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How to Deal with Judgmental Friends and Family

Sustainable Relationships

Last Updated on January 23, 2024

The bottom line is not everyone is going to get why you’re living a zero waste lifestyle. People aren’t going to understand a lot of things you do.

I freak out over penguins and jam out to musical theatre 24/7… not everyone understands and that’s A-OK. 

You’re not going to please everyone, you have to do what’s best for you. Check out these blog posts on going zero waste when a partner doesn’t want to or even dating with lifestyle differences

We all have family members in our lives that we don’t see eye to eye with. This could be about politics, religion, dietary choices, zero waste, opposing sports teams basically everything that makes Thanksgiving dinner awkward. 

We all have them. 

A reader wrote in this past week, “I’m absolutely loving your blog and first off wanted to say thank you! It’s really inspiring and amazing to have tools laid out for how I can cut back on my waste, so thank you for paving the way.

Second – I have a cousin who is very conservative and a couple years ago when I started using a diva cup the topic came up and her response was ‘Even if you’re not using tampons, tampon companies are going to keep making the same amount, they’ll still be there anyway.’ 

(Very similar to what she said when I became a vegetarian)

I remember being taken aback and not really sure how to respond. I guess my question is, do you have any advice on how to talk to people so deeply entrenched in this mindset, and I wonder about this too. 

Even if I’m doing my part, will these companies continue to produce the same amount regardless?” 

When talking to friends and family members you have to remember *insert any lifestyle difference* is your choice and your choice alone. 

It’s important to know your why and bring it back to a very, very personal reason. If you do something for someone or something else, for example, you’re going zero waste for the earth or for the animals, you’re coming off holier than thou in their eyes. 

You are better than them because you’re selfless and their inaction is selfish. 

In order to break that first barrier, you have to make it about you. Make it selfish. I went zero waste for my health. I went zero waste to save money for myself. 

Another example would be biking to work to reduce emissions for the environment vs. biking to work to improve your overall well-being. 

“make it selfish”

Do you see the difference?

People are much less likely to put up a stink if you’re being “selfish” or doing something for your own health. 

I’m not saying it’s logical, it’s just an easy way to level the field when it comes to talking to people that are difficult to talk to. 

Other key points for pleasant gatherings is to avoid these topics and focus on the things you do have in common. Most of the time we can be polite for one afternoon. 

As far as whether or not one person will make a difference, I can’t help but think of this quote from Margaret Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

You can really make your cousin angry when you whip this quote out – selfless and self-righteous all at the same time. 

But, to get to the bottom of the question will one person make a difference. Will just your actions make a difference…. in the grand scheme of things will the actions of one person make a difference?

No, probably not, but it’s not just about your physical actions. It’s about awareness. 

Your actions inspire others. Their actions inspire even more people, and before you know it there are hundreds and thousands of people who can change the world because of the awareness through your actions. 

Family dinner at a local restaurant in Texas. Kathryn (KK) and conservative cousin (CC), in a particularly cynical mood) meet after several years.

SC 1. 

CC: Even if you’re not using tampons, tampon companies are going to keep making the same amount, they’ll still be there anyway

KK: Have you heard of supply in demand? It’s a very simple principle, where demand goes down and things have to change. They have to start disclosing their ingredients, move to safer product, or change up their packaging.

Plus, I’m not the only one moving away from Tampons, lots of people are. But, even if I was the only person, it really doesn’t matter because it’s better for my health, and I’m saving a ton of money with my diva cup. 

SC 2. 

CC: Even if you’re not using tampons, tampon companies are going to keep making the same amount, they’ll still be there anyway

KK: Good thing I’m not the only one moving away from tampons. (Breaks out into Safety in Numbers from The Boyfriend) 

I just had to bring it back to the musical theatre thing. 

After both of those interactions, my next step would be to disengage and talk to someone else. 

It’s also important to remember a couple things: 

  1. You ARE awesome!
  2. You ARE making a difference
  3. You aren’t alone; you have a lot of people who support you (me!!) 

And, to leave you with this… is it ever a bad idea to make the world a better place? 

 Joel Pett cartoon for USA Toda

Joel Pett cartoon for USA Toda

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  1. Great article! Your blog has been very inspiring to me. I just had a discussion with my husband last week on this topic. We both agreed that setting an example with small comments here and there when others express interest is probably a good way to go. When we say something like "I don’t use disposable plates and utensils anymore because it’s very wasteful," that is typically going to be received as "you are a wasteful person because you use disposable plates and utensils." Nobody is going to like that. Also, the conservative cousin’s problem may not stem from the fact that she’s conservative. I’m pretty conservative and I use a diva cup. She’s probably just so entrenched in the typical convenience culture that most of us grew up in that it’s mind-blowing to think of doing something different. With time, she may see the light; I did.

