With cross-country travel, meaty BBQs, and sprinkler season upon us, sustainability might not be at the forefront of your summer plans.
But believe it or not, the change of pace during these warmer months is a fabulous opportunity to reduce your household’s carbon footprint while still enjoying the magic that summer has to offer.
We’ll break it down for you with a bucketful of eco-tips and a dash of sunshine-infused inspiration to help your summer become synonymous with conscious living.
Odds are, you’re spending more time in your yard in the summer months than in the colder months. There are some great ways to tend to and beautify your yard while making smarter choices that can benefit your little corner of the planet.
If you decide to water your grass, do so in the early morning or evening hours to minimize evaporation.
Gradually introduce water, not overdoing it so that your grass is drought-resistant when the dryer months arrive.
A smart sprinkler controller can also be used to cut your outdoor water usage. These devices combine weather data with programmed information to determine your yard’s watering needs to make sure no water goes to waste.
Successfully Sustainable blogger and eco-expert Julie Navitka recommends homeowners replace some or all of their grass — which requires around 1,000 gallons of water per day for the average irrigated yard — with stone, clover, or other waterwise plants. And while you’re working on this transition, you’ll find benefits from the outset. Navitka implores,
Get outside. A lot. We learn to appreciate nature the more time we spend in it.
Compared to grass, clover is similarly lush and green, but also has some additional benefits:
To determine which type of clover will do best in your region, first find your location on the USDA plant hardiness map, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Then identify the type of clover that will grow best in your zone:
Horticulturist Amber Noyes agrees that a transition away from grass can be rewarding in many ways. “Clover lawns are more sustainable and offer extra benefits to the environment and your backyard ecosystem,” she says. “I've had great success with it, and I'm sure others will find it a worthwhile change.”
Noyes explains that since clover is a legume, it doesn’t require extra fertilizer and can even improve the health of your grassy lawn by depositing nitrogen into your soil if you’re using clover to overseed. Additional nitrogen-fixing legumes include peas, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, and peanuts.
Other plants can also enhance the function and beauty of your neighborhood. Native plant species aren’t just for flower gardens. They can also serve important roles within the ecosystem in the following ways:
Sedges, rushes, blueflag irises, and cardinal flowers can form a natural protective buffer near eroded areas and drainage ditches, and around lakes and ponds.
Of course, we recommend doing thoughtful research before introducing a species you don’t see naturally growing in your area. A great resource is your local land-grant extension office, where you can get free, individualized help with your gardening needs.
Every time you buy something, new materials and energy need to be used to produce that new thing. When you utilize durable materials, however, your things last longer and don’t need to be replaced as often. Initial material and installation costs will be offset by a longer life expectancy.
Natural stone is one inherently sustainable building material requiring no manufacturing and little maintenance for pathways, patios, water features, and other hardscaping jobs.
“Natural stone has demonstrated considerable durability in local and regional environments and applications. In many cases, these have lasted for hundreds of years, even millennia,” explains green building design expert Stephanie Urban Vierra in an essay on stone vs. manmade materials. “Most manmade materials have not been around long enough to demonstrate that level of performance.”
To further maximize your hardscaping sustainability, source your materials from a local company to cut down on transportation emissions, intersperse hardscaping with soft scaping strategically to maintain tree health and plant biodiversity, and ensure the installation will allow for proper drainage that doesn’t erode your soil.
As with hardscaping materials, when it comes to the materials you choose for your outdoor furniture, focus on longevity. Furniture made from tree wood may require seasonal maintenance and may succumb to rot, while metal furniture is susceptible to rust and weathering.
As you furniture shop, consider frequenting second-hand stores and yard sales to reuse items that still have life left in them.
If you’re buying new, look for sustainable brands such as the Indiana-based Adirondack chair company POLYWOOD. POLYWOOD operates with a catchy slogan: forever furniture rather than fast furniture. This company manufactures its outdoor furniture from recycled plastic containers that they process in their own recycling line using mostly trash that would have otherwise ended up in landfills.
