undercover environmentalist

I once wrote an article about sustainable living that generated a great deal of controversy. In addition to a rousing debate in the comments section, it also inspired a rather, erm, energetic rebuttal on another site. This post vehemently opposed the ideas I’d outlined in the article, and then began to take me to task personally for being a hypocrite and a fake environmentalist. This attack was bit bewildering but even more so was one of the comments, made after the author did some poking around my personal blog: “Does this look like the living room of an environmentalist?” they asked, indignantly, of a picture I’d posted. The implied answer, of course, was no. 

The living room of an environmentalist
Is this the living room of an environmentalist? You be the judge. Image Credit: Madeleine Somerville

I looked at the picture in question (above) and felt immediately confused. The room shown was fairly simple, not extravagant nor ostentatious in the least. (I keep my hunting trophies and gold filigree in the atrium, obviously.) The room holds a secondhand IKEA couch, books, a lamp I found in the storage room of my apartment building, and a coffee table I bought for $10 and painted. Above the couch are vintage window panes filled with colorful drawings. I stared at the photo for longer than I should have, wondering why I wasn’t seeing the same egregious symbols of an unsustainable life that the commenter did.

The environmentalist ‘equation’

I never did solve the riddle, and I also never stopped thinking about the question it inspired:

What does an environmentalist look like? Is there a one-size-fits-all prescription for sustainable living?

In its most clichéd form, it looks like this: Dreadlocks. Shapeless hemp or bamboo clothing colored with vegetable dyes in muddy shades of ochre, brown and dull green. Questionable hygiene. Worn shoes, a petition tucked under one arm. Vegan. A home with shelves full of plants obscuring the windows, Tibetan prayer flags and the lingering scent of incense or essential oils.

I think this is what that article was getting at, that if you don’t somehow embody the outdated stereotype of environmentalist-as-hippie I’ve described above, you’re faking it. They couldn’t be more wrong.

In my work writing about environmental issues, in addition to my own personal commitment to sustainable living, I haven’t once come across an environmentalist who fits the description above. They’re far too varied and unique to be stuffed into a stereotype like that and you don’t have to be either. If you’ve been putting off an eco-friendly life because you don’t want to give up a great wardrobe or a tastefully decorated house, you needn’t worry. Sustainable living has never looked so good.

To reap the benefits of sustainable living without looking the clichéd part, it’s all about your sources.

The ‘look’

I have nothing against hemp or bamboo clothing — it’s innovative, comfortable, and so so soft, but if it’s simply not your style, there are still scores of stylish, sustainable options for you to check out.

  • Online retailers like Everlane have committed to manufacturing their shirts using fair-trade labor in the U.S., reducing shipping distances, using plastic-free packaging and shipping materials, and avoiding exploitative labor practices.
  • Designer Tom Cridland is positioning himself as the antidote to fast fashion and has developed a stylish T-shirt, sweatshirt and pair of trousers made to last for 30 years.
  • A quick Google search will yield hundreds of other options for someone looking to dress well while also supporting an eco-friendly lifestyle. Sustainable living and looking chic and stylish are far from mutually exclusive — it is possible to do both!

Seconds, anyone?

Second hand goods - environmentalist
You can apply the same “environmentalist” techniques to achieve a chic, stylish and current home whatever your style, without spending thousands or resorting to milk crates and burlap curtains to fit the stereotypical hippie image. Image Credit: Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock

The best way to source items for sustainable living, however, is by skipping the mall or the big-box store, closing the web browser and shopping for gently used items at secondhand or consignment stores. If budget is a concern and you find yourself unable to invest in eco-friendly fashion — which sometimes comes at a higher price point — a secondhand store will have all your favorite brands and styles for 50 to 75 percent off the retail price. By shopping secondhand, you’re choosing to avoid contributing to the greater environmental impact of manufacturing, shipping, packaging and selling brand-new clothing. Once you’ve washed a new item a few times, it’s indistinguishable from secondhand items, anyway.

You can apply the same techniques to achieve a chic, stylish and current home whatever your style, without spending thousands or resorting to milk crates and burlap curtains to fit the stereotypical hippie image. Virtually every piece of furniture I own is secondhand and in excellent condition. It’s allowed me to get the style I want while avoiding harmful chemical off-gassing, wasteful furniture packaging and the hefty price tag, too. There’s also something indescribably exciting about poring through Craigslist ads looking for that perfect couch or dresser. There’s significant thrill to be had in the chase!

I’m proud of my commitment so sustainable living; I’ve worked hard to set up a life that creates little waste and uses few resources. I recycle and compost, buy things secondhand and only when necessary, and reduce resource use like water and electricity as much as I can. But exactly none of this precludes a life where I have a happy, colorful home, or a closet populated with choice, stylish finds. It’s incredibly counterproductive to believe that there is a blueprint for what sustainable living looks like because those whose life fails to fit into that narrow box may feel as though sustainable living isn’t a good fit for them, either.

Best practices

Are there options for sustainable living? Parameters? Guidelines and best practices? Absolutely! There are limits — no one would argue that private jets and thousand-dollar suits manufactured in sweatshops are sustainable, nor living rooms furnished entirely in leather upholstery and cow skin rugs. Yet it is possible to commit to sustainable living without becoming a stereotype or a cliché, or having your wardrobe choices screaming about it. In other words, it is entirely possible to be a hippie, or whatever descriptor you choose, without looking like one.

So, what does an environmentalist look like? Look around you. You’ve probably got a few undercover environmentalists in your life that you don’t even know about.

Feature image credit: Michelle D. Milliman / Shutterstock

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.