A huge part of what it means to be a more conscious citizen of planet earth is the desire to improve. Let’s face it: None of us will ever be perfectly sustainable. Zero waste and sustainable living can sometimes feel like zero-sum pursuits. Success is not perfection, but steady, continual improvement.
So there’s no better way to improve your sustainability game than by educating yourself. And since many of us are now spending increased amounts of time at home, what better time to work on our healthy home habits than through reading sustainability books?
And given the desperate need for change, we’re adding some excellent books about social justice and anti-racism as well. The truth is that a sustainable world simply can’t happen if current injustices and systemic racism aren’t resolved. Environmental issues are in fact closely tied to economic and cultural inequalities.
That’s why we’ve compiled this list of the best sustainability books, zero waste books and the best books on social justice so you can put this quaran-time to good use.
QUICK LINKS FOR ZERO WASTE AND SUSTAINABILITY BOOKS
Zero Waste Books
Social Justice & Anti-Racism Books
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins
- Eloquent Rage by Dr. Brittney Cooper
- How To Be An Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
- So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- The Next American Revolution by Grace Lee Boggs
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sustainable Living Books
- Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
- Drawdown by Paul Hawken
- This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
- Eating Animals by Jonathan Safron Foer
- 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari
- The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard
- Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
- To Die For by Lucy Siegle
- The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
- There is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee
- Nature’s Best Hope by Douglas W. Tallamy
- Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
- The Story of More by Hope Jahren
- Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline
- Diet for a Hot Planet by Anne Lappé
- Material Value by Julia L F Goldstein
- The Human Age by Diane Ackerman
ZERO WASTE BOOKS
1. ZERO WASTE HOME
By Bea Johnson
Bea Johnson is the original leading voice of the zero waste movement, at least as it is known today. Aside from running one of our favorite zero waste blogs by the same name, being a public speaker, and pretty much sparking the modern war on waste, Bea has written one of the best zero waste books around. It’s an amazingly comprehensive guide on how to go zero waste for the whole family.
The Zero Waste Home book isn’t just a collection of recipes, tips, and steps to go zero waste, but an inspirational story about how she reduced her family of four’s waste to merely one liter per year (and how their lives are so much healthier and happier for it!). Sure does prove that absolutely anyone can achieve a lower waste lifestyle.
2. WASTE NOT: MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE BY THROWING AWAY LESS
By Erin Rhoads
Erin Rhoads is a fellow Australian zero waste blogger. Her blog, The Rogue Ginger, is another of our original favorites. For books about the zero waste journey, hers is top notch, as she shares her progression into zero waste and makes it very clear that you don’t have to be perfect.
Erin’s approach to zero waste is comprehensive while remaining super accessible. She includes recipes and repair guides and she’s really good at providing encouragement and reassurance if DIY is not usually your thing.
For a handy followup of on-the-go tips and fast reminders, she’s recently published a quick-digesting companion called Waste Not Everyday.
3. HOW TO GIVE UP PLASTIC: A GUIDE TO CHANGING THE WORLD, ONE PLASTIC BOTTLE AT A TIME
By Will McCallum
So you’ve decided you want to give up plastic? Great! The previous zero waste living books are designed for that. But why do we have to “give up” plastic anyway? How did our plastic addiction start in the first place?
These are all questions head of Greenpeace UK’s oceans division Will McCallum answers in How to Give Up Plastic. Rather than address the plastic and waste problem on merely an individual level, he offers a wider framework within which to see it, including a history of plastic use and steps to correct it on a corporate and governmental level.
4. PLASTIC-FREE: HOW I KICKED THE PLASTIC HABIT AND HOW YOU CAN TOO
By Beth Terry
Beth is another blogger turned author. Her book is about her zero waste journey. What’s especially great about this book is that it includes larger scope tips that aren’t necessarily directly related to your personal waste. These include helpful strategies for interacting with others who don’t share your vision or aren’t as far along on the sustainability spectrum.