In a season where cranking the A/C at all hours is the norm, home energy efficiency is a crucial place to explore ways you can help the planet — while saving money. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Take note of how often you use your dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, air conditioning unit, and other appliances, and decide to limit your usage to certain times of day or a certain number of times per day or week. You can also keep your lights off as the default and keep doors shut to keep cool air in.
Expect to save on your utility bill with this approach, especially if your utility company offers a discounted rate for energy used at off-peak times.
Better yet, consider taking a break from some appliances altogether. “When doing laundry during the summer months, use the summer sun to dry clothes rather than an electric dryer,” recommends cloth diaper expert April Duffy. “Not only will this cut down on energy use, but the sun is also an amazing stain remover!”
Put your hand over an electrical outlet that has an outside wall on a hot day and you may feel a rush of hot air. You can insulate your electrical outlets, switches, and phone jacks to prevent this. Most hardware stores sell inexpensive foam outlets and phone jack insulation pads; just unscrew the faceplate, slip the foam pad on, and put the faceplate back.
Additionally, if you’re not currently using exterior-wall outlets, slip in outlet protectors. You’ll find these in the child safety section of your hardware store, and they actually block a lot of heat infiltration.
Energy-efficient shades might be worth considering, especially when your windows face south. The less heat your home is exposed to, the less your cooling system has to work; and your home will stay insulated in the winter, too.
Moreover, blinds can bring real savings when your energy bill arrives. You’ll also benefit from increased privacy and decreased furniture fading.
Leaks in your ductwork can contribute to higher energy consumption and therefore a heftier bill. Have an HVAC technician make sure that your ducts are tightly intact and are working correctly, as this will keep hot air out, keep cool air in, and ensure proper ventilation and air quality within your home.
Using an energy-efficient air conditioner can help you reduce your carbon footprint and outmatch the cooling performance of less efficient models. And now is a great time to invest in electric appliance upgrades with home energy rebates.
Energy Star certification is the designation to look for as you shop. This is a program run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy, which hold appliances to higher standards for energy use and efficiency.
Not only can Energy Star-certified units save significant energy annually, but if every room air conditioner in the United States were an Energy Star-certified AC, it would prevent more than 6 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions annually — equivalent to the emissions from more than 570,000 vehicles.
What better time to install solar than when the sun is shining? A home solar system is a way to generate your own energy for electricity in a clean and green way — while saving money and investing in your home.
It can be eye-opening to reflect on our own households' impact on emissions levels.
In 2021, the average U.S. residential household used 10,632 kWh of energy. Each kWh produces 0.855 pounds of carbon dioxide, so, on average, each household using the fossil fuel-powered utility grid is contributing more than 9,000 pounds of carbon emissions per year.
Hypothetically, if you installed a solar system that offsets 75 percent of your power from the grid, you’d avoid producing 200,000 pounds of carbon dioxide that you otherwise would over the lifetime of your system.
But not all solar companies are of equal caliber. Be sure to read solar reviews for local companies as you decide which provider to work with.
Each of Best Company’s solar company profiles includes a searchable reviews repository where you can find reviews based on keywords like “communication,” “financing,” and anything else that’s important to you.
No matter the season, we all need to fuel our bodies. But summer activities provide some unique opportunities to eat and drink more sustainably.
The downside to festivals, fairs, and picnics is that they often produce a lot of waste. You can minimize your contribution to that by bringing your own reusable dishes and utensils with you so you don’t have to use disposable ones.
Likewise, take your reusable water bottle everywhere you go. You’ll stay hydrated and avoid contributing to the unnecessary plastic waste of disposable water bottles. Some shops and cafes will even refill your water bottle for free.
The less that food has to travel to reach you, the fewer carbon emissions through transportation.
Plus, eating seasonally may actually be better for your overall health —seasonal food is picked when it’s fully ripe and has maximum nutrient density. And consuming local honey helps some people with seasonal allergy prevention.
While spring weather may have passed, there’s still time to plant if you have a gardening spot to work with. Pumpkins, zucchini, snap peas, and runner beans grow well in a number of climate zones throughout the summer. Start small with just your favorite herbs or microgreens on a kitchen windowsill, or try a salsa garden: tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, green onion, etc.
