Cooke: Reduce is the most important environmental habit to develop

Cody Cooke

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We’ve probably all heard of the three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle. Each of these words are important habits that everyone can develop to make their own lives less wasteful and more environmentally mindful.


However, that first habit, reduce, is probably the most important for people to learn. In the words of the Environmental Protection Agency, “The most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place.”

The EPA’s advice is especially sound because it addresses the actual processes of modern society more than the secondary products of it. Similarly, “reduce” is the most powerful of the three Rs because, unlike “reuse” and “recycle,” it aims to limit those processes of production before they even begin. 

Reduction can be more than a single action you perform. It can become your lifestyle, influencing your relationship with the entire world around you. The first and most effective step you can take to shrink your carbon footprint is a simple one — simply do less.

I know that this may seem overly simplistic or naïve, but we should seriously ask ourselves why the phrase “do less” seems incompatible with modern life. Why are we expected (and often encouraged) to buy, travel and work so much, especially when we know how exhausting these energy-intensive habits can be for our mental health?

Reduction is probably the most important environmentally-conscious habit to develop precisely because it is directly related to the everyday functions (buying, traveling, working, etc.) of our unsustainable society.

“Reduce” means taking our foot off the pedal of the economic vehicle driving climate change today. Once we slow down, we can do a better job of steering toward sustainable alternatives.

“‘Reduce’ is the most important of the three R’s because its power is inherent in the person who practices it.”

If you’re like me and you don’t want to feel perpetually overwhelmed with grocery lists, workloads and utility bills, then a reduction mindset could be your best tool for ensuring life stays manageable. It could also help you save money.

Driving less means spending less money on gasoline. Only buying clothes when you absolutely need them saves a pretty penny and reduces your contribution to the carbon-intensive industry of fast fashion. When it comes to food, HuffPost advises us to “only buy groceries that you know (you) will eat,” which cuts down on food waste and also saves you money at the grocery store.

Reduction is especially important when the matter at hand relates to critical resources like water. Students in Fort Collins don’t need to be reminded of the ongoing wildfires, but we do need to constantly be conscious of how much water we use in a context of ongoing drought conditions and potential water shortage.

The City of Fort Collins’ website lays out a Water Shortage Action Plan, a “comprehensive list of tactics and restrictions to be implemented in the event of a water shortage.” As of May, this plan has been in-effect, and the ongoing Horsetooth Outlet Project only adds further strain to our water supply.


This City-mandated reduction of water usage might strike some as authoritarian or overdramatic, but we should first call into question our own habits and whether or not these habits were responsible in the first place.

Although I’ve been outlining individual habits of reduction, it is important to keep in mind that the individual can only do so much. The real work to be done continues to be on the macro scale with government policies, big institutions and global corporations.

My colleague Corinne Neustadter expresses this wonderfully when she writes, “Focusing on how individuals can reduce their own carbon emissions negates the systemic nature of our environmental problem.”

But if individuals collectively develop habits of not buying more food than they’ll eat or more clothes than they’ll wear — if individuals habitually use less water and energy than they currently do — then those systemic sources of the climate crisis have received less input.

Reduce is the most important of the three Rs because its power is inherent in the person who practices it. You don’t need to rely on recycling plants, and you don’t need to find a new use for that big empty milk carton since you decided to not buy milk this week in the first place.

Cody Cooke can be reached at or on Twitter @CodyCooke17.