Plastic Free July is here and [of course] I’m participating! I’ve already been avoiding single-use plastics for a year and have made my stainless steel water bottle, cotton produce bags, and reusable shopping bags a normal habit…but I still have struggled with avoiding the plastic that comes with take out, fast-food, and even dine-in meals.
So these are my three commitments to reduce my single-use plastic waste this month [and hopefully forever]:
Refuse plastic straws and disposable beverage cups. Even though I really hate plastic straws, I do occasionally end up with them in my [or my kids’] drinks. So this month, I am committed to not buying beverages out at all. We will just bring our reusable water bottles and drink water when we go to restaurants. [It is healthier anyway!]
Bring my own reusable container for restaurant leftovers. I have yet to bring my own container to a restaurant for the leftovers – and with four little kids, we ALWAYS have leftovers. So, this month, I will keep a reusable container [or two] in my car for this purpose.
Buy ONLY plastic-free groceries. I’m pretty good about this, but not perfect. I never use the plastic produce bags and I always choose the loose produce over the bagged options – but not all foods can be found package free at my grocery store. My kids love grapes and they always come in a plastic bag. I love berries, but I can’t find them without plastic packaging either. I often end up compromising on some of these items. So, this month, I am committed to doing without any food that I can’t find plastic-free. But it won’t be much of a hardship because I LOVE pineapples and apples and watermelons.
It took me almost 30 years to fully recognize and acknowledge that I was born into privilege – and for the past two years, I’ve struggled with what my responsibility to the world is as a result. The answer, in part, is minimalism.
But first, let me back up and explain…
I was born into a white, middle-class, American family. For most of my childhood, my father was a pastor of a large church in Flint, Michigan. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. I have four siblings. My parents loved us and provided a wonderful life – full of family time, vacations, extra-curricular activities, medical care, a beautiful home, all the food we could eat, gifts at Christmas and birthdays, private education, help with paying for college, even braces for all five of us. Basically, we had everything we could possibly need provided for us. There were also intangibles like all the words of affirmation, hugs and kisses, training in important life principles like money management, hard work, perseverance, and kindness.
I enjoyed one of the most privileged lives a human being can have in this world – filled with safety, security, health and love.
And man, did I take it for granted…
Despite how great my life was, I spent most of my growing up years saying that we “weren’t rich.” I have literally said that countless times. I guess I thought my parents weren’t wealthy because we didn’t drive expensive cars or wear name brands clothes or eat at expensive restaurants like some of my friends did.
Then as an adult, I had the same perspective – that I wasn’t wealthy despite living a life of total luxury where I wanted for nothing. Yeah, I still don’t drive expensive cars or book vacations at Disney World and we live on one income in a wealthy Chicago suburb – but I will never again be foolish enough to think I’m not wealthy.
Why is it that the American middle class is so set on denying their own wealth? Everyone is looking at the small percentage of people wealthier than themselves, rather than the 3 billion people less fortunate. When I switched my perspective to intentionally noticing all the needs in the world, I became more and more aware of my own wealth.
What is more, I had to acknowledge that I hadn’t done anything to deserve being born into the family that I did – any more than those born in difficult situations deserved their lot in life.
This caused me a lot of guilt.
But guilt that produced action. Because I no longer felt that it was acceptable for me to live only for myself and my family.
But I was also very conflicted. On the one hand, I want to enjoy a comfortable life and provide nice things for my kids – but on the other hand, how do I justify spending all of my resources taking care of myself and my family when people are literally dying from preventable causes around the world? And what exactly constitutes “taking care of my family”? Where is the line between “needs” and “wants” in this consumerist society?
I began to struggle to justify any purchases outside of legit needs like food and medical expenses for my family. I feel guilty buying another shirt when my closet is already full of shirts that I don’t even wear. I feel guilty buying a fancy appliance for my kitchen when some simple elbow grease will do the job. I feel guilty throwing out food because I “didn’t feel like eating it,” when people go hungry all the time in this world. How can I spend $50 on decorative throw pillows for my couch when I know that I could pay for two months of education, food and medical care for a child in Uganda at that price?
The natural result was minimalism.
Minimalism, to me, means living with less, so I can give more.
Many people consider minimalism to be “extreme,” but it’s not. The materialism in America is extreme. The way we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking that we’re not rich is extreme. Minimalism is just the natural byproduct of recognizing our wealth and privilege in comparison to the rest of the world.
