How to Create a Sustainable Lifestyle

Three Essential Steps

How to Create a Sustainable Lifestyle

SECTIONS: the golden rule, our impact, lifestyle changes,
three essential steps: I. simplifying, II. taking a full inventory, III. making a lifelong commitment

The Golden Rule

Creating a sustainable lifestyle takes a lifelong commitment – to learning, experimenting, exploring, committing to increasingly sustainable practices and, above all, loving. Because beyond all of the frightening news; beyond the frustrating politics; beyond the failed international agreements, there is one question – how do you want to live your life? With fear – or with love? The fear route feels defeated and helpless and frustrating. The love route, on the other hand, feels grounded, purposeful and hopeful.

At its essence, it is the route of living by the Golden Rule, a central tenet across all major religions:

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
~ Christianity (Matthew 1452)

What is hurtful to yourself do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary.
~ Judaism (Moses 6)

Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.
~ Islam (Moses 6)

Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.
~ Buddhism (Moses 7)

Tzu-Kung asked: "Is there one principle upon which one's whole life may proceed?" the Master replied, "Is not Reciprocity such a principle? – what you do not yourself desire, do not put before others."
~ Confucianism (Moses 7)

This is the sum of all true righteousness – Treat others, as though wouldst thyself be treated. Do nothing to they neighbor, which hereafter thou wouldst not have they neighbor do to thee.
~ Hinduism (Moses 7)

Our Impact

It is such a simple principle – and yet if it is extended to include all living beings (an essential component of sustainability), it requires a complete shift in how we live our lives. Because we do unto others all day long – through the clothes we buy, the energy we use, the food we eat, even the toothpaste we brush our teeth with. Every choice we make impacts others – through its creation, its distribution, its use and its disposal. And most likely we'll never know – or even see – who we are impacting. But they are out there, nonetheless, suffering – or thriving - based on our choices.

Because we live in such a global, profit-at-all-costs world, the number impacted is astounding – hard to grasp really. One detailed life cycle analysis of aluminum cans, for example, documents the steps required to manufacture, sell and dispose of an aluminum can and the resulting impacts:

  • Extraction: bauxite ore, the primary raw material source for aluminum production, is extracted from open pit mines primarily in Brazil, Guinea, Jamaica, Guyana and Australia.
  • Transportation: bauxite is shipped to multiple countries to complete processing.
  • Processing: processing bauxite ore into aluminum cans requires several energy-intensive steps including alumina refining, smelting, ingot casting, can sheet fabrication, can making and can-filling. Recycled aluminum is also incorporated into the final product, the processing of which has its own (reduced) impacts (the recycled content of a beverage can in the U.S. in 2007 was 67.8%).
  • Packaging and Distribution: aluminum cans are packaged and transported to individual stores and from there to homes and businesses.
  • End of Life: While some cans are transported to recycling centers and re-processed (about half in the U.S.), far too many still end up in landfills.

At every stage in the life cycle of this product, humans and other animals and plants are negatively impacted – through destruction of habitat; exposure to land, air and water pollutants and, for humans, potentially low wages and unsafe working conditions.

In all, the production of an aluminum can requires over 60 different types of raw or processed materials and creates over 75 different types of pollutants. The material inputs and manufacturing equipment also have their own life cycle impacts.

Manufacturing an aluminum can causes increased global warming, acidification, eutrophication, low level smog, and ozone layer depletion.

Annie Leonard adds:

["A single-use, single-serving aluminum can"] is one of the most energy-intensive, CO2-producing, waste-generating products on the planet. . .Aluminum smelting requires more energy than any other metal processing on earth. . .[and produces] perfluorocarbons (PFCs) – these are the most noxious of greenhouse gases, trapping thousands of times more heat than carbon dioxide. . .It's estimated that more than a trillion aluminum cans have been trashed in landfills since 1972." (Leonard 64-67)

aluminum can life cycle

And that's just an aluminum can.

