Sustainability on a Shoestring

Sustainability on a Shoestring

Tips to save money and the Earth from a Turning Green ambassador

As a college student, there’s nothing more important than saving money. Like so many others, I am a full-time student with two part-time jobs, I rely on loans to cover tuition, and I absolutely refuse to spend any extra money where it isn’t needed. As a global citizen, there’s nothing more important than taking actions to ensure the health of our planet and people for years to come. And I, like so many other millennials, certainly identify myself as a global citizen. An environmentalist. An activist. Regardless of the title, we want to see environmental justice, equity and social responsibility across governments and industries.

It’s no secret that the key to such aspirations is a massive shift in consumer culture. After all, demand drives the market, and every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want. In order to create a more sustainable world, we must invest in ethical companies. This is particularly prominent in the food industry, where conventional products come with an incredibly large footprint of environmental degradation and unfair labor. To avoid harmful chemicals in pesticides that decimate vital pollinator species and pose serious health risks, we must purchase organic. To stop the loss of genetic diversity and monoculture crop systems that don’t support a functioning ecosystem, we must opt for non-GMO. To ensure that farmers who spend countless hours in the field to provide ethical foods receive a livable wage, we must support Fair Trade practices. But how can you practice what you preach on a college budget? Trust me, it’s possible.

A tight budget doesn’t have to mean compromising your personal health and that of the environment. It is entirely feasible, even cost-effective in the long run, to grocery shop in a way that aligns with your values. With just a little more planning, wise budgeting and commitment, your shopping list can make both your body and wallet happy. Here’s how:

  1. Make a list. If you’re like me, you’ve fallen for the grocery store trap. That is, walking in without a list, perusing the aisles and filling your cart with whatever looks good to you at that moment. Then, you get home and realize you forgot some essential ingredients for your dinner that night and have five things you don’t even need! With a predetermined list, you are much less likely to make impulse purchases and just stick with what you need. This will reduce food waste and allow you to invest a little more in ethical goods by refusing junk food with catchy packaging.

  2. Buy seasonal. Learn what fruits and veggies are in season where you live. Those items are likely to be less expensive and more local, giving you the opportunity to support farmers in your area! Not to mention the environmental cost of enjoying strawberries in the middle of winter. Just think about all the resources needed to transport that produce all the way across the country, or even half way across the globe, and all the pollution that emits!

  3. Cut down on meat. Limiting your meat intake is beneficial for a variety of reasons. First, meat is more expensive than produce and comes with significantly higher hidden costs. Livestock agriculture is one of the leading contributors to climate change, habitat destruction and deforestation. Factory farms alone account for almost 15% of global emissions, according to the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization. Michael Pollen states that if every American ate meatless just once a week, that would be the equivalent of taking 20 million mid-sized sedans off the road! Finally, cutting back on meat means less support for factory farms, which pack hundreds of animals under one roof and treat them inhumanely through unsanitary conditions, unnatural diets and growth hormones.

  4. Prioritize Ingredients Over Meals. Most grocery stores, especially green grocers, hire chefs to prepare food for a quick-meal option for their shoppers. That means the hot-and-ready food is sold at a price that will provide enough profit for the chefs. Buying individual ingredients and cooking at home will save significant amounts of money because you’re the one doing the prepping and cooking! In addition, use these ingredients to make big meals that you can store in the fridge and eat over the course of the week to save time on making new meals every night. But of course, life gets busy, especially for a college student. Keep a few meals stocked in the freezer but make sure these prepared meals are made with the same integrity as home-cooking.

  5. Buy in Bulk. The most important way to save money, while buying organic, is buying in bulk. Instead of recycling your empty jars of salsa or pasta sauce, wash them out and reuse them to fill with nuts, trail mix, quinoa, sugar or whatever else is available in the bulk section! This is the perfect way to get as much or as little as you need (reducing food waste), with absolutely no excess packaging. This helps you save money, resources and live a zero waste lifestyle!

Along with these steps, it’s important to always look at the labels and keep in mind the idea of social investing. That is, considering your expenditures as investments, not purchases. Labels that ensure livable wages for farmers, healthy ingredients for consumers and environmental sustainability during production may each cost a few more dollars independently; but when combined with conscious consumerism across all other aspects of life, it doesn’t have to increase your overall spending at all.

Where can you spend less to ensure that you can shop with your values at the grocery store? Maybe you don’t need to pick up a coffee at Starbucks every morning, but rather can make coffee at home (with the coffee grounds you bought in bulk!) and take it to-go in your reusable mug. Replace single-use plastic water bottles with one refillable, reusable one. Perhaps instead of buying into the latest trends and hottest designer brands, shop secondhand for new clothes.

I have not always been a conscious consumer; but since making the switch, I have saved more money than when I was purchasing cheap goods without a second thought of their externalities. And that’s because I was buying quantity, not quality. Now at the store, with my jars in hand and my global citizen consciousness, I buy goods that are certified organic and non-GMO. I shop at thrift stores and love the thrill of finding something uniquely beautiful. I fill up my reusable coffee mug and water bottle before leaving the house. And neither my wallet nor myself has ever been happier. It may take more time, planning and commitment, but in the long run your body, farmers and the environment will thank you.

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Megan Fuerst is a senior at The Ohio State University, graduating with a degree in Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability with a specialization in Policy Analysis. She was first introduced to the environmental movement through the nonprofit organization, Turning Green, who she now works for part-time. As president of Project Green OSU and treasurer of OSU’s Sustainability Council, Megan is very involved in the campus community and helps advance sustainability efforts at her school. She hopes to use her degree to influence policy towards more environmentally friendly and socially responsible measures across governments and corporations, enhancing transparency and accountability.