Minimalism has freed us from materialism and a love of money and has freed us to prioritize things that matter the most to us – family, travel, and most importantly, giving to causes and organizations that are working towards a better world for all of us.
For me, minimalism was my path to a more intentional, fulfilling life. But it may not be the answer for everyone.
The big question is not “are you a minimalist?” but “what are you doing to change the world?”
On May 28th, this blog turned 1 – on the same day that I turned 32. This past year has been the most transformative that I have experienced in my adult life. This blog has been a place for me to share how my family and I have changed our views, values, and lifestyle in favor of simplicity and authenticity.
Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
This has become my life’s motto. And this past year has been all about learning more so I know better, so I can do better.
So, in honor of the blog’s first birthday, I wanted to recap all the changes [to our lifestyle and also our perspective] that my family and I have been working on over the past year.
The changes we have made started with an interest in minimalism. I had grown tired of chasing the “American dream” of wealth and success, which seemed to equate to bigger homes and fancier cars and more stuff, while meaningful relationships, time with family, concern for the less fortunate and other social/environmental causes are ignored. I was anxious for a simpler, more intentional life. I was wanting our life to be about a greater purpose than satisfying our own desires for more.
So, minimalism taught us to purge what we own down to things that are essential or truly appreciated AND to refuse all the excess that society is constantly telling us we “need.” We played the 30-day minimalism game and between Brett and I, removed 930 items from our home.
My interest in minimalism lead me to Cait Flanders’ book, The Year of Less, which was so impactful that after reading it, I started this blog to document all the ways I intended to end my own mindless consumption.
I began asking myself whether I really needed something before buying it. I continued to purge our stuff without replacing any of it. I committed to first do without, then use what I have, then buy used – and only when all else failed, to buy new.
Around this time, I watched the documentary, The True Cost, which describes the fast fashion industry and how the American demand for cheaper and faster clothing is wreaking havoc around the world. I couldn’t believe that I had never considered the wastefulness of my own clothing habits before or how harmful my “take and toss” mentality truly was to the environment and to people around the world.
As a working middle class American, I had always prioritized buying cheap clothing as a way to “manage my money wisely” and thought of myself as some sort of martyr for never buying expensive brands and always shopping the clearance rack in the service of frugality.
Wow, I was so wrong. I am happy to say that I have finally learned to appreciate my belongings enough to spend what they are worth – and I now care enough about my fellow humans, no matter how far away they live, to pay whatever it costs to protect their rights.
From there, I stumbled upon the zero waste movement, which I had never heard of previously. On a whim I picked up the book, Zero Waste, by Shia Su from the library. I had no idea how significantly this book would change my life.
This book gave me confidence to reduce my waste [it really is so easy!] and opened my eyes to yet another sad side affect of our constant consumption: waste.
Seriously, the waste problem in America is huge. I don’t know why more people aren’t concerned.
So I started trying to reduce my family’s waste. We began recycling, composting, and bulk shopping. This became a passion [bordering on obsession] for me that led to so many other important changes for my family like eliminating processed foods, making most of our food from scratch, and purchasing our first CSA share. It has been a process, and we still are not storing our trash in a mason jar [that is not a realistic goal for us anyway], but we have made HUGE improvements. We only take out one 4 gallon trash bag per week and we have even reduced the amount that we recycle significantly, needing trash and recycling pick up only monthly [or even possibly quarterly] now.
Next, I committed to ethical shopping by supporting brands that are concerned about sustainability and fair, ethical treatment of all members within the supply chain[animals included].
This one is tougher because it is hard to know whether a company is ethical or not and requires researchwhich requires time, but it’s not so bad because we don’t buy very many things, so purchases can be thoughtfully and intentionally made with our values in mind.
Yes, I am boycotting Wendy’s. Yes, I pay more for Fair Trade coffee and chocolate and bananas. Yes, I adore Patagonia.
Then I began to focus on eliminating some of the distractions that caused me to always feel like I never had enough time. We moved our only television into the lower level. I started using the “screen time”feature on my iPhone to limit my time on certain apps. I turned off all notifications on my phone. ALL of them. If you call me and I don’t physically have my phone in my hand, I won’t know it until I actually open my phone app…which I do every couple days. I’m harder to reach, but by responding to texts and calls and emails on my own time, I am no longer a slave to my phone.