She also addresses larger community involvement, and how to let go of guilt over not being perfect.
You’ll find inspiration in Beth’s own journey toward eco-empowerment as well as tools to get there yourself (like checklists, tables, and example profiles of others who have done the same thing). These 342 pages are absolutely PACKED with just about every resource the zero waster could need, whether you’re just beginning or are more advanced.
5. CRADLE TO CRADLE: REMAKING THE WAY WE MAKE THINGS
By Michael Braungart and William McDonough
As we’ve discussed, zero waste consists of both a practical, individual side and a more theoretical, systematic side. While the previous books deal with the former (i.e. the actual trash problem), Braungart and McDonough are concerned with the latter, or what a zero waste system of production and consumption looks like and why it’s so necessary.
Rather than thinking of consumption in a linear fashion, that is cradle-to-grave, they break down the concept of a circular economy, where items are recycled or upcycled to truly eliminate waste on a widespread scale: cradle to cradle. Easily one of the best zero waste books for those looking to understand the big picture beyond the trash jar, we consider this book pretty much mandatory reading.
And if you like that, be sure to check out their more practical followup to this theoretical masterpiece, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability.
6. LET MY PEOPLE GO SURFING: THE EDUCATION OF A RELUCTANT BUSINESSMAN
By Yvon Chouniard
You may be familiar with this one, especially if you’ve read many of our ethical fashion guides. Yvon Chouinard is an environmental activist, rock climbing legend, CEO and founder of sustainable clothing brand Patagonia.
Part memoir, part business treatise, Chouinard takes the reader through his life, from humble dirtbag beginnings through his progression and success in building one of the biggest (and most sustainable) outdoor clothing companies around.
It’s entertaining as much as it is inspiring. Even for those who aren’t climbers and may not understand the scope of his early business days, it provides a clear picture of what an ethical company can look like and the positive change it can bring about.
What’s most telling about Chouinard is not even his relentless pursuit of corporate responsibility, but his personal admission that despite all his efforts, his business will always have an impact on the world.
7. DRAWDOWN: THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE PLAN EVER PROPOSED TO REVERSE GLOBAL WARMING
By Paul Hawken
Paul Hawken is a passionate environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author who has written several sustainability books on the “impacts of commerce on living systems”.
He is also the founder of Project Drawdown, a not for profit organization founded in 2014 that “seeks to help the world reach “Drawdown”— the future point in time when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline.”
In this New York Times bestseller, Hawken has outlined the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming that already exist today. These solutions are not about alternatives to carbon emitting activities but instead focus on carbon sequestration.
8. THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: CAPITALISM VS THE CLIMATE
By Naomi Klein
Naomi Kline dropped the mic on the environmental world with her original bestseller, The Shock Doctrine, where she boldly claimed that unless we make some serious systematic changes, we’re going to wear out the world.
Hyped by Time Magazine as the “first truly honest book ever written about climate change”, This Changes Everything addresses the greatest challenge of our generation from an economic and political perspective.
Environmental problems really aren’t removed from other societal problems like wealth inequality and broken democracies. Rather than trying to fix the environment by fixing the economy (aka “disaster capitalism”), Kline argues for precisely the opposite.
As the name accurately implies, it’s perhaps one of the most important sustainability books of the decade.
9. EATING ANIMALS
By Jonathan Safron Foer
Jonathan Safron Foer wasn’t always a vegan. Heck, he wasn’t always an environmental writer, but rather a novelist.
However, after beginning to question why we eat some animals and not others, Foer set out on a global investigative journey to learn about various cultural meat-eating traditions. Why do we eat meat? What are the ethical and environmental ramifications of doing so?
Importantly, Safron’s book is not a vegan guilt trip or polarizing lecture about the evils of animal consumption, but rather a gentle journey of discovery that leads readers to make up their own minds. Given the highly contentious nature of veganism, we think this approachable and non-judgmental tone makes it one of the best sustainable food books.