So choosing a life of love requires a lot of work – a lot of rethinking – a lot of soul searching. The question we have to answer in every choice we make is: how loving do we really want to be? And how inclusive do we want to be in our love? Living, of course, involves impacting others – all of life impacts others. But is our impact unnecessarily harmful – or is it based on a conscious choice which minimizes harm done and maximizes benefits?

Looking back at the Golden Rule, we all want our homes protected, our neighborhoods unpolluted, a plentiful supply of safe drinking water and food – and knowing that our future is secure. And we want others to make choices that ensure we have these things. The loving approach to life, then, is to offer that same level of care back to others.

Lifestyle Changes

It quickly becomes clear then that choosing a life of love requires us to change just about every aspect of our lives – to change how we spend our days. It involves shifting our lifestyle away from consumption and toward more sustainable activities such as:

  • biking, walking or taking public transit
  • sharing and gift economies (i.e., sharing tools, bartering for services or produce, carsharing/carpooling/ridesharing)
  • becoming more self-reliant (i.e., learning how to repair belongings, sewing, growing food or taking skill-building classes)
  • learning how to cook with local, sustainable produce
  • buying or finding used equipment, clothing, furniture, appliances, etc. (i.e., from thrift or consignment stores, craigslist, ebay, freecycle programs, hand-me-downs from neighbors or family)
  • joining a local sustainability community
  • volunteering on local sustainability projects
  • shifting entertainment to low impact activities such as spending time in nature and reading downloaded or library books.
  • possibly even shifting toward a career that has a more sustainable, beneficial impact on the world.

Three Essential Steps

There are three essential steps for living sustainably:

  1. Simplifying: Simplifying as much as possible – minimizing clutter in all areas of life – is the first of two essential steps for kick-starting a sustainable life.
  2. Taking a Full Inventory: Taking a thorough inventory of ones life – our purchases of products and services, our modes of transportation, etc. is the second critical step. It helps us really understand how we are living now in order to identify and shift away from unsustainable choices.
  3. Making a Lifelong Commitment: An earnest, lifelong commitment to make the most loving choice each and every time. The first two steps build sustainability into our lives, making this commitment easier to keep. It also gets easier as our satisfaction with our new lifestyle grows.

I. Simplifying

Only keep in your life things and activities that you find useful and/or you love. The rest is cluttering your space and time. Donate unneeded goods to charity or a freecycle program. Getting rid of everything you don't need – and cutting out any activities that don't add value to your life – is one of the most effective ways to kick start a sustainable life. Your surroundings impact what your mind focuses on.

By creating a de-cluttered home, you are declaring your intention every day to live sustainably. Simplifying gets rid of a lot of garbage (including mental) that you no longer need. It is a way to let go of the past and become focused on how you want to live your life going forward.

Simplifying also leaves you committed to not re-clutter your life. You end up buying much less at stores – which makes it easier to buy sustainably.

Once you have cleared out as much clutter as possible, try out the great recommendation by the Joy of Less author Francine Jay. She recommends separating items in each room into three categories:

  • Items used weekly (store each in a specific place in your home)
  • Items used at least once a year (put these in labeled and dated boxes in a closet within your home to clear them out of your main living area while keeping them easily accessible)
  • Items used less than once a year (store these outside of your immediate living area, such as in your garage, and label and date the boxes so that it is easy to determine down the road how often these items are really used).

If you still find that you're buying too much, try the 30-day challenge (if you want to purchase something unessential, wait 30 days to see if you still need to buy it – and in the meantime see if you can make do with what you already have, borrow, or buy used).

