make a start and to get things wrong and to try things out and to not be perfect. I think one of the things that stops us from starting is: ‘I don’t want to be vegan’ and ‘I need to use the car for the school run or to get to work’. Just because you can’t be perfect doesn’t mean you can’t do something.”
“If people have the book lying around at home” Jen says, “other people who aren’t particularly green might pick it up. There’s good access. It feels less threatening, less judgy, more doable. So, it’s amazing how three letters can make such a difference.”
"That ‘ish’ allows for the wiggle room, it allows for us to make a start and to get things wrong and to try things out and to not be perfect"
Sustainability Isn’t Binary
Jen is pushing against the fact that, “we’re becoming so used to everything being binary.” She continues,
“You’re left or right of politics, remain or leave. Why do we have to put these labels on it? Why are you either vegan or not vegan? Surely, if you’re eating more plant-based stuff that’s amazing, and if you have the odd bit of cheese or chocolate.. It’s not the end of the world.”
These absolutes, and the idea that you’ve cheated or failed if you ever deviate from a positive habit extends to so many areas of sustainability.
“It’s the same with plastic free or zero waste”, says Jen. “Realistically, nobody is zero waste. Nobody is plastic free. It’s all a journey towards those things. Just take the first step and get to a point that works for you.”
"Nobody is zero waste. Nobody is plastic free. It’s all a journey towards those things. Just take the first step"
Celebrating The Small Victories
Being proud of any sustainable(ish) changes we have made will help spur us on to make more in Jen’s opinion.
“As humans, we’re really bad at giving ourselves a pat on the back and we’re constantly berating ourselves for the plastic that we are using or how full the bin is. A year ago, the bin was overflowing every time we put it out and now it’s half full. I think it’s really important that we do acknowledge the changes that we’ve made ourselves, as families and as a society. Awareness is the highest it’s ever been. That doesn’t mean we’re just sitting on our laurels. Acknowledging those positive things helps give us a bit of momentum and motivation to keep going.”
That is not to say that the changes will feel monumental.
“I look around my house and it doesn’t really look as if anything has particularly changed” Jen explains. “But, I can’t remember the last time we bought a plastic bottle of water and I can’t remember the last time I bought a coffee when I didn’t have my cup with me. All those things you just dismiss because they become your new normal.”
Shocking Stats Can Be Encouraging
Through writing the book, Jen came up against facts and figures that shocked her. Did you know that 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from household consumption? It is scary, but she thinks knowing this can quell feelings of helplessness.
“On the one hand, you think- oh my goodness, but on the other it’s hugely empowering. If you think, as individuals we can’t make a difference, well as individuals we’re contributing to 60% of greenhouse gas emissions!”
Flipping the stats around this way to see how much impact we’re having, demonstrates what we could achieve if we changed our behaviour. Jen sees food waste as another key example of this.
“When we think about food waste, we think ‘bloody supermarkets that won't take the wonky veg.’ 50% of all food waste occurs in our homes. That’s something we can really do something about. We can just do a meal plan.”
This proves that, as Jen says, “no action that’s too small”. There’s no bandwagon so big it can’t be clambered back aboard after a few falls either. So… we may as well all start.
Are you inspired to buy less, make do and get mending?
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