A Vegetarian’s Quest to Sustainability

Lasting impressions of environmental endurance, minus the footprint

smaller_carbon_footprint_by_colby_h._bryant_WEBColby H. Bryant

There’s this joke about vegetarians. Maybe you’ve heard it. It goes something like this: How do you know if someone is a vegetarian? … They’ll tell you. (Laughter erupts.) Usually, an expletive falls between the “they’ll” and “tell,” depending on the joke teller’s disdain for the stereotypical impulse of vegetarians (and vegans) to proclaim their affinity for an animal-free diet.

Of course, not all vegetarians need a declaration, and not all meat eaters show contempt for their herbivore-leaning acquaintances. But, as with many lifestyle choices, change can come in surprising ways. This is how I unwittingly came to my journey of sustainable living.

As a first-year college student in the Bay Area, I took a course called Social Issues. For one semester, we studied topics such as prison system injustice and corporate greed, but one issue in particular decisively changed my behavior as an inhabitant of this earth: factory farming.

Now, this isn’t a call to arms for steak lovers to put down their knives. (Although, according to a Carnegie Mellon study, “shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs or a vegetable-based diet achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”) This is a testament to the ripple effect of education.

For starters, I stopped eating fast food. What first got me was the mistreatment of laborers that Eric Schlosser so pointedly discusses in his 2001 best-seller, Fast Food Nation. But as I came to learn, from Schlosser’s book and other resources we studied, the mass production of meat and dairy was just as unfortunate.

I soon realized that every purchase of Chicken McNuggets or Soft Taco Supremes was contributing to an industry that exploited migrants and the poor, as well as abused the animals I was consuming by restricting them to overcrowded, unsanitary environments and shooting them up with antibiotics. Even though my fast-food intake was minimal to begin with, I no longer wanted to participate.

Learning about the mistreatment of animals was just the beginning. Understanding how the food industry worked completely changed how I consumed food. What followed was a pursuit of a healthier, more natural diet, and organic was my starting line: free-range chicken, cage-free eggs, milk without rBST. Buying produce with fewer pesticides meant fewer toxins in the earth and in my body.

Spending a dollar became a political act. However small, any money spent toward organic options and away from processed foods meant I no longer subscribed and contributed to the food-industry giants’ systemic abuse.

How could I stop here, though? Perhaps it was the idealism and examination that university life promotes, but what ensued can best be described as a personal mobilization that ultimately became a practice of mindfulness of how my actions impact the world around me.

Next up was a revolt against Walmart and its everyday low prices. Triggered by watching the documentary Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005), the lack of transparency of economic, environmental and social practices was enough for me to stay away from patronizing the company. But something else didn’t sit well in regard to the retail giant being the single-largest U.S. importer of Chinese consumer goods. The world’s most notorious polluter, China is responsible for nearly 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. I instituted a personal ban against buying any products from the country altogether. (Not an easy feat!)

My next target was the beauty business, from the harmful ingredients (think parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde and sulfates) to the futile nature of many of these products—do I really need a full face of makeup and a spritz of perfume to attend the 3 p.m. showing of Zootopia? Shopping for shampoo now meant finding ethically sourced, animal-cruelty-free ingredients devoid of dangerous chemicals, packaged in the least environmentally impactful materials. Brands with a clear commitment to sustainable practices were also a must. Oxybenzone sunscreen is out; zinc oxide is in. Sensitive-skin face wash was the new norm. And absolutely no products with “fragrance” listed as an ingredient crossed into my bathroom.

My path is evolving. When I get off track, I forgive myself. In my pursuit, I have found that the more I shed, the less and less I need.

My fixation on understanding what was being absorbed into my body and the environment carried over into cleaning products. Whether inhaling or inadvertently ingesting residue, it became clear that disinfectants and household cleaners need not come from chemicals. Vinegar, essential oils and lemon—these are all natural, non-harmful means to keep a sanitary environment.

This journey began more than a decade ago. Sustainability awareness is on the rise, and because people are using the almighty dollar (not spending is also a great act in itself) to show interest in alternatives—Seventh Generation instead of Tide or Dr. Bronner’s in place of any shower or bath product, for example—an eco-friendly lifestyle isn’t as far-reaching or inaccessible as you might think.

A couple of years after the Social Issues course, I took the leap into vegetarianism. Admittedly, my biggest source of inspiration came from owning my first pet, a Labrador retriever. I kept remembering the factory-farming videos we watched in class and the atrocities of what those animals endured, and it suddenly hit me: I wouldn’t eat my dog, nor would I let him experience that level of inhumaneness. I never looked back.

At the time, I didn’t know this was the single biggest impact I could make in reducing my carbon footprint. However, I’m also realistic enough to say that in these modern times, leaving our mark on this earth is all but unavoidable—I fly regularly; I don’t carpool as much as I could; my showers are too long. Depending on where you fall on the spectrum of sustainable living, changing your habits either sounds exhausting or you’ve found areas, like the above, in which to critique what I should be doing better.

My path is evolving. When I get off track, I forgive myself. I try harder. I apply new knowledge as I actively gain it. In my pursuit, I have found that the more I shed, the less and less I need. Environmentalism is not just a social issue; it is perhaps the single most important issue humanity has ever faced. It’s not too late to start making changes—our existence depends on it.

Tell everyone you know.

Refuse single-use plastics

Bottled water, shopping bags, straws, cutlery, food containers, toothbrushes, refillable shavers … the list goes on. Check out LifeWithoutPlastic.com for functional alternatives.


Energy vampires. Ghost electricity. Standby power. Whatever you call it, it’s time to stop leaving appliances and electronics plugged into an outlet. Some of the biggest offenders: computers, cable boxes and DVRs. Try a power strip for multiple devices to easily power down/on. And don’t forget to unplug cellphone chargers!

Toilet paper alternatives

Until you get that bidet installed, opt for recycled TP (100 percent recycled content, at least 50 percent coming from post-consumer and bleached without chlorine). Otherwise, that three-ply is directly harming forests. Same goes for tissue paper, paper towels and paper napkins.

Know your chemicals

How “safe and natural” really are cosmetics and household cleaners? Environmental Working Group ( EWG.org) has an easy-use-rating system that tells you levels of toxicity in the items you use every day, so you can be a more informed consumer.

Half glass empty

The National Restaurant Association says in many parts of the country, restaurants are cutting back on their water use mainly due to drought. Las Vegas clearly hasn’t gotten the memo. Talk to your server, or better yet, restaurant owners. Ask for water—in a smaller glass—only if you’re really going to drink it.

Nail salon envy

Don’t buy into beauty campaigns. Both you and Mother Earth will be healthier without those every-other-week manicures. It says something when both the EPA and OSHA have dedicated guides about the health hazards in nail salons.

Online Activism

If chaining yourself to a tree isn’t your style, find a cause that’s dear to your heart and find an organization that’s leading the charge. It’s often as simple as hitting the send button when petitions to politicians or big corporations roll through your inbox. Check out Story of Stuff ( StoryOfStuff.org), Green Peace ( Greenpeace.org) and Friends of the Earth ( FOE.org) for environmental issues; and Divest Invest ( DivestInvest.org) to help keep money out of the fossil fuels industry.