How to Live a Sustainable Lifestyle.
5 Sustainable Things Your Great-Grandma Did.
(And you can too!)
A few years ago, after I watched a few too many documentaries and read a few too many books to remain complacent about our now dirty, polluted, and dying planet. I went through a period, where I analyzed each aspect of my life to see how I could do it better. Plastic, waste, methane, and chemical pollutants became my enemy.
In the laundry room, in the kitchen, at work, while commuting… everywhere I looked there was something that I was doing “wrong” or at least that’s what I thought in those hectic, crazy days you experience right after being “enlightened.”
Sometimes it was hard to find a plastic-free or sustainable alternative for a specific tool or task around the house. But I discovered a little trick. When I came upon something that was a bit tricky, I’d ask myself, “How did my great-grandma do it?” Sometimes the answer was simply, “She didn’t” and it helped me realize that maybe that thing wasn’t a necessity like I thought. Other times, after some research or a walk through an antique mall, I’d discover a brilliant, plastic-free kitchen tool that I didn’t know existed. I’m a big fan of buying antiques to actually use in my own home, because they can be simple, useful, and sustainable tools that help me conserve energy, feel connected to my home and the work that I do in it, and can be top-quality, having stood the test of time already.
I started learning more and more about life 100+ years ago in America, and especially how people completed daily tasks around the home without the technology and modern conveniences we have today. Life was indeed harder back then in some ways. But in other ways life was simpler, and I believe that simple living often parallels a life headed towards sustainability.
People living before this modern age of consumerism, convenience, and disposability, weren’t choosing to live that #sustainablelifestyle. Before synthetic materials and industrial production, it just made sense to use what you have. Use it, mend it, pass it down for generations. Fresh food was hard to come by unless you grew it yourself, and you made sure to use it all up, making stock from your scraps, soap and candles from your kitchen grease, and feeding the rest to your animals or using it to fuel your stove. By design, there wasn’t much excess.
It wasn’t until after WWII that disposability, convenience, and style really came to be the deciding factors when purchasing household goods. Plastic innovation was booming. Scientists were creating better and more useful types of plastic. As the Scientific American said, “plastics freed us from the confines of the natural world, from the material constraints and limited supplies that had long bounded human activity.” Plastic was cheap to make, cheap to buy, and suddenly gave working class people choices. They could buy items that they liked, as opposed to simply what they could afford.
Eighty years ago, consumer culture as we know it today was born, designed, and cultivated to create shoppers out of people who had previously not been so. I cannot say that the United States before our modern industrial era is something to glorify. Lives were cut short by inadequate healthcare; equality simply did not exist for women, people of color, and others; people had no mind for sustainability for the earth’s sake. Out of necessity, waste was not often created, but when it was, it was tossed in the nearest body of water without a thought.
If we can take some of Great-Grandma’s sustainable practices and mix them with our innovation and technology, I believe we can create a new culture that will guide us forward, aiming for a planet that still has all its limbs in 500 years.
Try to implement these five practices below in your life - five practices that came naturally to our great-grandmas and that we can copy today. The earth will be better off for it!
Buy Quality Goods, with Thoughtful Intention.
Before cheap, machine-made factory goods were the norm, everything from furniture to household tools to clothing was made with a human touch. Handmade or small-batch goods today are great to pursue for a number of reasons. First, they are more likely to last longer, be more durable, and, though often priced at a higher price point, are made to last.
Secondly, buying quality goods is really only sustainable for most of us if we’re buying less, and I think that’s actually a lucky bonus. My pocket book is only so big, so when I buy something substantial, I am buying something that I’ve saved up for. I will buy one thing of that type this year, instead of five. I won’t donate it to the thrift store next year because I’m sick of it, since I’ve thought long and hard about it. I’ve chosen it to stand the test of time and exist outside the realm of seasonal style.
Another great reason to buy quality goods is that you get to vote with your money. You’ll be supporting workers and artisans who are making a fair wage in good working conditions, and you have more of an opportunity to purchase goods that are local, not from halfway around the world, which avoids excessive amounts of fossil fuels from being used in shipping.