The kids and I began spending more time outside after I read the inspiring book, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, by Linda Åkeson McGurk.
We started having a Monday movie night with the kids as their only screen time for the week. I simplified my cleaning routine to improve efficiency so I don’t have to spend a lot of time cleaning. We purged A TON of toys [with the kids’ help], which cut back on the chaos of living with three toddlers.
I also read Slow by Brooke McAlarywhich was full of inspiration for living a more intentional and less frantic life.
Giving Back to the World
Last, but most importantly, we rearranged our finances to prioritize giving to charities that we believe are doing good around the world. I wish I could be the one doing the good myself, but at this stage in my life, I am chasing toddlers all day and working part-time, so I am prioritizing what I can do, which is give money to those who will use it to help people. I look forward to volunteering regularly and giving back in other ways in the future, as I believe that this is one of our most important purposes on this earth – not to merely look out for our own interests and our family’s well-being, but to care for the less fortunate and fight for a better world.
But, more on that another day.
I am looking forward to improving in all of these areas and more over the next year.
Over the past year, due to my clothing ban and my journey to zero waste and minimalism, I have TOTALLY changed my perspective on buying stuff. Not just clothes, either. Everything. I now take weeks and sometimes months to decide whether a purchase is necessary and where to make the purchase and if there is any possible way to thrift or swap or borrow or rent or make the item. [Usually I just end up doing without because it’s so exhausting trying to find the most ethical, responsible way to purchase many items.]
But this, I feel, is the type of conscious consumerism we all should be practicing.
First – Consume Less
You may have seen this “Buyerarchy of Needs” illustration created by Sarah Lazarovic.
This is exactly how we should approach purchasing new products. If possible, we use what we have. If that’s not possible, then the next best thing is to buy used or repurpose or borrow or rent or DIY. But if all that fails, then and only then, we buy a product new.
Second – Practice Mindful Consumption
If you make it to the top of the pyramid and decide to buy new, it is SO important that you make a conscious effort to do right by people and planet. Support companies and brands who are taking care of the people in their supply chains – not just their CEOs – and who are striving to reduce their impact on our ecosystems and who give back to their communities and charitable organizations.
In other words, good companies.
As the consumers, we hold the power. It is our money that funds businesses. And we have the ability to choose who we give that money to. We should not take this decision lightly.
Third – Support These Ethical Clothing Brands
Since I’ve been pondering this for a year – and have not made any clothing purchases – I have been researching where I would choose to buy clothes in the event that I make it to the top of the pyramid myself.
Here are some of the clothing brands I am excited to support in the future:
(for casuals, outerwear, activewear and even kids clothes)
I ADORE Patagonia. What I once considered to be just another overpriced American outdoorsy brand has turned into my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE. I love everything about this company. They are committed to sustainability and protecting the environment. They are also involved in grassroots activism in communities throughout the country. They encourage all of their employees to make a positive difference in the world by joining local movements and taking real, legitimate action towards change. They also have a closed loop system, where they take back your used Patagonia clothing and repair it to resell under their “Worn Wear” label or recycle it if it’s beyond repair.
I hope everyone appreciates how TOTALLY RADICAL this philosophy is in our current society. Patagonia is literally stating that they want to cut down on consumerism. That has to be the craziest thing I have ever heard a clothing company say. AND I LOVE IT!
Plus, they carry t-shirts with eco-friendly slogans, like this one that I love so much and want so badly:
Buy it here. Or better yet, buy it for me! Just kidding…[I’m really not kidding. I wear a size small 😁]
I love this shirt because not only does purchasing it support a company I consider to be doing right by people and the planet, it also has an awesome message that I can spread just by wearing it. They have a whole line of graphic Ts with sustainability messages.
Now, you may be thinking, $35 for a t-shirt?!?!, but YES. That’s the whole point. Pay a price worthy of a product made in a responsible and ethical way. Then treat the product with care throughout its life. Then dispose of it responsibly – in this case, SO EASILY – by returning it to Patagonia for repair or recycle!
(for intimates, activewear, and swimwear)
Naja is an environmentally conscious brand that sells beautiful, luxurious underwear that is eco-friendly, ethically made and fair trade.
But that’s not all.
Naja also empowers women – rather than objectify them – by getting rid of the overly sexualized posing AND by improving the lives of garment workers in their supply chain.
They also carry a zero waste line of undergarments made of recycled fabric…
…like this bralette.
