In December of 2018, I decided that our household was going to spend 2019 watching everything we consumed pretty closely. The intent was to cut single use plastic and palm oil out of our lives to the full extent that was possible while also buying much less overall. When we had to buy things, I wanted to be sure that we were doing so as informed consumers who knew what we were agreeing to in each purchase in terms of materials and labor, but also a host of other factors most of them related to how much waste was generated in the lifecycle of the product.
When I was 17, my AP Biology/Ecology teacher, gave our class an assignment to think of 5 things we could not live without and to trace their origins from raw materials through the supply chain to when we consumed them. Do this if you never have because the exercise really stuck with me. In the fall of 2018, when my son was 10, his gifted and talented teacher gave his class a unit about plastics. It had a similar affect on him as the Biology assignment has had on me. He came home from school every Wednesday for size weeks and said something to the affect of, “mom, we shouldn’t buy this stuff because it takes millions of years to break down,” or, “mom, the sea turtles.”
At 17, I was already past the point of thinking that I was able to create an ideological argument to convince my parents not to do to anything they already did, but in this situation with my 10 year old son I had all the power to show him that a) he was correct [the fucking sea turtles – Jesus Christ] and b) the adults in his life would care about something that was worth caring about because it was ultimately important to him, his peers and the planet. So we started with the idea of cutting out single-use plastic because of his unit about it, added palm oil because he had been on about the orangutans since 2nd grade [palm oil plantations are destroying orangutan habitat]. The rest of the audit came from my sense of completeness about the entire process.
As an adult who had been making consumer choices for rather a long while – and reading labels while doing it – I already knew what my son did not: almost everything comes in plastic or has palm oil in it or both. There was no way that I was going to be able to deal with those two materials without scrutinizing every purchase I made. And the reasoning went that if I was already going to have to do that I might as well really do it and just commit.
Notably absent from this consumerist cleanse was food. This was partly because I had already addressed MANY issues with food in our lives, but also though were prepared to do as much as possible to cut out packaging and palm oil for food, as renters with full time jobs we knew there was a limit to how much we were going to be able to change more about food than we already had. That part of the story is ongoing and I know I will continue to write about it in Wild Prospect Urban Farm posts.
Ultimately, the practice of watching everything one buys for an entire year is a worthwhile exercise that I would highly recommend to all financially secure people, but the real cause of runaway consumerism isn’t truly individual consumption patterns. You can’t solve the Climate Crisis by being a vegetarian or putting all your year’s trash in a mason jar because it is a systemic problem. However, through a process of conscious consumption you are able to see the limits of your own contribution to the problem. If everyone who could do this did, the affect would be pretty massive.
I spent all of December 2018 doing research. I didn’t want to be one of those zero waste people who went out and bought a bunch of shit just so that I could avoid plastic. As I have mentioned in other places, I am a cheap bastard, so I didn’t want to throw out the shampoos and tupperware and sandwich bags we already had. That would have been more wasteful. To begin in January of 2019 I resolved to just not buy anything [other than food] and try to see how long we could go just using the toiletries and other housewares we already had.
We tried a lot of zero waste/plastic free products in 2019. I switched to shampoo bars, but am still buying conditioner in bulk at the natural grocery store. No more liquid laundry detergent, hand soap, lotion. We buy so many things in bulk now. I got really intimate with my sewing machine, making produce bags and coffee filters for the pour over. I knit my own sponges, y’all. I learned to make beeswax wraps [and we wash and reuse plastic bags that we had before this all started]. The only personal hygiene/cleaning supplies that we still buy in plastic packaging are vinegar, bleach, toothpaste and mouthwash. These are hard to buy in bulk or – in the case of toothpaste and mouthwash – they do not contain fluoride and I have VERY terrible teeth. Therefore, I continue to wait for toothpaste tabs and rehydrate-able mouthwash that contain fluoride and resolve to not feel guilty about how the market for sustainable packaging caters to tin-foil hat people who seem to think fluoride is bad for you [it’s not]. We did replace our toothbrushes, floss but continue to buy razor blades with some plastic [probably we should just give up shaving, but haven’t gotten there yet].
