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The 1% rule can save the planet: Why small changes make a big difference

The 1% rule – also known as the rule of marginal gains – is the idea that big goals can be achieved through small steps. It eliminates the demand for making huge change overnight, and suggests that we strive for a daily improvement of just 1% instead.

The 1% rule was pioneered by self-help authors like James Altucher and James Clear as a highly-effective approach to personal development. These days, however, its popularity has surpassed the realm of self-help and the rule enjoys recognition across the board.

Most famously, the British cycling team performance director, Sir Dave Brailsford, credits the rule for his success. In 2007, the British cycling team hadn’t won Tour de France in over a century. Brailsford took it upon himself to mend this by improving all aspects of the team’s performance by just 1%.

At the time his approach seemed a little unorthodox, as all the problems he tackled were seemingly minor – Brailsford did things like tweaking the team’s warm-up routine, teaching them proper hand-washing techniques and making the bike seats more aerodynamic.

The results of this atypical approach were shocking. Collectively, the tiny adjustments brought about greater change than what anyone could have anticipated – in the decade after 2007, the British cycling team won Tour de France five times!

The 1% rule and environmentalism

So, how does the 1% rule relate to the environment? If we apply the idea of marginal improvements to ecology, then we should be trying to save our planet through a multitude of small, individual actions rather than (only) through huge campaigns.

In other words, it’s no longer about looking for a grand solution – rather, it’s about targeting our daily habits, and finding all the small ways in which we can contribute.

Why it matters

When faced with the enormous scale of the ecological crisis, it’s easy to believe that individual actions are too small and insufficient. What we are forgetting, however, is the rule of compound effect. One plastic bottle less might seem insignificant, but if you switch to a reusable tumbler for the years to come, you will save hundreds of kilos of plastic over time.

The same applies to diet. When I first became vegetarian my friends would often tell me things like “Do you really think that you becoming vegetarian will make a difference? There are billions of people out there still eating meat!”. These people failed to account for two crucial factors – the compound effect of change over time, and across a multitude of individuals. Me eating one steak less today is insignificant, but if you add up all of the meat I would’ve eaten over my eight years of being vegetarian – all of the burgers, chicken, and fish – you end up with an extortionate amount. You end up with what equates to the lives of hundreds of animals. According to statistics, the average British carnivore eats 7, 000 animals in their lifetime, so a single vegetarian makes no small difference.

Turn that into natural resources, and you get a similar picture. According to research, eating plant-based for just a month saves 300 kilos of CO2 emissions, 84 square metres of forest land and over 126, 000 litres of water. When you look at it like that, any cutback in your meat consumption becomes significant.

A leap of faith

This is why the 1% rule matters when it comes to our planet. In the face of this current ecological crisis, simply lobbying for change isn’t enough. We need a practical, hands-on approach through which we can all chip in and contribute to the long-term goal; the rule of marginal gains gives us just that. It requires good will and a leap of faith; it asks us to suspend our cynicism and believe that, over time and across individuals, small steps can truly make a difference.

So, what’s your 1% today?

Here’s a list of small but effective changes you can make to improve your environmental impact across the board. From cooking to beauty to lifestyle, these are all actionable items you can implement today. Start small by picking just one, and slowly work your way towards including the others. And remember, no change is too small. Stick with these simple actions, and over time you will be contributing to a healthier planet, 1% at a time.


o Have a meat-free day once a week. As we discussed earlier, any cutback in your meat consumption can save massive amounts of natural resources.

o Already vegetarian or vegan? Look for other ways to reduce your dietary footprint. Go for the hummus sandwich instead of the avocado one (avocados are imported by plane and thus contribute to higher CO2 production). Alternatively, try cutting back on cheese and sprinkle your pasta with nutritional yeast instead – again, small changes are where it’s at.

o Bring a piece of fruit to snack on. Unexpected bouts of hunger make us reach for the quick and easy option, so we buy things like candy bars and bags of chips. Not only do such factory-produced snacks come wrapped in plastic, but they are also often unethically manufactured and filled with ecologically-damaging ingredients (such as palm oil). To avoid purchasing them, bring a piece of fruit to snack on whenever you go out – both the planet and your health will be grateful.

o Use up old bread. Statistics show that globally we throw away a staggering 24 million slices of bread daily. So although you might be tempted to toss old bread away, it’s worth making an effort to use it. Dried-up toast can seem unappealing, but there are countless ways to make it taste delicious. Here at TBYW we have posted about cooking with bread many times – you can check out our recipes for sweet bread balls, chocolate bread balls, "recycled” quiche and bruschettas.


o Switch to a bamboo toothbrush. According to statistics, the average person uses around 300 toothbrushes throughout their lifetime, which leads to 90 billiontoothbrushes being thrown away annually. With standard toothbrushes, this means that tonnes of plastic are left to clutter the Earth for centuries to come. This is why switching to a bamboo toothbrush is a small, but absolutely worthwhile change to make.

o Make your own body scrub. Not only do most store-bought scrubs come wrapped in plastic, they are also full of it. Microbeads – the particles that exfoliate your skin – are tiny polymers that are too small to be filtered at water treatment plants, and thus end up polluting the environment. Luckily, making your own exfoliator at home is a fun and easy solution to this problem. Simply mix one part coconut oil with two parts sugar, et voilà – you’ve got yourself a delicious-smelling homemade scrub!


o Switch to reusable bags. Every year, 1 trillion plastic bags are thrown away, which amounts to almost one bag per person a day. Invest in a reusable tote and bring it everywhere with you – this way, you will never end up in a situation where you need to buy a plastic bag.

o Make your own all-purpose cleaner. Store-bought cleaners are usually full of toxic chemicals that, when flushed down the drain, become water pollutants. To make matters worse, many of these chemicals have also been proven to be damaging to the human body. This homemade all-purpose cleaner is just as effective as its commercial counterparts, and has zero of their harmful ingredients. It’s easy and cheap to make and – best of all – smells fantastic.

Homemade all-purpose cleaner

· 1 cup water

· 1 cup white vinegar

· the juice of half a lemon (optional)

· 15 drops citrus or peppermint essential oil

Mix all of the ingredients in a spray bottle. Shake well before use.

You will be stunned by how much you can help the planet by improving just 1% at a time. We encourage you to come up with more small ways to be eco-friendly that fit your specific lifestyle as well. Perhaps you can buy you next pair of jeans second-hand, or have one less takeaway meal per week? The key is to get creative and have fun.

Don’t forget to share your progress, and to suggest any 1% changes of your own – you can share them in the comments down below, post them on our Facebook page, or send them to!


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