When I was in my twenties and thirties, I was a school teacher. I lived and worked overseas. I had many great adventures, but looking back two decades later, I can see that what I most enjoyed about those years was the lifestyle I had as a young mom in my neighborhood in Adelaide, South Australia. We enjoyed the best of a modern Western life without some of the “excesses” of 21st century life in the United States-not too much driving, not too much “stuff”, not too much debt…You get the picture. I had a cute little car which was fuel efficient. I had a cute little house and lovely English style garden. I shopped in my neighborhood, because, believe it or not, there wasn’t a supermarket or mall within 5 miles of the neighborhood where I lived.
What I loved most about how my money was spent in those days was that it mainly supported local people and products. My food came from small, family-owned fruit and veggie shops, butcher shops, and bakeries. All of my fruit and vegetables were grown locally and sold in the shops in my local “high street” or in the year-round farmers’ market. Many things I take for granted today like my washer and dryer, my living room furniture and my office equipment were far more expensive in Adelaide than they were in Seattle, for instance. But, we purchased from local merchants, bought quality to last and often recycled and shared. For months when my neighbor had a new baby, we shared the expense of a diaper service and we shared the use of my new washing machine. When another neighbor moved to a new job in another state, we bought their antique dining table and chairs to furnish our cottage’s kitchen dining area.
So, why am I telling you this story of a past life in another country?
Because–I think we have forgotten that we have the power to shape our lives with the choices we make and how we spend our money. I suppose we think we have to give up things we find “necessary” to save our environment, when really we might find that new choices result in pleasant gains.
At the heart of many of our environmental challenges today are the things we Americans buy and discard every day. Our economy is seemingly stronger the more we buy and the faster we replace things. Living a more environmentally aware lifestyle affects all aspects of our lives, but none more dramatically than our shopping habits.
There are many ways to turn your buying behavior into a force that supports environmentally friendly businesses and practices:
Choose the shop around the corner:
More and more, we’re hearing that carbon dioxide emissions from our cars are polluting the earth and contributing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases to the growing climate change problem. To reduce your carbon footprint, choose to shop close to home. Need some new candles? Check out the local artisan’s workshop. Looking for some fresh veggies? Look into your community’s farmers’ markets. You get the idea.
By that, we mean “bring your own bag” when you’re heading for the store. Whether you’re in the market for groceries or a new pair of pants, try to remember to take your reusable shopping bag with you. This cuts down on the annoying “paper or plastic?” questions and will mean fewer resource-intensive bags entering your community where they either need to be discarded in a landfill or burned in an incinerator.
Choose eco-friendly products:
Regardless of what you’re putting in your bag, whether it’s a new printer for your computer or some binders for your children’s new school year, there’s likely a more eco-friendly option available. Wondering what to look for? Here are few characteristics of earth-mindful options:
- Look for second-hand or used items. These products require no new resources except the gas it takes you to get to the store. Furniture, clothing, kitchen items, and even electronics can often be purchased this way.
- Search for items made with recycled materials. The most obvious option is recycled-content paper, but more and more there are products made of recycled products. Soda bottles can be made into fleece for clothing, tires can be turned into playground equipment, milk jugs can be turned into shingles for your roof, yogurt containers are made into toothbrushes and razors, and old barn wood can be transformed into one-of-a-kind tables and chairs.
- Check out alternative materials. If you can’t find something that’s once-used like those that are second-hand or made of recycled materials, look for options made with eco-friendly materials. This can mean many things, but here are a few principles to keep in mind: Materials grown without the use of pesticides and fertilizers mean less harm to water and soil, so go for organic fruits, vegetables, and cotton products. Any resource that’s renewable is more sustainable than non-renewable options. Metals, plastics, and other petroleum by-products are not ultimately renewable (not to mention they’re production is incredibly polluting). Bamboo, hemp, sea grass, and jute, to name a few, are incredibly fast growing plants that can be used to construct furniture and rugs, clothing and bedding, and much more. Opting for the item made with fewer chemicals is always a good choice, too. It means it’ll be less harmful for you and the earth. So if you’re debating between stain-resistant shirts and those without, go for the more natural, less-treated option. Look for low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) products, natural cleaning products, and so on.
Choose “kid safe” and “pet safe” household products.
Opting for the item made with fewer harmful or potentially harmful ingredients is not only earth-friendly, but also “kid safe” and “pet safe”. Look for household products without the following common but harmful chemicals as ingredients: Naphthalene, kerosene, formaldehyde, phenol, cresol, lye, hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, petroleum distillates, benzene, ammonia, paradichlorobenzene, sodium hydroxide, butyl cellosolve, hydrochloric acid, phosphoric acid.
Look for concentrated products:
Every bottle of laundry detergent and household cleaner that contains more water than active ingredients cost fuel and human labor to ship to a store near you. Purchase your household products as concentrates and add the water at home.
Look for water- and energy-saving devices:
Choosing products that reduce your consumption of water and energy will not only save you money, they reduce your overall earthly-impact. So go for bathroom and kitchen fixtures and appliances that conserve, opt for electronics that run more efficiently, and upgrade things like light bulbs and faucet aerators to keep your home running on less. A good bet for many of these products are ENERGY STAR rated options since they save significant quantities of both of these resources.
Reduce overall consumption:
Perhaps the most important change you can make in your shopping habits is to buy less. When you’re in the store trying to decide between two great books, or contemplating whether you want green or white sheets, evaluate whether you really need the item in question. Are there ways you can reuse something at home for that purpose? Perhaps you can share a lawnmower with your neighbor, or take books out of the library instead of buying new. There are lots of ways to enjoy the better things in life without taking something new home.