Tammy Strobel
"Downsizing can be stressful, but the benefits are tremendous…we had the time, money and energy to prioritize our health, happiness and life goals. For instance, I quit my day job in early 2010, started my own small business and moved to Portland, Oregon. Without simplicity, I would still be stuck in my cubicle."
~ author Tammy Strobel

There are many wonderful resources for simplifying – below are my favorites:


Great books for inspiration and tips

Marie Kondo
“From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order.”
~ author Marie Kondo

Informative and inspiring videos

Popular blogs from some extreme simplifiers for ongoing ideas and inspiration

II. Taking a Full Inventory

While simplifying, conduct a thorough inventory of all your purchasing choices. This is the second critical step in creating a sustainable life – and also helps with reducing clutter. By getting a clear picture of how we are living our lives currently – at a detailed level – we can kick start the process of shifting toward loving choices. Below are recommended tools for achieving this. These tools provide a clear picture of what kind of world we are supporting – and creating:

A. Eco Footprint

Determine your current Eco Footprint through the Eco Footprint Calculator (Frequently Asked Questions). Make a note of your footprint for later comparison.

Juliet Schor
"If you think about the particular things people want, it mostly has to do with being the kind of person that they think they are because there’s a consumption style connected with that. The role of what are called reference groups — the people we compare ourselves to, the people we identify with — is really key in that. It's why, for example, I've found that people who have reference groups that are wealthier than they are tend to save less and spend more, and people who keep more modest reference groups, even as they gain in income and wealth, tend to save more."
~ author Juliet Schor

B. Water Footprint

Determine your current Water Footprint through the Water Footprint Calculator. Make a note of your footprint for later comparison.

C. Carbon Footprint

Determine your current impact on global warming via the Carbon Footprint Calculator. Make a note of your footprint for later comparison.

D. Consumption Inventory

  1. Go through your bills/statements and home and create a full inventory of the companies who provide the products and services you commonly purchase (or any one-time large purchases). Refer to the Google Docs Spreadsheet Consumption Inventory for inventory gathering information and resource links. Three ways to use the spreadsheet:
  • If you have a spreadsheet program, such as Excel, on your computer it can be downloaded (File > Download as).
  • If you have a Google account, you can sign into your Google account and make a copy of the spreadsheet for personal update (File > Make a copy). Then it can be updated within the Google Docs Spreadsheet tool online (free tool).
  • If you're writing out your inventory, it can be used as a resource (see the RESOURCE columns in yellow) and reference for inventory gathering information.

    Update the columns as follows:
  • Category: add any missing categories based on your purchases.
  • Subcategory: break out the categories into subcategories based on your purchases (i.e., for category "Electronics", add a subcategory "Cell Phone" if you own one). Insert new rows within each category as needed.
  • Company Names: List the names of product or service companies. Insert new rows within each subcategory as needed.
  • Known Sustainable Practices: Research through the company's website, look for online articles, and/or call the company to learn about their sustainable practices.
  • Responsible to Local Community: Research through the company's website, look for online articles, and/or call the company to determine how committed the company is to benefiting (and not harming) your local community.
  • Better World Shopper Rating: Where available, note the Better World Shopping rating for the company (see links in the Better World Shopping RESOURCE column).
  • More Sustainable Choice: Look for more sustainable, beneficial alternatives for every purchase. Links from all three RESOURCE columns can help. Examples: local, small eco-friendly companies within walking/biking distance; products that are plastic-free, used, borrowed, home-made, reusable, durable, low energy/water consumption; non-toxic, organic, cruelty-free, and/or fair trade; doing without)
  • Goals and Timeline: Note specific goals for switching to more sustainable alternatives along with a doable timeline for reaching each goal.
  1. Add a calendar entry to revisit the chart each year to track your progress and determine if even better alternatives are available.

