Posted by Teri Sun

When I first started working in sustainability, I suffered from imposter syndrome. I was surrounded by people who were making far more sustainable choices than I was. And I questioned my ability to ever live up to their same standards. Could I ever belong here?

Coming out of my 4th Sustainable Brands event, I feel a strong sense of belonging in this community. But it’s not because I lead a perfectly sustainable life. It’s about the imperfect sustainable choices I’ve made.

My current feeling was well summed up by Kheri Tillman at the start of her talk at the event: “My daughter is a Pescatarian that eats bacon.”

Kheri’s daughter doesn’t eat beef or chicken. She doesn’t even eat pork chops. But she’s proud to admit that she still eats bacon. The net gain is that she feels good about the sustainable food choices she’s made, she still gets the delight of eating bacon, and – by proudly embracing her choice – she removes the cognitive dissonance of “not doing enough.”

Underscore on the word choice because when a shift in behavior is our own decision, we receive a positive feedback loop that acts as a stepping stone to more positive behavior change.

In my own journey, that stepping stone was related to recycling. 5 years ago, I admittedly wasn’t very mindful of my recycling. Even with a recycling bin in our kitchen, many papers and sticky notes from my home office often found their way into the trash. As I became more active in sustainability, changing that behavior seemed like an obvious and easy intentional step to take.

This first change felt good and didn’t take a lot of effort, setting the stage for a beautiful new habit. I’m now proud that my family also collects and recycles the plastic bags that can’t be put in our weekly recycling bins. 
But that next step came with its own set of challenges.

While I knew there were places that would take our plastic bags, I wasn’t aware of the options in my neighborhood. In fact, I collected and held onto my first batch of plastic bags for 6 months before knowing where I was going to recycle them. With what felt like a bit of detective work, I finally learned that our local Ralph’s grocery store has a collection bin. But, as convenient as this is, it’s not the grocery store that’s closest to my home – so it’s often an extra trip. 

This behavior change still requires a lot of intention on my part. And so, until plastic bags are part of curbside pickup and we find a way to make incredible veggie bacon, our progress in sustainability will be largely dependent on those intentional choices consumers make.

The good news is that intentionality and reality are getting closer together. I was excited at Sustainable Brands to hear stories from brands like Patagonia and MARS, who have embedded sustainability into their brand purpose and product design – so that it’s naturally built-in and requires less intention from consumers. And, from startups like ImpactKarma and ZeroMe empowering consumers with tools to purchase more sustainable products and track their carbon footprint. I was also thankful to hear honest perspectives on strategies that aren’t working – as well as healthy discussions about the challenges that none of us have answers to yet.

It’s easy to get caught in a hamster wheel striving for perfection and feeling like you don’t quite meet the sustainability standard. But driving sustainable behavior change is not about the perfect things we do. It’s about the intentional, often imperfect choices we make. 

Topics: Sustainability