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How to Be Environmentally Conscious When You're Young and Broke

You don't have to spend your paycheck at Whole Foods to help save the planet.
August 19, 2016, 3:00pm

Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete

The number of environmental challenges facing the planet is daunting: There's climate change. Ocean acidification. Plastic pollution. Food wastage. The list goes on and on and on. And while plenty of young people want to leave the planet better than they found it, eco-consciousness can quickly get expensive, especially with the many upscale lifestyle brands who have co-opted green living.

Saving the planet ain't cheap. But it can be, according to Pandora Thomas, an environmental consultant and advocate. She's consulted with major brands like Toyota on eco initiatives and written curricula for teaching green building to children. She's also taught environmental mindfulness to inmates at San Quentin Prison, which is to say, her brand of environmentalism fits all budgets.


I spoke to Thomas about how to eat misshapen produce, find eco-conscious products, and other strategies to save the planet while on a tight budget.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: What would you say it costs you to living in an eco-conscious way? Do you find it to be more expensive than if you just defaulted to what everyone else is doing?
Pandora Thomas: Well, actually, a lot of what we call "environmentally friendly practices" are things people of low means do because they have to. You're saving things and you're trying to cut corners here and there, so you're using less products [and spending less money] in general.

I grew up in a very small town–I'm 44. Back then, there were still small towns–you knew all of your neighbors and we looked out for each other. We got all of our meat from a local butcher. When I think about being environmentally friendly, a lot of what we espouse has existed in all of our legacies here in the United States.

I was raised with an environmental ethic without my parents explicitly saying, "We're raising you with an environmental ethic." We reused a lot of things, saved money. We turned off lights. We just did common sense things because there was this "waste not, want not" ethic.

A lot of times the high cost comes in when you're buying things packaged. Also, [it can be expensive] when you're eating out a lot and you're getting organic food out. I probably spend $50 a week [on food] for me and my mother, buying meat and buying bulk.


But that can get expensive if you're shopping at, say, Whole Foods every week. Where do you find locally-sourced, organic food for cheap?
I'd say 80 to 90 percent of what I eat is either from the farmers market or from the Berkeley Natural Grocery, which is a natural food store. I do eat meat, but it's all free range, locally grown. I don't buy a lot of packaged food. I buy bulk rice and quinoa and things without so much packaging. If possible, I'll take in my recycled little baggies from home so I don't even have to buy a new plastic bag there. There are also people who dumpster dive. Dumpster diving is huge because a lot of these companies throw away stuff in their dumpsters that is perfectly fine.

I'm also joining this organization that sells imperfect produce. For $15 every week, they'll send you produce that's perfectly fine, but it's just that a high percentage of produce found in stores has to have this perfect look. Any imperfect produce they'll throw out. This is a company that takes that imperfect produce and sell it to us. This produce is just fine. For $15 a week, I'm able to get fresh fruits and vegetables, and that's actually delivered to me.

Besides buying food, what about bags and containers? Plastic pollution is obviously a big problem for the environment.
You don't have to buy bamboo or wooden forks or water bottles. Just use whatever you have in your house. If you have a house, you probably have forks and glasses and mugs and some kind of a bag. Bring it with you where you go. Then challenge stores by saying, "Can I just bring my own container, or are there alternatives that you can use other than plastic or Styrofoam?"


Interesting. What about toiletries?
You can make your own toilet paper, but that's really hard. I use World Centric, which is my hands-down favorite company. Their packaging is compostable. It's just an amazing closed-loop product. In terms of beauty products, if you really need makeup, there are a few brands that I use. Annmarie Organics, she "wild crafts" all of her stuff, which means they don't actually grow things. They just go to places where things are growing wildly and, in a limited fashion, harvest it and then sell it. Then Plain Jane Beauty, which is an African-American-owned company based in Atlanta. Lastly, Dr. Bronner's [for soap]. It's a bulk product so then you can just add water and it lasts a lot longer.

What kind of eco-friendly products are cheap and easy to DIY?
Definitely cleaning products. You can make cleaning products with, like, three other products. Air fresheners are very simple and easy to make. Then beauty products, like scrubs and lotions. They're pretty easy to make.

How do you make a lotion?
We usually use a base of coconut or almond oil and essential oils. Essential oils are herbs, but made into oils like tea tree oil. You can take coconut oil and cocoa butter and cook it until it's melted and then you get aloe vera or essential oils and stir. You can also literally just use coconut oil. The same coconut oil you use in the kitchen. You can use it in your hair. You can use it all over your body. Actually, there's seven or eight things I think every home should have that you can just interchange.

What are those things?
Lemons, coconut oil, some type of Castile soap (like Dr. Bonner's), almond or olive oil, tea tree oil, some type of essential oil, witch hazel, aloe vera, and borax. You'll save a lot of money.

Do you think an eco-friendly lifestyle is at all at odds with a frugal lifestyle?
Not at all. I think frugality allows you to live a more sustainable life. We definitely are going to have to give stuff up. We can't continue consuming and living the way we are, but that doesn't mean that we have to give everything up. I often times tell people, "Start to track your spending. See where your money goes." I used to do this. I spent $50 on espressos in two weeks, whereas if I just bought an espresso machine or a coffee maker, I would shift that money.

To be frugal is when you're tracking and understanding your spending and then finding ways to meet your needs that aren't so expensive, but also saving money so that you can support the things that you really want to be doing.

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