You can prioritize buying eco-friendly decor, cut out plastic wherever possible, or go as far as living in a net-zero home—but it’s important to remember the bigger picture of sustainability. It’s not about having the fancy new reusable lunch box or the luxurious recycled-fiber sofa. It’s about doing what you can to reduce your impact on the planet and acknowledging that environmental issues are inextricably interwoven with human rights issues, too.
That’s the fundamental idea behind the grassroots organization Intersectional Environmentalist, launched by 25-year-old activist Leah Thomas this past June. Thomas, who worked in public relations at Patagonia before being furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, frequently shares sustainability-focused tips and resources on her Instagram feed and blog, Green Girl Leah. In late May, one post in particular, connecting environmentalism with the Black Lives Matter movement, went viral.
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Social justice cannot wait. It is not an optional “add-on” to environmentalism. It is unfair to opt in and out of caring about racial injustices when many of us cannot. These injustices are happening to our parents, our children, our family and our friends. I’m calling on the environmentalist community to stand in solidarity with the black lives matter movement and with Black, Indigenous + POC communities impacted daily by both social and environmental injustice. Please swipe to learn more about intersectional environmentalism and take the pledge. Here is a list of some of my favorite accounts I follow that raise awareness for intersectional environmentalism, please tag more in the comments!: @mikaelaloach @toritsui_ @jamie_s_margolin @queerbrownvegan @diandramarizet @wildginaa @aditimayer @naturechola @nativein_la @amaze_me_grace @she_colorsnature @switchbackshawty @bleavitt8 @badgal_brooky @teresabaker11 @ImKevinJPatel @Xiyebeara @lainetew @sophiakianni @xiuhtezcatl
She had made a graphic defining intersectional environmentalism as a more inclusive version of environmentalism that recognizes how climate change often affects marginalized communities in particular, and how the fight for social and environmental justice go hand in hand. The post racked up more than 50,000 likes, and Thomas’s own following grew by over 130,000. Shortly after, she gathered some friends and colleagues in the sustainability community and launched Intersectional Environmentalist, an organization that shares resources and action steps while advocating for environmental justice.
The big picture of Thomas’s work is to target the systems of oppression that simultaneously endanger both marginalized communities and the earth. But change starts at home, and in her own Ventura, California, residence, she finds ways to live sustainably through the things she buys and the habits she practices. Here, Thomas shares her best tips for creating an eco-conscious living space.
Make Simple Swaps
For any household product you love, there’s likely a more earth-friendly alternative out there. Thomas is particularly passionate about using sustainable cleaning products, after working for the detergent brand Ecos right out of college. She also recommends Dropps, Blueland, and the Honest Company for their ingredient transparency. And when she has the opportunity, she enjoys bringing her dish and body soap jars to a refill shop near her home.
“I’m also trying to cut down on paper towels, so I’m using reusable ones instead,” she says. She keeps a hodgepodge of cloth versions in easy reach in her kitchen for cleaning and spills.
Do Your Research
Thomas finds sustainable home brands frequently as she rabbit-holes down Instagram, but before making any purchases or agreeing to any partnerships, she makes sure to get a good picture of what the company is really doing right. “I like to see if a brand has a sustainability report—it’s a red flag if a brand markets itself as sustainable without having any kind of backing,” she says. She thinks about “the triple Ps”—people, profits, and the planet—to assess how a company supports its workers and practices environmental consciousness.
If a brand can share its plans for how it aims to become even more sustainable in the future, all the better: “I really like to see long-term commitment,” says Thomas.
When buying new furniture or home goods, Thomas tries to buy things made of natural materials, like aluminum and glass food storage containers, linen bedding, and sustainably sourced wood furniture—all things that can be recycled or repurposed, so they don’t end up in a landfill years down the line.
While she admits that many sustainable brands come with higher price points, Thomas stresses that secondhand shopping—or even stooping—can dramatically reduce the costs of furnishing your home, all the while making it unnecessary to buy anything new. She bought her dining table on Facebook Marketplace and is especially proud of her bookshelf, which she spotted out on the street while driving around Los Angeles and brought back home: “It’s usually behind me in my Instagram Live videos, and I’ve gotten a lot of comments such as, ‘Oh, my God, what a nice bookshelf—where’d you get it?’ And I’m like, ‘The side of the road.’”
Look to Family Tradition
Many communities have long practiced environmentally conscious lifestyles for years without having trendy reusable food containers or fancy bamboo utensils. In July Intersectional Environmentalist worked with illustrator Daniela Jordan-Villaveces on a graphic that points to means of conservation inherent in Latinx culture—things as simple as reusing an old butter container for leftovers. Thomas’s grandmother also taught her the practice of keeping a drawerful of plastic bags to reuse over and over again. “A lot of people can realize that things their family has done at home forever can be sustainable, even if they aren’t often presented as such.”
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