The 80/20 Rule and Sustainability Lessons from COVID

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how sustainability does and does not go hand in hand with this global pandemic. On one hand, we’re all struggling with big and challenging things, like unemployment, safely shopping for groceries, and educating our children. On the other hand, I think it’s important to make sustainable choices, even in the middle of a global pandemic. And even more important to keep my eyes open to the important life lessons the universe is gifting to me.


In some ways, COVID-19 has forced us all into a more intentional and sustainable life, and it’s worth thinking about how we might incorporate the lessons learned into “normal life,” whenever we return to it. The thing is… “normal” might look a lot different when we get back to it.



However you’re planning to rebuild your normal, I would encourage you to think about the simple and more sustainable aspects of your current lifestyle that you want to keep as you rebuild. To help with this, I’d like to tell you about the 80/20 Principle.


The 80/20 Principle was created by Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, and, in short, states that you get 80% of your results from 20% of your effort. This is a powerful model for business, time management, and sustainable living.


I have absolutely applied the 80/20 principle over the years when re-designing my sustainable lifestyle over the past few years. My family and I have chosen to make most of these changes under the notion that sustainability give us more, not less. These are the easy types of lifestyle changes, the 20%.

  • We save money by not wasting (heat, electricity, gas, food).
  • We ride our bikes more and find that our clothes fit better.
  • We find more time to play because we are not shopping as much, so we have fewer things in our home and it stays cleaner longer.


Because of COVID, we grew more vegetables in our backyard garden, shopped even more than usual at our local farmers market this summer, and canned/froze a lot of fresh, healthy, and local food. These activities saved us money, helped us connect as a family, and will improve our health. Next summer, I’m planning to hang on tight to these more sustainable habits, COVID or not, because they make me happy!


Four of the 52+ pints of Grandma’s Tomato Sauce we canned from homegrown tomatoes this summer. If you’re lucky enough to have access to fresh tomatoes at this moment, you can find the recipe here.


We accomplish 80% of our sustainability goals doing what is engaging and interesting to our family. So, here’s my advice for building a more sustainable life: Choose the fun stuff! Think about activities you enjoy most right now and the new habits you’ve created during COVID that are bringing you joy.


Here are a few areas for you to consider when you’re brainstorming about the activities and habits you want to keep.


Drive less, walk and bike more 

Most of us aren’t driving to work right now. Most of us are working from home and driving once per week to get groceries. From my home office window, I can see my street in downtown Rockford and I see so many people walking, skateboarding, and biking.


How can you incorporate driving less into your “new normal?”

  • Did you realize that you can walk or bike to work, school, or the grocery store?
  • Did you learn that you only need to grocery shop once per week (or even less)?
  • Did you become really good at combining all of your errands into one trip?
  • Did you discover activities, clubs, or events that aren’t actually important (or fun), so you’ll choose to stay home instead?
  • Did you find new spaces or activities in your home that will help you maintain a slower life pace even when you are free to ramp back up your normal busyness?


I love biking to the farmers market on Saturday mornings in the summer. This sustainable choice brings me so much joy that it never feels like a sacrifice.


Reduce food waste

I bet we’re all trying to stretch our food a little further these days. There are lots of benefits to this strategy: saving money, spending less time shopping, and throwing away less food, just to name a few.


How can you incorporate a heightened awareness of food waste into your “new normal?”

  • Did you become really great at meal planning?
  • Did you learn how to better organize your pantry or fridge? How does it feel to be able to find ingredients easily?
  • Did you become an “iron chef” contender, learning to creatively use obscure ingredients in meals you (and your family) loved?
  • Did you learn about food preservation this summer — canning, freezing, and/or fermenting extra fresh food safely for you to eat weeks or months later?
  • Did you start composting in your own yard?


I froze 120 pounds of cherries, 50 pounds of blueberries, 20 pounds of strawberries, several pints of tomato paste, homemade ketchup, asparagus, roasted red peppers, and 10 dozen ears of sweet corn this summer.  Each and every one of these increases our food resilience with healthy, local food just waiting for us in our freezer. Having these resources at home means I’m less likely to have to run to the grocery store for dinner ingredients on a random Tuesday night.


Embrace minimalism

Lots of us are looking at our homes differently these days, noticing clutter in a way we’ve never seen it before. According to Joshua Becker, founder of the Becoming Minimalist blog, “minimalism is intentionally living with only the things I really need—those items that support my purpose. I am removing the distraction of excess possessions so I can focus more on those things that matter most.”


How can you incorporate minimalist principles into your “new normal?”

  • Did you purge toys, clothes, or clean your closets to pristine condition?
  • How does it feel to have less clutter in your life?
  • How can you prevent unwanted things from accumulating again?
  • Did you redesign spaces in your home to be more comfortable or better suit your needs?


I tackled my spice drawer the other day, organizing it so I could find the spices I have and avoid buying more of something just because I can’t find it. Plus having labeled containers for everything makes it easier for me to bring my own container to the spice store for bulk refills.


Please share some of your favorite slow living and sustainable habits that you’ve discovered during this global pandemic in the comments below!


Ps. Local friends, if these words feel familiar to you, they should! The 80/20 Rule parts of this blog were originally written by Robbie for a Rockford Sustainability Committee column in the Rockford Squire. He graciously let me reuse them in this post 🙂

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