Becoming an ‘eco-minimalist’: USC experts show how you can help the planet

Solving the myriad environmental problems that face our planet? That requires some of the world’s greatest minds. But becoming an eco-minimalist and being part of the solution? That’s easy.

“It’s a way to reduce the environmental impact of our individual choices,” said Jill Sohm, associate professor of environmental studies and director of the environmental studies program at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “It’s focused on reducing environmental impact by simplifying your life and buying less.”

The word “eco-minimalism” started as an architectural design term has morphed into a movement. USC experts offered suggestions to help you become part of that solution.

Living an environmentally friendly life: Start with the plate

A natural first stop for making changes is diet, said Robert Vos, associate professor and director of graduate studies at USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute and co-author of SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production: A Revolutionary Challenge for the 21st Century. “It’s a choice we make several times a day,” Vos said. “Eating a diet that’s, generally speaking, more vegetarian is going to have less impact on the environment than one with meat.”

Meat as well as dairy consumption tax the environment, according to Audra Isadora Bardsley, a lecturer for USC Dornsife’s environmental studies program. “Animal products tend to be particularly water and energy intensive to produce, with conventional feedlot beef being a top offender,” she said. “We actually dedicate more land in the U.S. to growing food to feed animals than we do food to feed people.”

Eco-minimalists needn’t forgo meat. “Even opting for plant-based milk rather than dairy milk or replacing several meals a week with meat-free alternatives, can have a substantial climate impact,” Bardsley said.

A lot of waste comes through buying bulk food that ends up getting thrown out.

Lotta Andonian, fall 2022 incoming student

Lotta Andonian shops at farmers markets. Andonian, a fall 2022 incoming student to the Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity program at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, is drawn to the heirloom produce offered from local farmers. Organic foods, Andonian notes, can be costlier, but she sees advantages in shopping for them. “A lot of waste comes through buying bulk food that ends up getting thrown out,” she said.

About 30% of food at the consumer and retail level is wasted, Bardsley said, citing a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate.

To gain a grasp of food waste at USC, in 2019, Bardsley’s students conducted a two-day, detailed plate waste audit at Parkside dining hall.

“Beef made up 6% of the waste by mass but represented 43% of the wasted water when we looked at the resource conversions and the water it would have taken to produce the beef that wasn’t eaten,” Bardsley said.

That water waste amounted to more 82,000 gallons, enough to supply the average California resident for more than 2 1/2 years.

One suggestion from Andonian: Learn to cook, “even if it’s just simple things.” “You’re less likely to buy Brussels sprouts if you don’t know what to do with them,” she said.

Andonian sees cooking as an adventurous eco-minimalist step. “You discover all these new vegetables and different cuisines with vegetarian options, like Indian food or Ethiopian food,” she said.

Cooking for yourself comes with myriad benefits to cooking, including reducing expenses, establishing healthier habits, and, of course, helping the planet. Strive for progress versus perfection, Andonian advises. “As you include more eco-minimalist habits over time and learn what works for you, they become second nature,” she said. “Then you can add new habits on top of these, building a different way of life.”

Influence the food industry

While majoring in business economics at UCLA, Andonian was a member of E3, the UCLA chapter of the California Student Sustainability Coalition, and chaired the Sustainable Food Campaign. Chocolate and coffee sourcing — including growing and direct and fair-trade movements — came into Andonian’s sights.

Noting that vegan friends and those with gluten issues had limited dessert options, Andonian created organic and vegan chocolate nut butter cups. A new business, Eat Chic Chocolates, was born (although it has since closed because of COVID). Using ethically sourced ingredients was key to her business.

“This created a market, and economic incentives, for dedicated organic farmers and producers to produce ethically, care for the environment and pay their workers living wages,” Andonian said.

Drive or walk toward change

In the U.S., nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 came from transportation, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report.

Light-duty vehicles driven responsible for 58% of the share of greenhouse gas emissions, which warm the planet.

How can you address that issue? Walk, bike or use public transit, suggested Vos of USC’s Spatial Sciences Institute. Drive less, he said, and consider, “what type of automobile one might drive.”

Eco-minimalists can have an even greater impact by making their voices heard. “Corporations are responsible for the vast majority of emissions, which means they need to do their fair share to mitigate sustainability challenges we’re currently facing,” said Sohm, associate professor of environmental studies. “Hold them accountable, asking both of them, and our governments, to change to a more sustainable system.”

Easy ways to do this: email your local government officials and vote for politicians working toward sustainability.

Begin with environmentally friendly action at home

Living space factors into the eco-minimalism equation, particularly when it comes to energy use. “This can be even more significant than transport choices,” Vos said.

Look at everything in your home, large and small, that uses energy, be it lightbulbs or appliances, Vos recommends. “Aim for appliances that use less energy, like those ranked as Energy Star,” he said. These appliances meet strict energy-efficiency criteria from the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy.

One has to tread carefully when it comes products advertised as being green.

Robert Vos, USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute

But don’t be fooled by “eco-friendly” label, Vos said. Be aware of “greenwashing,” a form of marketing that falsely implies a product may be good for the environment.

“One has to tread carefully when it comes products advertised as being green,” Vos said. “There are questions to ask, including: Does the manufacturer have a fully developed sustainability program? Does it have good metrics for its supply chains, and how much energy is used both for making the materials in the product and for the product itself?”

Delay instant gratification — and shop smart

The pandemic has changed the way the world shops, moving more commerce online. Is this better or worse than driving to the store? “Wanting something delivered to your door quickly raises your footprint,” Vos said. “If items are delivered by airplane versus container ship, their impact on the environment is higher.”

The aforementioned EPA report breaks down greenhouse gas emissions impact based on mode of transportation. Medium and heavy-duty trucks contribute 24%, aircraft 10%, and ships and rail each at 2%. Passenger vehicles, with their 58% share of greenhouse emissions, facilitate the “last mile,” or final part, of a delivery.

Compounding the issue is when consumer products need to be returned. “Reverse logistics are a big, fat mess,” Vos said. “And often, when items are returned, they get disposed of, taking away good circular reuse in reverse logistics chains.”

Consider the life cycle and the environmental footprint of a cotton T-shirt, Bardsley said.

“The energy needed starts with operating farm equipment to plant seeds, synthesizing/distributing/applying pesticides used to protect the crop from insects, harvesting and processing the cotton, transporting the compressed staple fiber, spinning the fiber, weaving it into fabric, shipping it to a garment manufacturer, sewing the fabric into clothing and bringing the shirt to point of sale,” she said.

“Considering this makes it clear the impact of the items we buy extends far beyond what we hold in our hands.”

To become more mindful when making purchases, look into resources from the the EPA, Better Cotton, Forest Stewardship Council and Marine Stewardship Council, all entities that certify businesses with sustainable commodity systems and trustworthy imprints.

When choosing between product A or product B, maybe the question should be, do you need either one?

Robert Vos, USC Dornsife Spatial Sciences Institute

Shopping at thrift or second-hand stores is one way to conserve. Perhaps an equally important point from Vos: “When choosing between product A or product B, maybe the question should be, do you need either one?”

Consider, too, why non-sustainable products can be cheaper. “Items may be made in countries where workers are paid very low wages or [are] created with materials like plastic that are derived from, or depend on, fossil fuels, which are subsidized,” Sohm said. “Essentially, we’re not paying the true cost of inexpensive goods.”

Make change

Ultimately, eco-minimalism comes down to consuming less. Can switching from dairy to nut milk change the world?

“Lots of people making small changes all together can have a large impact,” Sohm said. “And making sustainable choices is empowering in a world where it can feel like we don’t have much control.”

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