For your garden and other planting needs, you’ll want inexpensive, nutrient-rich compost. So save yourself trips to the hardware store to buy compost or topsoil by making it yourself! This not only helps to minimize methane emissions but also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers in your yard, making it an especially eco-conscious choice.
To begin composting at home, follow these simple steps:
Over time, beneficial microorganisms will break down the organic matter, resulting in nutrient-dense compost that can be used to enrich your garden soil, potting mix, or houseplants.
Keep in mind that while composting can reduce the organic waste sent to landfills, it does require a certain balance of organic materials, water, and air to be effective. Where composting may not be practical with your personal space and resources, look into community composting.
You might be inclined to eat more meat, not less, during the summer months, and we feel you. But these facts about hamburgers and sustainability may just change your mind.
In light of these stats, as you plan your summer grilling, consider decreasing your beef intake in favor of plant-based burgers, tofu, other meat alternatives, vegetables, and fruits.
As you consider your summer wardrobe, awareness can go a long way.
The true cost of fast fashion is not just in the price tag: The latest trends, which are often made of plastic-based materials, offer cheap clothing, yet the environmental and social costs are often hidden. The fashion industry is responsible for a significant amount of water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste.
Additionally, many fast fashion garments are produced in sweatshops, where workers are paid low wages and work in unsafe conditions.
“Embrace the re-wear and fall in love with accessories,” she says. “We often fear someone will notice or care that we're wearing something more than once or wearing it a lot. But people actually find comfort in seeing you in ‘your style.’ My friends can almost go shopping for me now!”
Petlack says accessories can be a great tool when it comes to creating more outfits out of fewer pieces of clothing. Layering, scarves, and jewelry can make a wardrobe more versatile.
Along the lines of not buying excess clothing, you can consider the following ideas to make your clothes last longer and serve you (and others) better when you’re ready to retire them:
When you do need to shop, buy higher-quality items that are made to last. Trade or sell clothing on Facebook Marketplace or in-person consignment or donation stores like Indy Clover, Salvation Army, and Savers. You may even discover timeless vintage pieces you’ll love far more than the latest trend.
Where possible, support clothing and beauty brands that commit to sustainability in their production and supply chain, such as sustainable-by-design clothing company Cotopaxi.
But make sure you educate yourself on the types of efforts that make the biggest impact.
For example, carbon offset claims are not a silver bullet for sustainability. Carbon offsets allow individuals and companies to offset their carbon emissions by funding projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere.
Some carbon offset projects may have unintended consequences, such as causing environmental damage in other ways or displacing indigenous communities. Ultimately, carbon offsets do not address the root causes of greenhouse gas emissions and can be used as an excuse to continue unsustainable practices.
Look for fashion and beauty brands that utilize recycled materials and materials that can be recycled, reused, or refilled.
While sunscreen is crucial for skin cancer prevention, its impact on the environment is worth noting. Many sunscreens have chemical ingredients that are harmful to sea life.
Leah Wise, a sustainable blogger, recommends investing in coral reef-safe sunscreen to enjoy the benefits of sunscreen while minimizing its negative impact. Look for sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the main ingredient, rather than chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Whether you’re driving across town or flying across the country, travel is an area well worth examining when it comes to summer sustainability.
We saw in early 2020 the immediate impact of fewer transportation emissions via clearer skies in some of the most populated cities in the world. While those results were, unfortunately, short-lived, they can motivate us to make personal changes to our commute.
Consider using public transportation to and from the office, or if you live close to work, cycle or walk instead of driving. Download a podcast to listen to on the way and enjoy the weather when it’s nice. Both of these options can cut down on energy use and vehicle emissions and can contribute to a healthier lifestyle.
Investing in an electric vehicle (EV) is a three-fold win:
As mentioned, EVs do require a significant upfront investment starting at around $20,000 new, and the used EV market is relatively small. So this type of purchase isn’t feasible for everyone. But government incentives can help you cover some of the cost — a tax credit up to $7,500 — for qualifying vehicles and taxpayers.