Follow it up with his latest, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.
10. 21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
By Yuval Noah Harari
We don’t think anyone makes history more fun than Yuval. He’s able to explain complex concepts clearly and concisely. His earlier book, Sapiens is actually a phenomenal account of the history of humans. One of the best books we’ve ever read. Period.
In Homo Deus , Yuval once again delivers a hard-hitting discussion about what it means to be human in the present era.
21 lessons for the 21st Century is future looking. Divided into 21 succinct chapters, the book breaks down what Yuval sees as the society’s most pressing issues, environmental and otherwise: artificial intelligence, fake news, religion, Big Data, climate change, and very accurately an outbreak of a disease or virus on a global scale.
Yuval emphasizes the need for change. Yet unlike other sustainability books with the same overarching message, the scary realism is coupled with a practical framework with which to confront our eco anxieties.
11. THE STORY OF STUFF: THE IMPACT OF OVERCONSUMPTION ON THE PLANET, OUR COMMUNITIES, AND OUR HEALTH–AND HOW WE CAN MAKE IT BETTER
By Annie Leonard
Annie Leonard was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Environmental Heroes of 2009 for her inexhaustible efforts to expose the truth of our current model of production and the impact it has on global communities and the environment. She’s not only a ‘book expert’, but has real world field experience from sneaking into factories and dumps around the world, visiting textile workers in Haiti, and bearing witness to children mining coltan for cell phones in the Congo.
The Story of Stuff is the culmination of her experience and expertise. Between the engaging personal stories and inextinguishable humor throughout, you won’t even realize you’re absorbing an almost absurd amount of knowledge about the cradle-to-grave economy and what we as individuals can do to change it.
In many ways, it belongs among the likes of other minimalism zero waste books, but for it’s huge scope and focus beyond just waste, it’s more a holistic book about sustainability.
12. SILENT SPRING
By Rachel Carson
Lauded as the “classic that launched the environmental movement”, this book may have been published in 1962, but it is still considered an absolute must-read of all environmental sustainability books.
If you’ve ever wondered why we and so many others emphasize the need for organic farming, Silent Spring provides the answer, exposing (upon publication for the first time) the staggering dangers of pesticide use, for humans and the planet. With humanity still on the brink of demolishing biodiversity at an astounding speed, this call-to-political-action is more relevant now than ever.
Plus, the latest editions now come with an afterword chronicling the courageous life of the late Rachel Carson, who fiercely battled the chemical industry all the way until her death just two years after this book’s publication.
13. TO DIE FOR: IS FASHION WEARING OUT THE WORLD?
By Lucy Siegle
Many of our regular readers will know that we’re quite enthusiastic about promoting sustainable and ethical fashion. Why? Because fashion is one of the dirtiest industries in the world and party to some pretty abhorrent abuses of human rights.
But we’ll let Lucy Siegle convince you of that in her groundbreaking sustainable fashion book. To Die For not only examines the many issues posed by the fast fashion industry, but asks why it’s so successful.
She advocates industry-wide change, both in sustainable design and conscious consumption, and how the latter ultimately informs the former. While it may not be the most comfortable read for those of us who enjoy fashion and shopping, it’s an essential one for a sustainable lifestyle.
14. THE UNINHABITABLE EARTH: LIFE AFTER WARMING
By: David Wallace-Wells
The award-winning, best-selling book The Unimaginable Earth draws a vivid image of what the world will look like if we do.not.change. As you would expect, there is no shortage of potential horrors as Wallace-Wells lays down a necessary no B.S. picture of the urgency of the climate crisis and lifts the veil from our position on the brink of catastrophe.
While alarmism is the order of the day, this book is a lyrical and provocative wake-up call that society may just need to prioritize climate change. If reading this book scares you, it should. Fear is one mechanism that can move apathy into action.
For those coal loving relatives, perhaps this or Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything could be the medicine they need.
