How to Respond to Critics of Sustainable Living

Updated 06/22/17

Perhaps you’ve taken the Plastic Free July challenge. You’ve banned plastic wrap in your home, started carrying your reusable water bottle everywhere and maybe you’ve started making your own granola. You feel very excited about your progress (as you should)! Then your friends and family criticize you and burst your bubble. Sound familiar?

“You don’t make a difference.”

Well, if nothing else, I have made a difference in my own life. I don’t eat processed food. I eat more delicious and healthier food. I get sick way less often. My kids know how to cook—a valuable life skill. I am happy. No, I can’t save the world, but I have had friends, neighbors and followers on social media tell me they have adopted some of my habits. Beth Terry’s blog influenced me and my daughter MK when she found it in 2011. Imagine all the people Beth has encouraged to change their lifestyles. We all do make a difference.

Food, glorious food!

“Yeah, well, I still say you don’t make a difference. If you actually do want to make a difference, quit your day job and go protest Big Oil in the streets full-time.”

I do what I can in my circumstances. I am not perfect. I started a blog because I enjoy writing and needed a creative outlet and felt I had something to say. I think activism doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition—either you dedicate your life to the cause and give up everything (including your family) or you don’t bother. I would like to do more, such as teach more people how to cook and take care of themselves. Cooking mitigates so many problems (dependency on Big Food, obesity, diabetes…eating nasty food!). As one of my heroes Ron Finley puts it, “Food is the problem and food is the solution.” 

“We have bigger problems than plastic pollution.”

According to the World Bank (not exactly a liberal institution),

The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Yes, this is a dire problem. And that’s 4 degrees Celsius. But our problems all relate to each other and plastic is made of oil.

For me, plastic epitomizes our consumer, throw-away culture. It represents the kind of thinking (and action) that led to our current environmental crisis. We’re addicted to convenience (much of which plastic makes possible), we demand what we want when we want it, we want it cheap and we dispose of what we no longer want without thought. We consume mindlessly and behave as though we have infinite resources. At our current rate of plastic production, consumption and disposal, by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. Plastic not only kills marine life, it is in marine life. Fish eat it, we eat the fish and so we eat plastic. Blech.

When you cut plastic from your life, you examine every aspect of your life because plastic is a part of every aspect of modern life. You naturally slow down. You change your lifestyle. You reduce your footprint.

“I don’t eat those plastic-filled fish, I’m vegan and you’re not, you fraud.”

I can count on one hand the number of times a vegan has attacked me for, well, not being vegan, but it has happened. I do eat lower on the food chain. I rarely eat meat and when I do, I eat pastured. I buy pastured dairy from either Straus Family Creamery or St. Benoit Creamery. I eat pastured eggs and know the vegetarian farmers who provide them to me. I’m pretty sure they chant oms over those happy hens that run up to humans visiting the farm.

So, no, I’m not a vegan but I am very conscientious. Not everyone subscribes to veganism and some people will feel excluded and overwhelmed if I go all dogmatic on them (which I try not to do). As a result, they may never start. I try not to proselytize. It only annoys people rather than winning them over.

Ananda eggs
Om Shanti Om

“Your reusable and thus germ-infested cloth bags and containers will kill you.”

We are a country of germophobes. Our fear of germs and attempt to completely annihilate them plays a role in the mass extinction facing our gut microbiota, which affects not only our health but also our mood and weight. Our love affair with antibiotics—we overuse these useful drugs—has resulted in antibiotic resistance, which according to the CDC, sickens over 2,000,000 Americans every year and kills 23,000.

When they get dirty, I wash the cloth bags and glass jars that I use for shopping. I can’t possibly sterilize them and they don’t need sterilization.

“I won’t change because technology will save us.” 

This one will drive me over the edge. Electric cars, edible packaging and apps for dilemmas we can figure out ourselves (e.g., apps that alert you to the apple on your counter about to turn) don’t go far enough. We actually have to change our lifestyles, not merely create a greener version of our consumer culture. I’m not suggesting we all go live on a farm and raise goats (although I would love to…). But what’s so terrible about slowing down, simplifying and enjoying life? I suppose it’s terrible for the GDP, an artificial construct. It will help keep the air, water and soil healthy though (those are real).

“Just enjoy yourself while you can and take all you can get because we’re doomed.”

Even if I accepted our doom as a given, how does our consumer culture make us happy exactly? Self-medicating doesn’t count (speaking of which, global pharma sales hit the $1 trillion mark in 2014 and should reach $1.3 trillion by 2018). Slaving away at a job so I can earn money to shop at a crowded mall for more junk I don’t need does not appeal to me. I’d rather read a book. Or go skating. 


“Cooking requires too much work.”