2. Mend Things When They Break.
A few years ago the University of Missouri published a study that showed baby boomers were more likely to possess basic sewing and clothing repair skills than Americans aged 18-33. That’s not really shocking is it?
“In 2012, Americans created more than 14.3 million tons of textile waste”; Pamela Norum, a professor in the Department of Textile and Apparel Management which performed the study at MU, said. “Much of this waste is due to clothes being discarded due to minor tears or stains - easily repairable damages if the owners have the skills and knowledge to fix them.”
If you do learn some basic repair skills, you’ll be relieved you followed Great-Grandma’s example of buying quality goods. Well-made items that are made from natural materials are often easily mendable and likely to last longer than their cheaply-made counterpart. The more complicated, high-tech, or synthetic a product is, often the harder it is for a layperson like me to repair it. When something is simply above your pay grade, take it to a tradesperson to be fixed. Supporting your local watch repair person, cobbler, and tailor is seriously a saintly act these days. Check for Fix-It Clinics in your area, which are often free events where handy volunteers are ready to help you repair all sorts of random household items.
3. Hang Your Clothes to Dry.
Hanging your clothes to dry inside on a drying rack or outside on a clothesline, is one of those chores that makes me so happy I can’t even stand it. In fact, Americans are very much on their own when it comes to their love of electric clothes dryers. They are much less common in Europe, and in homes which do have a dryer, they are often unused. Air drying clothes has many benefits, including less energy being used and extending the life of clothes, as the heat and agitation during drying breaks down cloth fibers which eventually leads to loose seams, holes, and thinning fabric.
4. Eat Local or Home-Grown Food.
We may not all be able to grow as lovely a kitchen garden as Great-Grandma, but even without a half acre in the back to grow food, eating local food has gotten easier and easier over the past couple decades. Finding a local farm-share to invest in is pretty easy depending on where you live and there are almost 900 farmer’s markets nationwide.
Eating local produce, meat, and dairy cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions from transport, allows you to have a voice regarding which farms you support, and helps you appreciate the cyclical rhythm of season eating. As a bonus, many small farms practice sustainability in more ways than one, often limiting their use of synthetic chemicals, conserving water, or practicing regenerative farming.
5. Support Small Businesses
Back in the day, people in cities as well as in rural areas spent their money at small, local businesses or regional mills and factories. Great-Grandma’s money and the things she traded for other goods were more likely to stay within her region, supporting her neighbors and family as a result.
The same happens today if you spend your money and small, local businesses. When you shop at a local business, about 68% of your money will stay in the local community. When you shop at nation-wide chains, only 43% stays in the community, according to the Andersonville Study of Retail Economics.
Additionally, local and independent makers are likely to use and reuse recycled materials in their trade. Fifty-nine percent said they are likely to reuse scrap materials from their shop into new products. Using a large percent of virgin materials as well as using petrochemicals for the creation and transport of many items makes purchasing from large corporate chains a less sustainable option, as opposed to supporting small businesses that may be selling locally-made items.
Altering our lifestyle for any reason can be daunting, if not overwhelming. I have had many moments (if not entire seasons) in my life where I felt like the struggle was too great, or the problems were too complex, and I’m sure you have had those moments as well. I’ve found a great deal of comfort in my great-grandma’s experience...she wasn’t trying to live simply, she was simply living. Despite the values of convenience, efficiency, and economy that we have absorbed from our contemporary culture, we CAN learn from the past, step out of the patterns we have developed, and do our part--however small--to protect and prolong the beauty and vitality of our world.
If Great-Grandma could do it, so can we.
Guest Blogger: Erika Larson
Erika Larson is a Minneapolis-based sustainability blogger and owner of the online zero waste home goods store, Heirloom General, where she gets to curate a blend of new and vintage sustainable goods, from bamboo toothbrushes and local dish soap to 1970’s vegetarian cookbooks and vintage sewing supplies. She has a passion for waste-free living, buying secondhand, and learning from the past.