15. THERE IS NO PLANET B: A HANDBOOK FOR THE MAKE OR BREAK YEARS
By Mike Berners-Lee
Let’s face it: our planet is up against a prolific number of problems, which begs the question: where do we even start trying to counter climate change? It’s an overwhelming question to be sure, and a lot of the literature on the subject doesn’t provide the clear and concise answer many of us crave.
That is, until Mike Berners-Lee came on the (anthropo)scene. There Is No Planet B lays out the big picture, plain and simple. With the goal defined, Berners-Lee uses a host of data and research to present a step-by-step plan of what needs to be done on a large scale to get there (and how we as individuals can start the process).
In terms of clarity and tons of easily digestible data, this is one of the best books on sustainable living.
16. NATURE’S BEST HOPE: A NEW APPROACH TO CONSERVATION THAT STARTS IN YOUR YARD
By Douglas W. Tallamy
One of the most dangerous threats posed to our planet isn’t actually plastic pollution and waste; it’s the rate at which we are witnessing a loss of biodiversity.
Which is why Nature’s Best Hope is a groundbreaking concept, and most certainly one of the best books on how to make your property sustainable. Tallamy argues that the best way we can combat the extinction of insect and animal species is by just planting more native species (the elimination of which has largely led to our biodiversity bungle).
This book shows how absolutely anyone with a backyard, however big or small, can actively join conservation efforts and aid in the restoration of local wildlife populations. It’s essentially a sustainable gardening book, and proves that enormous impact just one person’s gardening habits can make.
Alone, we can’t stop farms from destroying wildlife habits with pesticides, or logging companies from razing forests. This, however, is a perfectly practical way for us to achieve significant individual impact. It’s no surprise this book has a 5/5 star average rating.
17. MERCHANTS OF DOUBT: HOW A HANDFUL OF SCIENTISTS OBSCURED THE TRUTH ON ISSUES FROM TOBACCO SMOKE TO GLOBAL WARMING
By Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway
Ever wondered how it’s possible for people to still deny climate change, despite the overwhelming evidence?! This book has the answer, and it’s rooted far more deeply in our subconscious than the science.
Oreskes and Conway compare it to the tobacco industry’s attempt to brush off the scientifically suggested dangers of secondhand smoke by discrediting the science itself. By using bribed and industry-approved “scientists”, corporations have been getting away with lying to people (specifically Americans) and skewing the facts for decades.
Merchants of Doubt suggests that climate change is no different, as corporations stand to directly benefit from maintaining their cheap, environmentally exploitative methods. This book shatters the facade linking climate change and corporate greed, doing for democracy in the age of environmental activism what All The President’s Men did many years ago.
18. THE STORY OF MORE: HOW WE GOT TO CLIMATE CHANGE AND WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
By Hope Jahren
The Story of More is a “pocket primer on climate change”: what it is, how it started, and what we can do about it. Author and scientist Hope Jahren helps readers to understand climate change on an intimate level. Rather than berating us with facts and figures on the status quo, she takes readers on a journey from Mesopotamia to the now, drawing a clear picture of our dire trajectory.
Through discussion of climate change’s many speculated causes and contributors (from nuclear energy plants to Norwegian fishing), Jahren argues that climate change is essentially a result of our flawed understanding of consumption and its impact on our happiness.
After drawing a clear (and guilt-free) picture of the root of the issues, she takes readers into the future to look at the projected consequences and potential remedies, all while maintaining an upbeat and encouraging tone that reassures readers it isn’t too late.
19. OVERDRESSED: THE SHOCKINGLY HIGH COST OF CHEAP FASHION
By: Elizabeth Cline
This sustainable fashion book takes a magnifying glass to one particular element of the current fashion industry: it’s cheap nature. Overdressed provides an in-depth analysis of what cheap is doing to the world at all levels of production, from raw material sourcing all the way through disposal.
Cline bases her writings not just on research, but on worldly travels through which she herself follows the devastating trail of fast fashion.