It might make sense to switch to an EV in conjunction with a solar installation so you can charge your vehicle with the power your solar panels produce: Many solar companies install EV charging stations together with home solar systems.
Camping trips and escapes into nature can leave you feeling like a true explorer and help you appreciate the planet and want to protect it. But even nature-focused trips require travel to get to your destination, and you’ll leave some degree of a footprint throughout. The challenge is to make your trip as sustainable as possible.
Emissions-wise, driving becomes a better choice when you have more than two people traveling. Perhaps you’ve heard that driving is always better than flying, so we’ll break it down for you.
The carbon emissions for one person flying is 0.62 tons of CO2. Let's say you have three or more people traveling. If you opt for a cross-country flight, the carbon emissions from three people alone would add up to 1.86 tons. On the other hand, driving would result in approximately 1.26 tons of carbon emissions from the vehicle itself (ignoring the slight increase caused by additional weight).
As you increase the number of passengers in your carpool, driving becomes an even smarter environmental decision.
Moreover, if you happen to own a more fuel-efficient vehicle like a hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or electric car, taking a road trip becomes an even more enticing option.
If you don’t have the time or the knowledge to plan your own sustainable trip, you may want to pay someone to plan it for you.
Yugen Earthside is a company that works with local partners around the world to offer pre-planned nature-focused trips like walking, cycling, and trekking. It also offers certified carbon offsetting for each booking and donates more than 1 percent of gross profits to sustainable tourism development projects.
“It's important to have sustainable habits at home, and it's equally important to not ‘shut off’ the sustainability mindset when you travel,” explains Yugen Earthside founder and CEO Hilary Matson. Matson emphasizes the importance of picking trips with low-carbon impacts once you arrive at your destination as well as booking trips with locally owned, sustainable tour operators.
To conclude, we want to acknowledge a more big-picture take on sustainability in the context of these other ideas.
We believe sustainability efforts in your little corner of the world make a difference, including your example and voice within your personal and professional networks.
But we also believe large-scale solar adoption and systemic changes are crucial to making the impact needed to combat the climate crisis.
Climate activist and founder Clover Hogan acutely captures the importance of both individual and systemic steps toward sustainability:
Yes, people should recycle; but if we’re not lobbying politicians to regulate the companies flooding us with plastic, then we’re ignoring the impending tsunami to fix a leaky tap. We don't need 100 perfect activists, but millions of imperfect ones — people working together for social, political, and environmental change.
We know advocating for policy change is needed. But how do we go about doing that?
When you genuinely care about an issue, you’ll be a more effective advocate. Choose a specific sustainability issue that resonates with you. This step will most likely involve expanding your understanding of environmental concerns through informal reading, watching documentaries, and discussing with friends and family or perhaps formal classes or programming like Force of Nature's online community and training series.
The climate crisis is a complex problem, so there are practically limitless facets to focus on, such as clean energy adoption, reforestation, protecting biodiversity, or any number of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Once you have your advocacy topic and target audiences in mind, set a goal to do something about it. Start with your goal, such as getting the City Council to disclose environmental data, and then specify actions like gathering petition signatures, writing a Letter to the Editor, or meeting with City Council members.
When trying to influence your target audience, connect on a personal level by sharing how the issue affects you or someone you care about. For instance, if you are advocating for urban heat island mitigation because of the impact of climate-imposed heat waves on a loved one's compromised respiratory conditions, emphasize these local consequences alongside the broader climate implications.
Thankfully, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, as there are countless individuals and organizations already doing the work, even in your local area.
Look into existing climate advocacy groups that align with your regional and global sustainability passions, such as the United States Climate Action Network’s (USCAN) list of member organizations.
Or, perhaps you want to start your own informal or formal group with the goal of coming together to make improvements in your community.
After all, basking in the glow of your sustainable choices, you’re ready to host a planet-friendly neighborhood summer social in your own backyard.
June 19th, 2023
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