My 90% Rule

I’ve been having quite a few difficulties, technical and otherwise, getting a post completed today. So I thought it would be appropriate to reprint this one. It’s over a year old, so it will be new to many readers. And for the rest of you, I hope it’s as comforting to you as it is to me. I’m always harder on myself than I am on anyone else, and I know I’m not alone in that trait.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this concept of what I’ll call “The 90% Rule,” by which I mean that a lot of people doing things at a 90% level makes a much bigger difference than a few people operating at 100%. By “things” I mean recycling, living sustainably, buying secondhand, eating organic, line-drying your laundry, cooking from scratch, even doing The Compact – all the topics I talk about on this blog.

One of the best discoveries I’ve made about my experiment with Buying Nothing New is that it’s so doable, something most “regular” people can do without a lot of sacrifice. I’m not extraordinary, and so if I can do it, so can you. And to me, that’s great news. Because I believe that all of these things need to become second nature, part of the general culture, something that’s as much a habit as brushing our teeth.

I’m not about to start living off the grid, I’m too attached to people and culture and a lot of the perks of modern life for that, not to mention a paycheck. And let’s face it, that’s not a realistic option for most of us. What I’m interested in is showing people that we don’t need to be mindless consumers, and that we can all do as much as we can to recycle, live sustainably, and all that other good stuff- bit by bit.

People are busy. Things like recycling has to be made easy and convenient for them. That doesn’t mean they’re lazy, it means they have families and jobs and a whole lot of other priorities, and not a lot of time. Joining an effort toward recycling in your workplace or your community makes more of a difference than hauling your stuff to a recycling center across town if you’re the only one doing it. A whole lot of us doing our best means a lot more than a few of us becoming Ed Begley, Jr. Not that I have anything against Ed Begley, Jr. I must have written that before, because I remember that line. Uh-oh, I’m starting to repeat myself.

So that’s my message for today. Do the best you can. Try for 90%. You have no idea how difficult it is for me to say that. It’s almost cringe-inducing. I’m a perfectionist, and over the years I’ve come to realize how paralyzing that trait can be. I was raised by a father whose motto is, “If you can’t do something right, don’t do it at all.” And believe me, only 100% was good enough.

But now I think he was wrong. If you’re trying to eat local, but your husband begs you to buy some blueberries a week before March, are you going to refuse him? (A hypothetical example, of course). If it’s been pouring rain for ten days in a row, and you break down and throw the sheets in the dryer, does that mean you should give up on air-drying your laundry forever? If you can’t afford to replace all your cosmetics with organic brands, isn’t it better to replace them over time or replace as many as you can afford than to give up on the entire enterprise?

So I encourage you to grow your own food, air-dry your laundry, give up meat one day a week, start a compost pile, cook from scratch, buy your clothes used, shop at a Farmer’s Market or join a CSA, give up paper towels, join The Compact, or any or all of the above. Or none. Maybe you’re getting up your nerve, getting ready to make a change, or just like to read about it. Maybe you just come by to get a few recipes or a few savings tips. That’s cool. We all started somewhere, and it’s a process. This blog is a place of encouragement and inspiration, not of judgment.

We all do what we can. And together we can make a difference. No one needs to do it alone.


  1. says

    thank you for re-posting! i’ve been working on a post about being a “part-time” environmentalist, and how that’s OK. I think people feel like they have to go all-the-way in order to make a difference. and that’s overwhelming so they give up or don’t even start. but we’re all really part-time, unless we’re totally living sustainably, off the grid.

    excellent post!

    • Angela says

      Hi Megan, I like that – a “part-time” environmentalist.” I agree that too many people throw in the towel when they think they can’t do it all, but every little bit counts. The first year of this blog I did a lot of “baby step” challenges where I wrote about learning to compost, starting to line dry the laundry, and use less water and paper towels. The method of incorporating small changes until they become a habit really works well for me.

      Thanks for commenting

  2. says

    This sums up my philosophy. I try to be good, sometimes, nay often, fall off the bandwagon, but then get back on.. And ever so slowly I get better at ethical living.

  3. says

    I’m really glad you re-posted this because I missed it the first time. A really valuable message. Sometimes it’s the overwhelming weight of all the huge changes you’d have to make to live a better life that stops you from changing at all.

  4. says

    Oh, and I was going to mention that the alternative can actually turn you into a very difficult person to be around. It’s possible to be so more-organic-than-thou that you make other people feel uncomfortable and guilty. Remember the blowout at Katy’s site a few months ago when she said she still shops at Safeway?

    • Angela says

      Yes, I remember, and yes, I agree whole-heartedly that no one wants to be around a “green police” type. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Karin says

    Thanks for posting this again, Angela! It’s one of my favorites. I too have a problem thinking I’m not doing enough…

  6. says

    I love clothes…A LOT. I have actually found thrift shopping to be more satisfying than the regular kind. I get things that are unique, I get more for my money (and when I say more, I mean like 15 items for what I would usually pay for 2) and I feel so awesome when someone tells me they like my outfit and I can say, “It cost $3”. It is fun to watch the jaws drop. :)

    • Angela says

      Casie, I totally agree! I really love clothes and never would have believed I could go over 2 years without buying any new clothes. But what I am getting from our yearly clothing swaps and the few pieces I’ve bought secondhand are more than enough and it is so satisfying to get more unique pieces for little or no money! Thanks for your comment.

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