week 02: houston, we have a lesson

Last week when I sat down to write my first weekly update, I was nestled into my couch in Raleigh amid pretty bitter winter weather. This time, I’m coming to you from Dulles International Airport in Virginia en route to Houston – after a few days of 70°F weather back home.

This week, amazingly, involved next to no purchases. Hannah and I picked up our weekly produce box, I bought fuel for the drive up to my parents in DC to catch this flight, and I stopped in for a pint of cherry tomatoes for my mom from Wegmans to add to a salad.

However, the yogurt saga continues. As you may recall, last week I began gathering supplies to make my own yogurt, including a (used) instant-read food thermometer. The thing arrived this week, however, the battery inside was dead and corroded. Naturally, it was a unique button battery only available online or at Batteries Plus, so I needed to order another one. Only after getting the new battery will I find out if the corrosion has rendered the thermometer unusable. This brings me to the matter of buying used: functionality.

I inherently harbor the notion that “used” equals “better”, that an item that is available for resale is well-built, well-loved, and predates the era of planned obsolescence. I suppose that, while young, I subscribe to the idea that “they don’t make things like they used to” and therefore prefer certain used items over new equivalents. Perhaps you’ve heard stories of changes in the composition of Pyrex cookware, rendering it more temperature sensitive, or the substitution of plastic mechanical parts for those that once were metal.

However, this position can get me into trouble sometimes, as with this thermometer. The fact of the matter is, used means, well, used; there’s no guarantee of whether or not an item will work as intended or work at all. While I may like to think they will, that’s simply not always the case. Also, take a used car for example: at some point, maintenance costs begin to outstrip the benefits of having an older vehicle. After getting the batteries, I’ll likely have spent the same amount I would have on a newer, nicer thermometer and, while I don’t regret that (recall, I’m trying hard to not buy new things for a variety of reasons), it’s a reminder of the perhaps overly optimistic view I take on used goods. The point here is – buy used when you can, but try to avoid the purchase of used good sight-unseen.

So in summary for this week:

Plus:

  • Very few purchases were made this week!
  • I have still managed to largely avoid the grocery store. My farmers’ market purchases have tided me over through this week, and the overabundance of arugula I picked up has encouraged me to make salads more consistently.
  • It’s almost time to start planning my summer garden, so I’ve been thinking about what seeds to start & when. It’s a welcome sunny, warm thought for cold, damp days.

Delta:

  • I’ll feel pretty silly if this thermometer doesn’t work and I have to buy another one. It’s also a race against time with the milk I bought, currently sitting in the fridge. The yogurt saga has taught me a lesson similar to the one that my mom gives when it comes to baking: get all your ingredients out before you begin to make sure you’re prepared. This thermometer is the equivalent of a middle school baking adventure in which, halfway through making brownies, a friend and I realized we only had olive oil, rendering the final product a bit.. olivey. But a lesson is a lesson – note taken.
  • Part of my decision to pare down my purchases is environmentally motivated. Which brings me to the sticking point of air travel. As highlighted in this New York Times piece, the average American generates 19 tons of carbon dioxide per person, and a flight from NYC to San Francisco could produce 2-3 tons per person. And I’m flying from DC to Atlanta to Houston and back this weekend. Ouch. As someone who studies life-cycle assessment, I’m aware that all the figures about what diet or habits are better for the environment can vary widely based on how you slice & dice the calculation, but it stings a little to think that perhaps one weekend could cancel out a number of the other actions I consciously undertake. More on this at another time, though.

For a week with few purchases, the delta list is more substantial than I anticipated, but I’m glad to see that there are things to reflect on regardless of how much I may or may not be consuming.

Have any of you learned something new this week?

Week-To-Week is a series consisting of reflections on purchases & daily events condensed on a weekly basis

 

week 01: can i blame barbara?

January is now well underway. As I write, it’s a chilling 12 degrees outside and everything is coated in a substantial layer of ice. Serious winter weather in Raleigh is a big-to-do as it’s not a common enough occurrence to warrant undertaking the same preparation as cities in the Northeast, but I frankly find it much more dangerous as any snow is usually bookended by an onslaught of freezing rain & ice.

In any case, I’m generally pleased with how this first week has gone. I’ve managed to not buy anything new, but have acquired some new (to me) items that, on some level, seemed a little ridiculous: a pasta press & kitchen thermometer.

I’ve began the year under the spell of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which I wrote about last week. So much of the book resonated with some of my “do it yourself” spirit, which informed a couple of my purchases.

I had some thank you notes to send out & needed stamps, but the post office was closed for lunch when I arrived. I killed some time wandering through the nearby shopping center and found myself in the thrift shop looking for some cloth napkins to supplant my use of paper ones, but instead came away with a $10 Atlas pasta press. Did I need a pasta press? No. Was I imagining a bustling kitchen of friends on a chilly evening cranking out pasta and sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labor? Yes. So I made a deal with myself that I’d work to make that image a reality and bought the thing, with a small twinge of regret.