This is a tough one. I recently wrote a post that can help: “18 Time-Saving Tips for Cooking Real Food.” Please don’t shoot the messenger but if you eat, you need to master some basic (and easy) cooking skills, unless you have a personal chef, which most of us can’t afford. If you learn a few skills (like how to make soup), you waste less food (and save money). You know what to do with what you have on hand, you buy real ingredients you actually cook with and can use in infinite ways.

“Living the way you do costs too much money.”

My daughter says the zero-waste lifestyle is “out of reach for poor people who are actually the most hurt by corporations and are victims of environmental racism.” No, I don’t live in a food desert, yes, I have time to cook real food (I don’t work two jobs, for example) and yes, some things I buy, such as milk in glass bottles, do cost more than their plastic-packaged counterparts. However, I do spend less money on food than I used to. Since I cut the plastic, I decreased my meat and dairy consumption (they are difficult to find plastic-free), and started eating more beans, legumes and vegetables. Those cost less. I could save more money if price was my only concern.

Not everyone can afford milk in glass bottles (or milk for that matter) but I think almost everyone can make different choices. For example, most people (unless they live in Flint, Michigan) can make tap water their drink of choice and stop wasting their money on bottled water and unhealthy sugary beverages—packaged in plastic.

I don’t think reducing your carbon footprint is an all-or-nothing proposition. In the long run, you’ll certainly save money on healthcare. Read more about the “too expensive” argument in this article “Is zero waste unfair to low income or disabled persons?” from Paris to Go. 

“You had kids.”

Yes. Twice.

“You’re alive and so you have a footprint.”


“You’re frivolous/naive/insane.”

Whatever dude. I have no response. Just remember:

what people think

40 Replies to “How to Respond to Critics of Sustainable Living”

  1. Great post! I yearn to be zero waste but find it an overwhelming task. Your blog has helped me slowly implement things into my life. I love your responses!

    1. Thanks for that. I think the zero in zero-waste can be intimidating and can make people feel they must be perfect. I’m glad to hear you’ve found my blog helpful 🙂

  2. Love the last quote and picture! It’s hard enough living in my head without trying to rent space in some one else’s 😄

    1. Thanks! That saying has really helped me too. It’s very liberating. Well said > “It’s hard enough living in my head without trying to rent space in some one else’s.”

    1. Thank you Jen 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  3. “No, I don’t live in a food dessert . . .” But living in a food dessert would probably be more fun than living in a food desert! 😉 Thanks for the post–and the blog itself. I haven’t quite made as much progress in being the change as I’d like, but one step at a time, eh?

    1. OMG how embarrassing. Thank you! I’ll fix that. Yes, one step at a time!

  4. Kristin Smith says: Reply

    You inspired me! I am far from plastic free, but since I started reading your blog 1.5 years ago, I am purposeful about trying to reduce plastic during shopping. I was already a cloth bagger and had never been a plastic wrap sort of person. But you showed me how to go further. My city is not as easy as yours. And every time someone sees my cloth bulk and produce bags, they make comments on how they want them. So someday, it will be mainstream. Thank you for showing me a better way!

    1. Hi Kristin, it is pretty easy where I live to go plastic-free. I have several options for buying bulk and my farmer’s market is fantastic. Hopefully it will get easy like this everywhere eventually. That’s great that people comment on your bags. It gets them thinking. Thanks so much for reading my blog 🙂

  5. Boom. That’s how it’s done.

  6. I have a long way to go but have made a few steps. I have a wonderful garden which turns out to be very therapeutic (and a bit subversive) and a dozen chickens who have the run of the place and are very happy girls. 😊 I have also stopped buying paper towels and tissues. Just about blew my step mom’s mind with that one. And went poo free about 10 months ago which directly led me to ditching most all of the ‘beauty’ supplies being foisted on me. I buy home made bar soap at craft fairs/farm markets and don’t miss the antibacterial stuff one bit. I do tend to obsess about what I can’t/don’t do, but then I go pull some weeds and I feel a bit better

    1. You sound advanced to me Suzanne. I would love to have chickens! I agree gardening is totally subversive (and cooking too). If I ever write my book, the title will be “Sourdough is the new tattoo.” My mom also doesn’t know how I survive without paper towels, which is funny, because I’m pretty sure they didn’t exist in the 40’s when she grew up. I find the simple beauty routine (basically no routine) very liberating. It gives you time for other enjoyable things like gardening 😉 You should feel great about what you’re doing, not bad about what you can’t do! I’m glad pulling weeds helps. ~ Anne Marie