I didn’t buy myself any new clothes in 2019 – it was all thrifted [other than socks]. This was harder to do for the kids and my partner. There is virtually no second hand market for kids’ or men’s clothing where I live. All my choices for new things for kids had a ridiculous markup, the sort of “green tax” that makes making sustainable choices out of reach for non-rich people. For my partner, we were able to make other compromises and buy American-made, durable clothing – mostly from American Giant [because he blew out every pair of jeans that he had, even past my mending abilities, at some point in the year]. That sort of investment makes sense for adults who are done growing, but for kids our clothing options were Target and online options that are essentially the same as Target but with more profit margin for the company without a living wage increase for garment workers. Still working on what I can do about fast fashion in my children’s lives.
We bought our house in the fall of 2019 [a lot of this was possible because of the amount of money you can save not buying anything, but it was also because I finally got rid of my student loans and medical debt at the end of 2018] and in buying that new house we tried very hard to not go out and buy every new thing it seems like you need for a new house [though I got new washable shower curtains]. We borrowed so many supplies like paint brushes and a shop-vac and ladders and drop cloths from our friends. We painted our house with the super low-VOC paint [it has not been repainted since probably 1996]. Most notably, we bought no new furniture for our house, instead thrifting and garage sailing and getting hand-me-downs from people we knew. This included a washer and dryer, dining room table and chairs, and three dressers.
By the end of 2019, we had made it to a place where I mostly wanted to be, which was that thinking about what we bought was now part of our every day lives and didn’t feel like any kind of deprivation. This was who we were now. When we had to buy something new we considered it from all angles. We bought the item that had the least packaging and plastic, was the most durable, had the most recyclable parts, was made by the company that polluted the least and had the best wages/benefits for their employees, had traveled the shortest distance, etc.
And – and I can’t stress this enough – we weren’t self-righteous assholes about it. I was clear about what we were doing on social media, but if someone gave us a gift I resolved to not be a dick about it. I was surprised and pleased when we got sent home from dinner parties with leftovers in paper and aluminum, when a close friend gave us all used gifts for Christmas, when people asked us things like “where are you getting your toilet paper?” [Who Gives a Crap?] or “how are you dealing with moisturizer?” [coconut oil and lots of hats for sunscreen].
As with everyone, 2020 threw us a curve ball. Most places that sold in bulk stopped letting us bring in our own receptacles [we have gotten very good at reusing plastic bulk bags]. Because we had committed to the Urban Farm we also had to buy a lot of things that were hard to source used because we were on lockdown at the start of the growing season. I couldn’t borrow a saw in March so we bought a new wooden chicken coop kit from the ranch supply store and picked it up curbside. We did however avoid pretty much all travel buying fewer than 5 tanks of gas after the lockdown and taking no plane rides. We bought solar panels with a government low-interest loan, used our stimulus payments to buy edible landscaping for our front yard food forest, and paid a local contractor to build us a deer fence to protect our 2021 project which is all the garden beds.
Going into 2021, our goals are tackling the carbon footprint of our diet [even less meat and dairy], trying to get our electricity consumption to line up with our energy production [we would like to be net producers], and making sustainable choices about continued homestead/household purchases. In this new year we “need” new – at least to us – dishes [we have broken a few and do not have enough for when we hope to be entertaining again this summer], sheets [patched too many times to be structurally sound], a vacuum [about to die], a washing machine [used one no longer really gets our clothes clean], garden beds [raised beds in the front yard to prolong our growing season and grow lots of food], and a programmable thermostat [this just makes sense]. There is also a decent chance my 4 year old cell phone and my 7 year old laptop are going to finally stop working.
Through all these purchase decisions we are going to make the best choices we can while understanding that, though we want to live as ambassadors for this sort of conscious lifestyle that it isn’t attainable for everyone. Assembling in groups is still hard and unified action for systemic change is something I am still struggling with. If 2020 has taught me nothing, it is that most people are very burnt out on change [even if I am not] and the solution that we all need can’t only be what individuals can achieve on their own.
So if you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “fuck, now I feel guilty about what I haven’t done,” don’t waste your time on that. Do what you can do. “From each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs.”