I’ve also been inspired to make my own yogurt – apparently it’s relatively easy.  I can get milk in returnable glass bottles at the grocery supplied by a local dairy (their ice cream is excellent), cutting down on waste. This, however, requires a thermometer to ensure the milk heats enough to thicken properly, and I found one on the used section of Amazon after scouring craigslist and some other forums. It was due in this weekend, but the weather has postponed the delivery. I also need some kind of straining material, but instead of buying cheesecloth or a nut bag, I will try an old t-shirt or a tea towel first. There’s one purchase averted (for now)!  I’ll let y’all know how the yogurt making adventure goes.

In both cases, these items were certainly not necessities. However, they are both a means to an ends, reusable, and purchased with a purpose and intent to use. The goal of this project is not to facilitate a sense of guilt when purchasing certain things (or things at all) so I can’t let that feeling become a shadow over every transaction I make.

Here are a few more thoughts from the week:

Plus

  • Visited the farmers market and spent a while speaking with Suzanne, the matron of a meat farm in the area who was running the market-front for a small cooperative selling meat, milk, eggs, and some of the best goat cheese I’ve ever tasted.
  • All but one of the food items I purchased this week came from the farmers market, our produce box, or the bulk section of the grocery store
  • I largely avoided using paper towels
  • Didn’t run out to the grocery store immediately after getting back to Raleigh and instead worked with what I had. I surprised and impressed myself with a tasty sweet potato sage pasta.

Delta

  • Probably should have sprung for the Chobani single size yogurt cup I bought as a starter for my homemade yogurt attempt (forthcoming) after learning about the company’s efforts to help with refugee resettlement.
  • Felt that the pasta press was a frivolous purchase, but do intend to use it and know that it’s an item from which other experiences and memories may come (wow, that sounds cheesy). Plus, it was an incredible find.

Hope your 2017 is off to a good start! If you have any New Year’s resolutions (consumption related or otherwise) I’d love to hear them.

Week-To-Week is a series consisting of reflections on purchases & daily events condensed on a weekly basis

 

the game plan

Happy New Year! As we begin 2017 and my pledge to be intentional with respect to my purchasing habits gets underway, the looming questions are now “what exactly will this look like?” coupled with “what exactly do I tend to buy, anyways?”.

My general objective is two-fold: to limit the purchase of new items, and to make meaningful, intentional purchases. I personally would prefer to own used things in most cases, but understand that may prove impossible. Coupled with the fact I also want to support local growers and businesses, I’ve decided I don’t intend to exclusively buy used things or pledge to not purchase anything at all. Instead, I’m looking for a sustainable in-between.

After reviewing the records of my spending from the last year, I’ve discerned that a good deal of it after rent & utilities falls into the following categories, so I’d like to outline the actions I intend to take in those areas. This is not exhaustive, and the bulk of “unnecessary” spending tends to occur on “incidentals”, so I’ll have to evaluate those on a case by case basis and am sure I’ll be engaging with that here as the year goes on.

general rules
For any and all purchases, I plan to keep the following in mind:

  • Make a good-faith effort to exhaust other options before making new purchases
  • Do my research. When buying things, one isn’t simply buying an item, but the associated externalities as well.
  • Prioritize post-consumer/recycled content
  • Avoid shopping (in store/online/even craigslist) “just because”

food
I imagine that one could resolve to spend a year (or more) reframing how they think about food, its sources, and preparation. I would love to be able to grow more of my own food, or do more preserving/freezing/self-prep, but current circumstances limit time and space. My roommate and I currently get most of our produce from a local produce box that is about 50% local, 50% bulk grocer. While I don’t consider myself prepared to go full-on locavore this year, there are a few concrete things I can try to do:

  • Plan meals
  • Buy from the supermarket bulk boxes for nuts, grains and spices. Bring your own container options cut way down on packaging waste, and are potentially cheaper (depending on the item)
  • Attempt to eat (mostly) what is in season locally. Is my vegetarian diet hypocritical if I’m eat plants on the basis of efficiency but predominately get produce from the other side of the world?
  • Actually take advantage of the farmers’ market!! Our local market is open (almost) 365 days a year and is overwhelmingly full of amazing produce from the region

toiletries & personal/home care
I’ll take this one as an opportunity to get a little experimental. I don’t purchase a wide array of things in this area, but use them on a daily basis. Are there products that I could make instead of buy? Are there products that I frankly don’t need?