Praised for its snappy wit and accessible tone, Overdressed is for anyone that wants to know a little more about the impact of their clothes and some better choices we can all make to mitigate them.
20. DIET FOR A HOT PLANET: THE CLIMATE CRISIS AT THE END OF YOUR FORK
By Anna Lappé
Here’s another one of our favorite food sustainability books. A play on the renowned treatise on the importance of food Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé. Her daughter Anne Lappé now takes the concept of viewing food as an integral part of a social function and gives it an environmental twist.
Namely, she calls into question the consequences many of our food choices (even “healthy” ones) have on the planet and how the food system is contributing to climate change. Like Jonathan Safron Foer’s Eating Animals, she certainly calls out the meat industry but goes far further with discussions covering: plastic food wrapper waste, the environmental cost of junk food, and the overuse of palm oil which is directly leading to rainforest devastation, for example.
21. MATERIAL VALUE: MORE SUSTAINABLE, LESS WASTEFUL MANUFACTURING OF EVERYTHING FROM CELL PHONES TO CLEANING PRODUCTS
By Julia L F Goldstein, PhD
For those looking for sustainable design books, look no further than Julia L F Goldstein’s explanation of sustainable solutions from a manufacturing perspective. This book is chock full of detailed lessons on everything from material production and recycling prospects to the challenges companies face in making non-toxic, less impactful products.
Goldstein infuses every lecture with personal anecdotes and profiles of various entrepreneurs and businesses that have successfully embraced the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.
This book conveys essential information that we as consumers are not necessarily privy to, but must understand if we hope to encourage less wasteful production and demand change at the corporate level.
22. THE HUMAN AGE: THE WORLD SHAPED BY US
By Diane Ackerman
In case the other sustainable future books here have left you with some residual eco-anxiety, we want to close this list out by recommending an utterly hopeful book.
With beautiful prose, Diane Ackerman dives deep into the world of human influence and how we are the greatest arbiters of change. However, rather than viewing mankind’s relentless meddling from merely a negative light, she also highlights the sheer potential of human ingenuity.
This book is less an examination of past mistakes, but rather an optimistic examination of present successes and what they can mean for the future.
SOCIAL JUSTICE & ANTI-RACISM BOOKS
23. LONG WALK TO FREEDOM
By Nelson Mandela
You’ve probably (hopefully) heard about Nelson Mandela, but if you don’t know his whole story, you don’t know half of what an incredibly inspiring moral and political figure he was. Long Walk to Freedom is this story in his own eloquent words.
Many know the big points in Mandela’s story: his role as head of the anti-apartheid movement, his position as South Africa’s President, his wrongful sentence of 27 years in prison for fighting against racial injustice. But in this book, we get the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s fascinating first-account of the saga of everything in between, from his youth to his first interest in politics.
We found this book truly engrossing, not only for its coverage of one of the most horrific periods in the modern world but for Mandela’s grace and poetic way of telling the tale.
24. BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT
By Patricia Hill Collins
An older one in this category, but an era-defining one in terms of the empowerment of black women. In a series of essays, Collins analyzes the works of various black women (both in academia and outside it) through the ages. Think amazing figures like Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde.
You’ll find detailed arguments and updated cultural references for everything from systemic disadvantages to backlash over affirmative action. In the end, you walk away with not only an immense respect for some seriously underwritten women in history, but a greater understanding of what Black womanhood means in the greater social and cultural fabric of our times.
While this one is certainly a little heavier on the academic and theoretical side, it’s a worthy one to slowly consume.
25. ELOQUENT RAGE: A BLACK FEMINIST DISCOVERS HER SUPERPOWER
By Dr. Brittney Cooper
In the rave review of Michael Eric Dyson, “Cooper may be the boldest young feminist writing today…and she will make you laugh out loud.” Not that we should be taking racial injustice lightly, but Cooper truly weaves an inspiring and entertaining tale of sisterhood and female empowerment.