  7. […] A friend is treating me to the Marc Cohn concert at the Denver Botanic Gardens this evening. Concerts at the Gardens are always wonderful. You bring a blanket and picnic and spread out on the grass to take in all the sights and sounds. I offered to bring the food, which had to be gluten-free (for me), dairy-free (for her), and as close to zero waste as possible (for the planet). Harder than you might think. I decided on this salad, but substituted black beans for the shrimp and quinoa for the tortilla chips, since both substitutes can be purchased in bulk. I’ll layer the salad in individual Mason jars this morning so all I have to do is grab them on my way out the door. I also made these chocolate cupcakes (without paper liners) earlier in the week and popped them in the freezer. My bag is packed with cloth napkins, silverware, and some additional jars to serve wine in. Other than the foil from the top of the wine bottle, there will be no trash from our picnic. With a little forethought, even special events can be made zero waste. Speaking of which, I really liked this. […]

  8. I like this article. I don’t know why people so often think that you have to “crash” behaviours. Crash diets, instant riches, cold-turkey life changes. THAT’s exhausting. I used to have a magnet on fridge that said; “Life is hard, yard by yard. Inch by inch, it’s a cinch.” That motto helped me a lot when raising a learning-disabled child, and I find having lived that way for 20 odd years while doing so, it has impacted my thinking on a much larger scale. I now do what I can, when I can, as I can, and always work toward doing better. That means, if I can’t move to the woods and live off the land and be completely self-sufficient, it’s ok. I can make better choices, and work toward my ideal as each opportunity presents itself, and when I’m ready to see it, another opportunity for lightening my footprint will show itself. “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” Another motto I picked up somewhere along the way. Thanks for being a timely teacher.

    1. Well said, Betsy! I had never heard that saying. It’s a good one. Thanks for sharing that. I completely agree. If we try to change everything all at once, we’ll just get frustrated/feel like failures/make no changes/all of the above. I too have a child with differences and it certainly changed my outlook on life. Thanks for reading my post and for your eloquent comment 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  9. Great post and I can relate to everything, although I’m vegan myself. But I’m not here to judge! 😉 After all, I know many vegans who are vegans just for the animals or, are plant based strictly for their own health, yet they don’t have any problems with buying/using lots of plastic&other stuff.
    It breaks my heart whenever I see that so many organic (and other) products come packed in plastic. How can they be sold and bought as “healthy&organic” is beyond my understanding.
    My biggest “enemy” are the plastic blags, especially those little ones you get at fruit&veggie sections. I stopped using them long ago and I always bring my own basket to the store…however, the looks I get are priceless. Apparently putting tomatoes and pineapples together is crazy, and putting each and every of your produce into a separate plastic bag isn’t. Funny world. 😛

    1. Thank you! We’re just so used to buying everything in plastic (including healthy food) that we think this is a normal state of affairs :/ That’s crazy you get looks for not putting your food in plastic! Next to those giant rolls of plastic produce bags at the grocery store, we need warning signs like you see on cigarette packages: “This bag may end up in the ocean, kill marine life and birds and wind up in the next fish you eat.”

      1. That’s exactly what we need! I’m fairly new on this zero-waste thing, and doubt that I’ll ever get there entirely. However, I’ve become very conscious of the ridiculous amount of plastic that is around us everywhere and I’m working on reducing plastics coming home by using a basket and reusable shopping bags. I cringe when I realize I’ve forgotten to bring them into the store. And, I really hate how we, as a society, have been brainwashed into thinking that we need all these tons of plastics. How did people 100 years ago, or whatever that number is, do before the invention of plastic? I bet they had way less garbage! Anyways, I’m going to keep plugging away at reducing waste, and plastic specifically, in my own household, and hopefully rub off enough on my family that they will all start going that direction, too.

  10. I like your humble and well-balanced approach to zero waste. The comment I hear most often is about it being too much work – as if everything we consume should be effortless. It’s very difficult to explain this one to anyone who has another perspective from mine and I never know what to say. Your post has helped me make my own responses.

    1. Thank you Hilda. I find that one the most difficult and still haven’t come up with a succinct response. It is more work but you also simplify so on the other hand it isn’t. Or you change your focus and so spend your time working on this … I have to think about it some more. A woman interviewed me earlier this year and commented at least a few times that this all seems like so much work and I just of stuttered and stammered…kind of like this comment 😉

  11. Great – thanks!

  12. Awesome post. Love it. Will have to share it again 🙂

    1. Thanks so much Nadine 🙂 ~ Anne Marie

  13. I totally agree with this! : “Slaving away at a job so I can earn money to shop at a crowded mall for more junk I don’t need does not appeal to me. I’d rather read a book. Or go skating. “

  14. Reblogged this on The Zero Journey and commented:
    I enjoy reading Zero Waste Chef, and this is yet another post I must share because of the multiple connections I have to her words. Every single thing on earth is connected and part of the same cycle, do everything we do, however small it may seem, will and does make a difference.