E. Home and Garden Inventory:  

  1. Chart your energy and water usage and set specific goals to reduce consumption (energy and water tips).
  2. Where available, schedule a free water audit from your water provider and an energy audit from your energy provider.
  3. Where available, switch to a greener energy provider or, if possible, purchase solar or wind power for your home.
  4. If moving, look for an environmentally friendly home (i.e., small, well-insulated, good passive solar features, option to install solar or wind, etc.) with a high walkability rating. Consider cohousing to further reduce your footprint (and to join a close community of neighbors).
  5. Take the Zero-Volt Challenge to quickly and permanently reduce your energy consumption.
  6. For non-renewable energy usage, consider purchasing carbon offsets (i.e., here are several certified Gold Standard offset projects). Set a goal of creating a carbon neutral home!
  7. Evaluate your balcony or yard garden and look for ways to shift toward a garden containing plants that are native to your neighborhood ecosystem, drought-resistant, edible, and/or supporting local wildlife.
  8. Evaluate what comes into and leaves your home through the mail. Take the steps in How to Stop Junk Mail to minimize resource waste (and habitat destruction through deforestation and water pollution).
  9. For other ideas, visit How to Green Your Home and Finances and Organic Gardening Tips - Creating a Sustainable Garden
  10. Once you've chosen alternatives, set specific goals for switching to more sustainable alternatives along with a doable timeline for reaching each goal.

Peace Pilgrim
"The simplification of life is one of the steps to inner peace. A persistent simplification will create an inner and outer well-being that places harmony in one’s life. For me this began with a discovery of the meaninglessness of possessions beyond my actual and immediate needs. As soon as I had brought myself down to need level, I began to feel a wonderful harmony in my life between inner and outer well-being, between spiritual and material well-being."
~ Peace Pilgrim

F. Transportation Inventory

  1. Chart your miles driven and air travel miles flown. Set specific goals to reduce miles driven and fuel consumed. Choose alternatives to flying whenever possible (online collaboration and meeting tools for business, bus or train).
  2. Determine the walkability of your home address and consider moving to a more walkable community (and/or within biking distance of work).
  3. If purchasing a vehicle, buy used whenever possible and purchase a green vehicle. Also consider, instead of buying a car, using a car share program, sharing a vehicle with a neighbor or friend or bicycling and using public transit.
  4. For your driving and air travel, consider purchasing carbon offsets.
  5. Once you've chosen alternatives, set specific goals for switching to more sustainable alternatives along with a doable timeline for reaching each goal.

Sustainable Community
"I live in a tight's really just a bunch of friends who chose to live near one another – really near, like next door...We share a big yard; we often eat meals together...we share Stuff all the time...Once, after my daughter begged me to let her try skiing, I sent an email out to my community members asking for advice...when I got home from work the next day, there were three bags full of children's ski equipment and clothes waiting for me on the front step...Because we share and borrow many of the things we need, we are able to consume less Stuff. Because we provide one another with services like baby-sitting, repairing and listening, we pay less for services than others do." (Leonard 237-238)
~ author, advocate Annie Leonard

G. Waste and Recycling Inventory

Getting a clear, detailed picture of the waste we create is a surprisingly effective way for reducing waste and recyclables – and a great help with simplifying our lives. This involves:

  1. Keeping your trash and recyclables (excluding food waste or anything moist) for two weeks to one month.
  2. Dumping it out on the ground and creating a list of every type of waste/recycling item along with the quantity of each.
  3. Once this is complete, research how to eliminate as many items as possible. The easiest – and healthiest – route is to buy primarily from the produce and bulk bin sections of a local health food store/farmers market – and bringing your own reusable bags and containers. And then making typically processed products at home using sustainable ingredients with no (or less) packaging (i.e., apple sauce, pasta, sauces, bread, granola, rice milk, flour, cleaning and personal care products). This is not only a great way to reduce waste, but it can significantly cut your grocery bill (even buying all organic) and waistline. Processed products are ridiculously overpriced and processed food can be calorie dense. It's easy (and empowering) to make better replacements from scratch.
  4. For trash, if it isn't possible or desirable to eliminate an item, look for ways to recycle or compost it – or switch to a brand that uses packaging that can be recycled or composted. If you have any questions about what can be recycled, contact your local recycling center. For example, because of new plastic recycling technology, many recycling centers can accept plastic lids (they ask customers to rinse out plastic containers and put the plastic lids back on). Also many waste facilities are starting to offer food composting in their yard waste bins (U.S.). Find out if yours is currently – or planning – to offer these services (and ask about other upcoming new services). For other ideas visit Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refuse, Rot.
  5. Once you've chosen alternatives, set specific goals for switching to waste-free alternatives along with a doable timeline for reaching each goal.
  6. Add a calendar entry to redo the steps each year to track your progress and determine if there are ways to eliminate additional items.