  • Evaluate what I actually need, and quit buying what I don’t
  • Make products wherever possible
  • Research & purchase environmentally friendly alternatives as needed. (“Environmentally friendly” can be such a buzzword, and I’d like to learn more about labeling/what that truly means in this area”)
  • Invest in reusable alternatives up front where possible. This can range from the simple (bye bye paper napkins) to the adventurous (if I get bold maybe I can give the DivaCup a shot…)

transportation
I’m fortunate to live in a place where I can walk to most of the necessities, particularly school & grocery store. I do own a (used) car, and have no intentions of buying a new (to me) one this year, but in terms of transportation:

  • Bike & walk whenever possible
  • Carpool whenever possible
  • Group errands together to limit gas
  • Log miles as a sanity check on driving
  • Limit air travel (not that I do much of that, but I still want to be conscious of it)

gifts
On occasions where I need to find a gift for someone, it’s tempting to grab something off department store shelves in a rush. Luckily,  I’ve been slowly breaking myself of that habit. By holding myself to shopping local for gifts, or coming up with alternative gift ideas, I hope to be more intentional with my gift giving and put the thought into giving that my friends & family deserve. I will try to:

  • Purchase handmade items
  • Give the gift of experiences – restaurant gift cards, tickets to shows, day trips, etc
  • Find used books; they’re often in good-as-new condition
  • Exceptions:
    • If I know there is a specific item someone wants or needs, and a suitable alternative is not available, I’ll definitely consider gifting that item. Obviously the needs of the people I care about shouldn’t fall by the wayside because of this personal mission, but I want to also do my best to stay true to the spirit of why I’m doing this.

clothing & accessories
This is probably the most straightforward of the categories and can be summed up in two words: buy used.

  • Buy used as needed
  • Borrow for “one time use” events instead of accumulating clothes I don’t intend to wear again & again
  • Support local makers if looking for accessories
  • Exceptions:
    • Purchase new on occasions where uniformity is required. If for some reason I find myself as part of a bridal party in 2017, I’ll spring for whatever it is I’m instructed to wear, for example.
    • Underwear. I’m not a frequent purchaser of undergarments, but if the need arises I think I’ll opt new on this one.

Thoughts? Feedback? Any glaring omissions? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.

a resolution, of sorts

Oh, where to begin?

I’ve never particularly been a fan of “things”, but when I needed them, you can bet that I’d be the first to find what I needed as economically as possible. I’d feel a swell of pride that I could make do with an inexpensive alternative, or was patient enough to scope out the best deal. I wouldn’t consider myself cheap – frugal or thrifty would be my preferred adjectives – though cost-cutting is some kind of game I like to play, competing (mostly) with myself.

At the same time, I don’t have an extensive purchase history, at least by the standards I see plastered across the media or embedded in today’s onslaught of advertising. My parents have always had to poke, prod, and probe to get me to produce “wish lists” come birthdays or Christmas. I couldn’t tell you why; I’m just wired that way. (It’s not like I was so aware or well-meaning as a young kid that I would insist my parents donate a toy to someone else who needs it instead, though that would have been admirable). This has generally remained the same as I’ve gotten older – my monthly spending is almost entirely rent, utilities & food, with some dining out, donations, Target runs, and miscellaneous things mixed in. Though I have my own income now, purchasing things “just because” is far from habit.

I don’t mean any of this in some kind of boastful way, only to let anyone reading this know where I’m coming from: a background with access to “things”, but without an overwhelming desire to obtain them. While I’m not someone who might be considered a materialist, or an over-consumer, that doesn’t mean that I’ve adopted habits that mean I’m truly doing shopping “right”.

Just because I’m not someone who has not historically been attracted to all things shiny and new doesn’t mean that I’ve contributed more than my fair share to environmental degradation and inhumane treatment of people I never have, and never will meet.

I value our environment, I value community, I value others – and a globalized consumer culture has hung a sheet between the items that stock the grocery and department store aisles and their sources, generating a juxtaposition of my values and actions.

So why not try to change?

This year, I will. This year will be an attempt to truly consider where the products and food I purchase come from, whose hands have touched them, and the impact I’m having on people and the planet. This year, I will borrow, barter, then buy – and only buy new if I can support someone locally, or buy from a company or organization that is truly aligning with my values.

However, I don’t intend for this to be something I hang up as we ring in 2018. Perhaps by then this will all seem routine or automatic, or I’ll have discerned what parts of this are sustainable and what may need to give in the long term.

This adventure of sorts I’m about to embark on is not about not consuming, but consuming in an intentional, conscious way. I’m not swearing off buying things to curb an addiction to shopping, to save money, or prove a point (though, if there are some economic benefits, I’ll gladly accept). Instead, I’m looking to “purchase deliberately”, and take more responsibility for the actions I take with the power of the pocketbook.

I’m aware that this is a choice of mine that comes loaded with privilege; I have the luxury of being able to spend time contemplating my decisions, patiently scope out used items, or perhaps spend more on something that is made locally than scooping it off the affordable Wal-Mart shelves. No matter how much I cut back, I know that I’ll still consume far more than most of the world’s population. And that’s an issue I’ll explore more as the year goes on. But if I’m in a position to be able to help support local farmers & makers, and divert my dollars from elsewhere, then shouldn’t I?

In these last few days before the new year begins, I’ll finalize my plans for the and share them on this site. I imagine the year will unfold much like a Scrabble or Monopoly game with a new crowd – with a lot of rule-checking & making as it goes on. (Obviously, used underwear and TP aren’t really a thing. So we’ll be working though that). For me, the challenge is one thing, but the principle is what truly matters.

So here we go: the road to conscious consumerism begins now.