Buy it here. Or shop the whole zero waste collection here.
Everlane is an ethical American company with two brick and mortar stores – one in New York City and one in San Francisco – and an online store that sells women’s and men’s apparel, shoes and accessories. They focus on classic styles because, as they state on their website, they want you to be able to wear their products for “years, even decades.”
What makes this company so great is their commitment to “Radical Transparency” [their words] regarding their ethical factories, product materials, and production costs.
Their website contains tons of information about the individual factories around the world where products are being produced – including the materials being used, the story of their partnership, and photos. That is definitely radical.
This is the kind of accountability we should be demanding from all companies. We should always be asking where, and how, and who is making our clothing? And we should expect to receive an answer that includes fair wages, safe working conditions, and all the other benefits that we ourselves would demand from our employers.
On the website, you also have the option to view the “true cost” of the product before the retail markup.
Of course, this is also a great way to tell customers that they are cheaper than the competitor – but again, the price is not the issue here. It’s about supporting an ethical company – which we should expect to be more expensive than the company that cuts corners.
[But don’t worry – they sell t-shirts for $18 and aren’t really overpriced compared to a typical American clothing brand.]
Pact is an American company that uses 100% organic cotton and fair trade factories. They are also committed to keeping prices down, stating “It shouldn’t cost more to do the right thing.”
Reasonably priced and carrying everything from workout clothes, to undergarments, to kids and babies, to bedding – Pact is a one stop shop.
Thank you, Pact, for restoring my faith in the clothing industry!
If you’ve ever wondered how to find ethical brands, look no further than google. Information is everywhere about this now. It’s not difficult to find ethical, sustainable brands.
But I warn you, these next swaps will start to make you look like a real deal zero waster, and chances are, you will start to enjoy your new zero waste supplies so much, you might actually consider attempting to store your trash in a mason jar…
[Please know that it is not necessary to run out and buy a bunch of fancy stuff in order to be “zero waste.” In fact, it’s best to make do with what you have and see if you actually need to buy an alternative. I waited on many of these swaps til I had used up my current supplies or until I found it absolutely necessary.]
This list is not exhaustive. It is just my personal favorites because they are easy to swap and [relatively] inexpensive. So, here we go.
1. Beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap.
I ADORE my beeswax wraps. I actually still have a partial roll of plastic wrap in my cupboard that I have absolutely no use for now. I use the beeswax wraps for wrapping everything from half a cantaloupe to my kids’ snacks to bowls and plates. [I wrote more about the beeswax wraps in this post: Zero Waste: Beeswax Wraps.]
2. Cloth napkins instead of paper napkins.
Technically you don’t need to buy cloth napkins if you are handy with a sewing machine – which I am not. There are plenty of tutorials online that tell you how to make your own. I chose to buy a set. This was one of the very first swaps I made, and while I would probably do things differently now, I love my napkins.
3. Handkerchiefs instead of tissues. I remember my grandpa using a “hankie” when I was little. My father used to play a game with us kids called “hide the hankie” – which is pretty gross now that I think about it… but handkerchiefs in general don’t have to be disgusting. Just because we are used to the convenience of paper tissues doesn’t mean that we can’t go back to the handkerchief. I haven’t actually made this swap yet, but I have asked a sewing-savvy girlfriend if I could pay her to make me some. And usually, when my kids get colds, I use our cloth baby wipes instead of tissues because they are softer on their noses. But I’m anxious to have a set of hankies for the family.
4. Bar Soap, Shampoo, & Conditioner instead of liquids.
I wrote about our switch to bar shampoo and conditioner recently [Zero Waste: Shampoo Bars], which is maybe slightly more expensive than buying traditional shampoo and conditioner in the plastic bottles. But while you’re at it, you might as well ditch all the plastic bottles and buy all bar soap. We’ve switched to bar soap for all of our washing needs. I even make my own dishwashing soap using grated bar soap. It is easy to find bar soap without packaging nowadays at nearly any grocery store. Bar soaps are often cheaper than the little plastic pump bottles and last much longer. As always, go for the palm-oil free variety, such as Kirk’s Castile Soap Bars.
5. Wool dryer balls instead of dryer sheets and fabric softener.
I was lucky to receive these as a gift early on in my zero waste journey. I gave up fabric softener and dryer sheets years ago when I first had kids, and dryer balls are the perfect alternative that I never knew existed. In addition, there are plenty of zero waste ways to make your clothes smell good too – I use essential oils on a damp wash cloth and throw it into the dryer.