Mahatma Gandhi
"I came definitely to the conclusion that…I must discard…all possession....I cannot tell you with truth that, when this belief came to me, I discarded everything immediately. I must confess to you that progress at first was slow. And now, as I recall those days of struggle, I remember that it was also painful in the beginning. But, as days went by, I saw that I had to throw overboard many other things which I used to consider as mine, and a time came when it became a matter of positive joy to give up those things….a great burden fell off my shoulders…The possession of anything then became a troublesome thing and a burden." (Gandhi 1066-7)
~ Mahatma Gandhi

H. Quarterly Updates

Update your calendar to retake the Eco Footprint, Water Footprint and Carbon Footprint calculators to determine your progress. Revisit your goals for the quarter.


Great books:

Great magazine:

  • Yes! Magazine (my all-time favorite, and only, magazine - well-researched, inspiring and informative articles)

Popular blogs for ongoing ideas and inspiration:

  • My Plastic Free Life (great ideas for alternatives to plastic – author Beth Terry's commitment to creating a plastic-free life is really inspiring)
  • Zero Waste Home Tips (great tips from a family that really walks the talk)

III. Making a Lifelong Commitment

The final step is to make a lifelong commitment to making the most loving choice each and every time. It involves re-defining how we want to live our lives. This step is at first the most difficult but, through its practice, we gain a real sense of purpose – we come to know that we really are treating others as we would like to be treated.

In addition to the goals set above, there are many ideas on Global Steward's Green Ideas page. I wish you all the best on your journey!

Works Cited

Bok, Derek Curtis. The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-being. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2010. Print.

Center for a New American Dream. New American Dream Survey Report. Rep. Center for a New American Dream, Sept. 2004. Web. 10 Sept. 2012.
< 19/e3/b/2268/ND2004Finalpollreport.pdf>.

Gandhi, Mahatma. Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Madras: G.A. Natesan & Company, 1933. Print.

Grinde, Bjørn, and Grete Grindal Patil. "Abstract." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 31 Aug. 2009. Web. 19 Sept. 2012.
< articles/PMC2760412/>.

Lawrence, Peter. The Happy Minimalist: Financial Independence, Good Health, and a Better Planet for Us All. [Bloomington, IN]: Xlibris, 2008. Print.

Leonard, Annie, and Ariane Conrad. The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health--and How We Can Make It Better. New York: Free, 2011. Print.

Lyubomirsky, Sonja. The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Matthew. The NIV Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1985. Print.

Moses, Jeffrey. Oneness: Great Principles Shared by All Religions. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989. Print.

PE Americas. Life Cycle Impact Assessment of Aluminum Beverage Cans. Rep. Aluminum Association, Inc. Washington, D.C., 21 May 2010. Web. 7 Sept. 2012.
< ContentFolders/LCA/LCA_REPORT.pdf>.

Post, Stephen G., Ph.D. It's Good to Be Good: 2011 Fifth Annual Scientific Report on Health, Happiness and Helping Others. Rep. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., 2011. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.
< publications/pdf/Good_to_be_Good_2011.pdf>.

Schor, Juliet. <>. July, 2021

Strobel, Tammy. "Our Downsizing Story." RowdyKittens. Tammy Strobel, n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.

Vishnu-Bharati Quarterly, New Series II, Part II, quoted in Numal Kumar Bose, Studies in Gandhism, Hindi edition


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