    1. Thanks so much for the reblog 🙂

      1. Thanks for posting lots of rebloggable information! 😉

  15. Great post! Just a thought on the “cooking is too much work” comment. We had friends visit us once and ask, “do you really cook from scratch every night?” At the time, I said, “yes, of course!” But later I realized that I should have explained (and got the chance to later) that with both of us working full time and managing a small homestead, “yes! But sometimes we make scrambled eggs! 🙂 ”

    I think people are programmed from a diet of processed food think that they have to replicate that food themselves at home. But cooking from scratch can by WAY simpler than that. On busy nights we eat poached eggs on toast with greens, or pancakes with fruit and yogurt, or grilled cheese sandwiches with a big salad…we can simplify our diets a lot more than the food network makes us think. 🙂

    1. You make such a great point! I cook pretty simple food too and try to make lots of it (I love leftovers for lunch the next day). I’d have to quit my job if I cooked like the Food Network every night! I really think some of these TV shows, food porn and the celebrity chef culture intimidate people, rather than inspire them. Yay for simple food! ~ Anne Marie

  16. I wish I could bottle you up and sell you (hahaha, just kidding!).

    A point I would add to your response of the critique of a ZW lifestyle not being feasible for poor people, is that by living this way and supporting alternative shopping channels and suppliers who are making healthy, local and less packaged foods, are we not paving the way for this kind of food system to be more normal, and as such, more accessible? The other point on the same topic is that not being a party to the overuse of industrial chemicals is good for everyone, and perhaps even disproportionately the poor, no? I get where your daughter is coming from – I too am concerned that if the solution isn’t accessible, it’s not going to work (i.e. buying really expensive speciality products can’t be it), but if anything, it’s not a reason to stop our efforts, but to redouble!

  17. I think what your daughter meant about the zero waste lifestyle being out of reach for those of lower economic status is more that these options aren’t available to them at the stores where they shop.
    I’m a huge proponent of zero waste. I use my own jars for bulk goods and make my own nut milk, as well as other products we’d otherwise buy in plastic. The few things we do still buy in plastic are mostly in service to my 2 very small children who are super picky eaters and try as I might, they still need to eat foods that are bought in plastic. Force feeding doesn’t work and is a terrible idea.
    Anyway, most people who are of lower economic status don’t shop at stores with bulk goods. They don’t have the luxury of being choosy about buying something in glass over something in plastic and for the most part, almost everything is in plastic regardless — even the fruit, the veggies, and baked goods.
    Nor do they have the luxury of time to make so much from scratch.
    Additionally, they’re not educated about the necessity of purchasing foods in recyclable or reusable packaging.

    So while, yes you are lowering your weekly bill, it’s an uphill battle for those who don’t have the same options for where to purchase their food.
    The industry has to change first, which is the harder battle.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Naomi,
      I totally agree, industry has to change. We can make progress with lifestyle changes (as you say, not all can make these changes) but if industry had to clean up after itself, change would come much faster. Thanks for your insightful comments.
      ~ Anne Marie

  18. […] a real difference. I have a lot of reasons to disagree with this (the Zero Waste Chef compiled a great list of arguments to answer the common critics against zero waste). The main reason I think zero waste makes a […]

  19. A thing that I really don’t get is why people need to be in other people’s business? If you don’t feel like another person’s life choices don’t make a difference, then so be it? So what if they want to tote around glass jars when they go grocery shopping? So what if they don’t buy single use plastic things? By your logic, it doesn’t have an effect on you.

    I’ve been trying to be more environmentally friendly since I was a kid (mostly that was recycling when I can, using a reusable mug and bottle, not using plasticware, basic stuff). It wasn’t until the last couple of years I’ve been trying to be more environmentally conscious by reusing jars and bringing my own bags to stores, re-purposing things, shopping at thrift stores for a lot of things instead of buying new.

    It wasn’t until the last couple of months that I’ve been trying to be a lot more environmentally conscious (ex not buying things unless I really need it, can I get this elsewhere without packaging or as much packaging? Etc). Thanks to your blog, I’ve been trying to bring my own containers to stores that have bulk bins, going without the single use plastic (ex straws and plasticware, and carrying my own).
    Thanks for having such an informative blog!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Sonia,
      Exactly! If you don’t like it, don’t do it! But why criticize? Don’t the critics realize we do this because we want the earth to be habitable, the earth they also happen to inhabit? I was similar to you I think (thanks to my dad…I helped him build a solar-thermal heater for our pool when I was a teenager…had a big effect on me…). I did what I could but then really stepped it up later (when I started reading about all the plastic in the oceans). I’m glad you find my posts informative. Thanks for reading 🙂
      ~ Anne Marie

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