Most importantly, she smashes the “angry black woman” negative stereotype to pieces and shows how it’s something to be proud of. Damn right she’s an angry black woman, and she has the right to be. More than that, however, Cooper flawlessly convinces readers that such anger is not only justified but a powerful and necessary motivation to keep fighting for equality.
Justified rage isn’t ugly and destructive; it’s eloquent.
26. HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST
By Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
In this New York Times bestselling memoir, author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi argues, “The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist’.” Antiracism is a support system that doesn’t simply not oppose movements of racial justice, but empowers and re-energizes them.
Only through drawing light on the importance of racial conversations, can we together imagine what a truly antiracist society could be and make a plan for achieving it.
Part memoir, part historical, sociological, and cultural treatise, this book makes these hard discussions about how to go beyond awareness accessible and amiable.
27. SO YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT RACE
By Ijeoma Oluo
Described as a “hard-hitting but user-friendly examination of race in America”, So You Want to Talk About Race is the honest (albeit difficult) conversation about racial relations we need to have.
Oluo speaks to all audiences: white, black, brown… We could all use a lesson not just on topics like intersectionality, but how to have productive conversations about it all.
His tone is incredibly non-judgmental and digestible as he talks us through how to tell someone their jokes are racist and how to explain what white privilege means.
28. THE NEXT AMERICAN REVOLUTION: SUSTAINABLE ACTIVISM FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
By Grace Lee Boggs
Remember how we mentioned that racial inequalities and unsustainable living are more connected than one might think? This book is the shining example of that. We consider it an essential read to truly understand the intersection between things like climate change, presumption, and social justice.
Grace Lee Boggs herself is a iconic feminist and 1950s civil rights activist, and here she pulls out all the stops and dives deep into the current state of the world (from a political, environmental, and economical view).
Ultimately, she outlines what the next American revolution must look like, while providing a guide for necessary, radical change.
This social justice book isn’t one to be digested lightly, but it does a remarkable job with laying out the heavy realities and still maintaining an indistinguishable attitude of hope for the future.
29. WHITE FRAGILITY: WHY IT’S SO HARD FOR WHITE PEOPLE TO TALK ABOUT RACISM
By Robin DiAngelo, PhD
Ever wondered why the term “white privilege” can be so triggering to some? Then you need to read this book. And if you haven’t wondered that, read it anyway.
In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo analyzes the insulated white world in North America, an environment that actually lowers the ability to cope when confronted with racial stress.
Beyond diagnosing the problem, she offers constructive solutions and suggests cognitive ways in which we can move forward and be more open, less uncomfortable, and (mostly importantly) less offended around issues of social injustice.
30. BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Dubbed by multiple reviews as “essential reading” (Entertainment Weekly) and “the most important book I’ve read in years” (Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center), Between the World and Me is the perfect way to end this list as it discusses important broad-reaching cultural issues such as mass incarceration and police brutality in a deeply personal and emotional way.
Ta-Nehisi Coates frames his edifying memoir through a series of heartwrenching letters to his teenage son. He regails his son tales from his youth in Baltimore, his education at Howard University, and his adult life in New York and Paris, all amidst much larger cultural tides, like Ferguson and the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Be warned: Start reading this book when you have plenty of time to get stuck in. It’s the kind of powerful, life changing book that will have you up all hours of the night to finish it.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON BOOKS ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY
We still have to get through a bunch of these social justice & eco friendly living books. For the ones we’ve haven’t yet read, we’ve chosen them based on rave reviews. That said, we would love to hear what you think of our selection. Which ones are your favorites? Which ones do you think are must-reads? And did we miss any?
Of course we did! There are so many amazing resources out there. Please share your list of the best books for eco friendly living, and let us know in the comments.
Remember, when seeking out these books, buy used if you can. That’s why we’ve included links to Better World Books, because they highly encourage the practice of buying used books. When you’re done, be sure to pass it along to friends and family and let’s keep this circular economy, circular.