As a student, going green comes with a price tag

Spending smart can help alleviate the anxiety of the climate crisis

Image by: Tessa Warburton
Kyra Smith touches on the difficulty of being eco-friendly on a student budget.

There’s no denying that climate change and money are closely intertwined. Whether it’s big industry polluters cutting corners to save (or make) a buck, carbon taxes in the news, or the cost of cleaning up after yet another extreme weather event, dollars and cents contribute to the dialogue around our planet’s decline. 

It can be difficult to separate our bank accounts from the climate crisis, especially when the contents of those bank accounts—and how much we’re willing to spend—might be our best means of bringing about change. 

We live in a democratic and capitalist society, meaning many find it empowering to voice our opinions with our ballots and paycheques. Unfortunately, elections typically only occur once every four years for each level of government, which restricts our window for lasting political action. 

Money, on the other hand, can be used every day to tell business and political leaders what we want, from social reform to action on climate change. When your voice can’t be heard, speak with your wallet. 

But if a student don’t have much in their wallet, they shouldn’t feel disenfranchised.

For many students, university is a time of frugality. While every person’s financial situation is unique, many Canadian students live on limited funds. After tuition, textbooks, rent, and utilities, there often isn’t much cash left over for us to use to express our opinions.

It doesn’t help that environmentally responsible options tend to be more expensive than their alternatives. 

Take the produce section of the grocery store, for example, where there’s often two iterations of the same item: conventional and organic. Unlike conventional products, organic products are grown without synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. According to studies like this 2014 report, these fertilizers are a major source of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas. 

Unfortunately, this reduction in carbon emissions doesn’t come cheap, as organic products are generally pricier than their conventional counterparts. A 2015 Consumer Reportscomparison found that within the grocery store chains they surveyed, organic products cost on average 47 per cent more than the same product grown conventionally.

Conscious consumers might want to opt for the eco-friendly option, but they’re forced to consider the bite it’ll take out of their grocery budget. Someone staring down next term’s tuition or struggling to pay off OSAP loans will find a bag of conventional carrots less attractive but more financially feasible than a bag of organic carrots.  

The same issue arises when purchasing clothing, footwear, hygiene products, and other necessities. High prices and low bank balances mean students can’t always spend money to reflect their environmental philosophy. 

When it comes to housing, too, students aren’t in a position to shrink their carbon footprint. Many student houses are old, with outdated appliances, inefficient heating, and poor insulation. Big changes are needed in order to make student accommodation eco-friendly, and those changes cost money. One Energy Star-certified window goes for more than $300 before installation costs. 

Even if students could afford to retrofit a house, there’s the snag of home ownership—or rather, the lack thereof. Renting means lacking the authority to make upgrades to a living space, and having little authority over energy use. A house’s thermostat can only be kept so low before its pipes—or its inhabitants—freeze.

This is significant, given that 81 per cent of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions and 78 per cent of global emissions come from energy production and consumption, according to Natural Resources Canada. By overhauling homes, we could reduce the amount of energy wasted and our carbon footprint. Unfortunately, these big changes are difficult to make for most students for financial reasons often beyond their control. The choice between what’s good for the planet and what’s good for our wallets isn’t always easy, but it’s critical to put our money to good use.

With the effects of the climate crisis already being felt, a need for change directed by everyday people is urgent. Now, more than ever, we need to spend and invest our money wisely to send a message to people in power. We need to support companies that do their part for their environment and, even more importantly, stop consuming the products of companies that do not.

This is where strategic spending comes in.

Strategic spending means understanding that not every purchase we make must lead to a clean, green future. That’s not financially sustainable or realistic. However, at the least, we can inform ourselves. We can gather knowledge and apply it to our shopping choices to reflect our ethical standards despite a tight budget.

Instead of spending on organic produce at the cost of being able to pay rent, research the products you buy most frequently and find out which ones are the biggest climate change contributors. If you can’t bring yourself to remove the worst offenders from your diet entirely, spend a little extra on ethically produced food like meat, if you eat it. Save elsewhere by buying cheaper, conventional products for more minor offenders.

Similar practices can be applied to housing. Most can’t afford to rent a new, energy efficient apartment, but you can start paying attention to utility bills and monitor your energy usage on your Utilities Kingston account.

Strategic spending can be applied almost anywhere. It isn’t perfect, but that’s alright. It makes a difference on a personal scale and encourages others around you to take similar easy steps. It gets the message across where and when it really matters. While personal habits won’t save the planet, they encourage consciousness of the climate crisis—which is a good start.

Kyra Smith is a fourth-year Biology student.


Budgeting, Climate change, Grocery Shopping

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