  2. I love the idea of making it seem selfish to stop the negative comments. Many people seem to take anyone doing something good, whether it be making less waste, going on a diet, working out more, as a judgment on other people not doing it! Making sure people know you’re not judging them is a great way to lessen the tension with negative folks.

  3. Thats really an eye-opening article. I think I did it so far really "wrong" and focused to much on the negative impact of the avoided action on earth instead of the benefits of the alternative. Now I’m really craving for the next critical comment of a "conservative cousin" to try this strategy out. Thank you!

  4. Thank you! I just recently found your blog and I am really enjoying it.

    I noticed a typo at the beginning of scene 1: I think you meant supply and demand, not supply in demand. Great idea to make it selfish! Money always seems to convince people, in my experience.

  5. Thank you for the support! It can feel lonely when not many people around you are making similar lifestyle changes, and it’s helpful to hear we are NOT alone and can support each other, albeit virtually!

  6. Hi Kathryn! Thank you so much for this post! I have a big problem dealing with my boyfriend and doing zero waste. He likes to throw my jars out without asking me at all. He throws my rags out without me knowing. This discourages me so much but I don’t know what to do. It’s like it’s either him change or I change. Any advice?

  7. This is really great advice! I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this lately for a couple reasons. I have received a lot of negative feedback from people about my zero waste habits over the years – I’m talking about decades of being the oddball, ever since I was a little kid. But I just kept on keeping on because deep down I knew it was the right thing for me to do. Suddenly, within the last year or so, I have so much more support. Not from everyone but from both people who never said a thing about it in the past and prior arch-nemeses who wished I’d disappear with my glass jar of coffee. They now come to me for tips on how to reduce their waste. <3 I also work in a restaurant (OMG, so much waste!) but the owner has been working with me to create different systems to be less wasteful. The most recent venture is skipping the straw – only giving plastic disposable straws when customers request them. I feel great about the change but I know we are going to be met with resistance from some people and I feel nervous about it for some reason.

  8. this is great advice kathryn! i think i’ve learned to take the "shrug" route though. i’ve seen so many positive reactions to the steps i’ve taken from going zero waste myself… like the friends texting with real questions about the menstrual cup, sugar waxing, cloth napkins, etc… that you can already see where you’re making the difference.

    if someone is up for challenging you that much, where it goes to discussions about consumerism and industry, i find i’m just not equipped to have those discussions.

    i guess all i’m trying to say is that i like to lead by example but let people figure out their choices on their own time. people who are interested will hop on board on their own accord, whether or not they’re "convinced".

    ANYWAY—how can i get my mom to stop pushing saran wrap and aluminum foil on me? i keep telling her they’re NOT necessities ?

  9. I discovered you on instagram. I live in Miami, and down here people think I’m crazy when I’m out and about in public cleaning up trash and plastic!!! I’ll usually get the tree hugger label and that’s fine. My response is yes, I am, and I’m also a conservative. I hate plastic, and it kills me to see it, especially on the beaches, coastal shores and trails. There is so much more I wish I can do like spreading awareness and starting a meetup through social media. I will subscribe to your blog. I commend you on your work.

  10. I’ve found there’s a critical difference between being matter-of-fact about my efforts to reduce/reuse/recycle and being self-righteous. People who are resistant to change sometimes react like it is an attack on them and their lifestyle when I am Earth-conscious around them. I always make the distinction that, "This is what I want to do," rather than, "This is what you should be doing."
    If I am at a friends house and we’re preparing a meal together, I quietly gather the compostable scraps and bring them home. If I get grief about it, I say that I just really would like to add more to my compost heap, and they drop it, usually. When I get teased for my insistence about recycling, I simply shrug it off by saying, "It’s just what I really love to do."
    Had a friend who refused to recycle, even though she owned a recycling bin and the recycling service came to her street. She said she couldn’t fit a separate recycle bin in her kitchen. Each time I’d visit, I’d bring home anything recyclable that was used while I was there. She’d laugh, but I always just told her it really made me happy to do it, so she wasn’t offended. Last month she finally changed her ways, started recycling in her home, brings reusable containers for her drinks, etc. Just be that good example, don’t take yourself too seriously, and people will follow your lead, eventually.

  11. Hi, Kathryn!
    I recently discovered your blog and I’m so obsessed with the zero waste lifestyle! Thank you so much for sharing all your tips, I’ve been trying my best to change the way I act and be conscious about my actions and decisions and how they can affect the enviroment.
    Here’s the thing. I live in a developing country. There’s very few people here who care about the enviroment and it’s also very hard for them to make a change because it can result in spending money they don’t have. Also, there’s a lot of insecurity and it can be dangerous to walk and take the bus (especially for women), that’s why I still use my car. I was wondering if you had any tips for someone in my situation.
    Lots of love!