6. Reusable straws instead of disposable straws.
By now, we’ve all heard how terrible plastic straws are for the environment – BUT we need to remember that the straws are very important for those with disabilities. As I see it, if you don’t need to use one, find an alternative. Some people actually have a real need for flexible straws and so the rest of us should cut back on our convenience habit so that millions of them don’t wind up in the ecosystem. So, get reusable straws [or simply do without]. I have a set of stainless steel straws that I use for the kids when we are out – but I try to always have their reusable water bottles with us.
7. Bamboo toothbrushes instead of plastic.
The hardest thing about this swap, for me, is turning down the free toothbrushes that the dentist always gives you after your visit. This one costs money because before I paid nothing for toothbrushes. However, considering every plastic toothbrush I have ever used in my life is still out there somewhere – I think a biodegradable alternative is worth the money.
BONUS for the ladies:
8. Menstrual cup instead of tampons.
I made this swap last year, shortly before I became pregnant again and since I’ve been pregnant for the last eight months now, it hasn’t gotten much use – BUT a menstrual cup was just a no-brained for me. They don’t need to be changed as frequently, they are comfortable, and they last for years. That being said, they aren’t exactly cheap. So, do your research, get the right size, and be patient [they take some practice]. In the long run, though, they will be a savings – for you and the planet.
I know there are a lot more inexpensive swaps, but these have been most helpful for me.
Clothing items purchased: 0 (bought no clothes at all – not for me or my kids. My husband did buy some clothes for work and bought me one of the above mentioned gifts)
[The shopping ban officially ends at the end of May on my 32nd birthday, but I’ll talk more about that then.]
The conclusion of this challenge [or experiment or whatever you want to call it] has come at the perfect time – right before I give birth to my fourth and final baby. So, on one hand, I am still holding on to some larger sizes that I will be able to permanently get rid of as soon as I shrink out of them AND a wealth of maternity clothes that I am anxious to find a good home for – possibly with a local pregnancy center. But, on the other hand, it has allowed me to clear out my wardrobe before the newborn craziness begins and my priorities switch once again to meeting the constant needs of the baby. Couldn’t have timed it better if I tried, quite honestly.
Soon I’ll be sharing my favorite ethical clothing brands that I plan to support in he future – in the absence of used clothing options.
Two years ago, I read a small sidebar – maybe three or four sentences – in Martha Stewart Living Magazine about how she makes a pectin-free strawberry jam. It sounded so simple that I immediately bought some strawberries and gave it a try. I’ve been happily making my own jam ever since.
Since then, I’ve experimented with reducing the sugar and adjusting the steps to suit my time constraints and personal preferences until I can now say that I have created an even simpler and healthier way of making strawberry jam!
[Sorry, Martha, it’s true.]
So, here’s all you need to do.
1. Hull and rinse strawberries. [I usually quarter them, but that is not necessary.]
2. Put berries in a big bowl and mix with half a cup of sugar per one pound of strawberries [Martha’s recipe called for double the sugar] and juice of one lemon.
Side note: I’ve tried even less sugar and even no sugar recipes but the jam always tastes really tart and doesn’t thicken the way this version does.
3. Cover and refrigerate overnight. [Martha never specified how many hours to refrigerate them so I just make the jam sometime the next day.]
4. Heat on the stove in a big stock pot until sugar is dissolved. This doesn’t take long – maybe 10 minutes.
5. Remove the berries and boil the remaining juice until it reaches 221°. This takes longer – maybe 40 minutes to one hour, depending on how much jam you are making.
6. Blend [or mash] berries and add back to the juice. [You could also leave the strawberries whole.] Boil for five more minutes.
7. Pour into sterilized jars. Let cool on the counter then refrigerate or freeze.
The jam thickens as it cools and even more once it’s in the fridge, but it never gets as thick as a jam made with pectin. Still, it works perfectly for PBJ or as a sauce for dessert [like cheesecake or angel food cake or vanilla ice cream] or a topping for toast.
To keep the cost down, I only make jam when strawberries are on sale. Today, I used seven pounds of strawberries and three cups of sugar and made roughly two quarts of jam – for about $7.
I’m not sure if that’s a savings, but it is zero waste AND zero high fructose corn syrup!