On Simplifying and Civilized Sustainability

The other day, while walking out of a meeting, my coworker commented on how “green” I was because I hadn’t printed out the meeting document, in favor of bringing an electronic copy on my tablet, along with my notebook for any notes I needed to take. I showed him one better and showed that I’d also brought my own cloth napkin to have a treat during the meeting (this month’s treat was cupcakes) instead of using a paper plate and napkin. It was nice to have these little efforts recognized because over the last several years, I’ve quietly tried to make small changes towards a less wasteful, more sustainable lifestyle, including bringing cloths with me to work instead of using so many paper towels and napkins.

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Probably the biggest change to my life that I’ve been trying to make, with varying levels of success, is my attempts to reduce my overall consumption. Whether I’m changing my buying habits of new (or new-to-me) clothes, reducing the way I use personal care products, or making small changes to how we eat, simply buying less is always going to be the most sustainable thing a person can do. Rather than buying new linen towels (linen is very eco-friendly, didn’t you know?), we’re using the towels we have until they’re no longer serviceable. Rather than buying new clothes, I’ve bought second-hand or even taken castoffs and loaners from friends. And my beauty routine is slowly creeping towards something very different from the sprawling, globe-circling routine that I’ve shared in the past.

Really, there is something very civilized about simplicity sometimes. I’m not Kon-Mari-ing anything (although we have been doing some of the decluttering that should have happened before we moved), but I’m trying to make steps towards reducing the need for such a chore. And, really, I’d rather wear the same two skirts for work all week than spend more than a little time on the weekend doing laundry or clearing out my closet. People view it as “strong personal style” rather than “wearing the same thing every week.” Plus, I’ve been quietly transitioning my wardrobe towards entirely natural fibers, and then towards more sustainable fibers (like the aforementioned linen). It’s expensive, so the process will be slow anyway. I’m less engaging in minimalism as I am asymptotically approaching it by bringing less into my life.

And that’s the crux of it, and part of why this is a quiet effort and not one that I would really recommend to anyone, because it’s part of a very personal value judgment. For me, I know I can “get away with” wearing as much of my pre-pregnancy wardrobe as possible, and buy a few necessities, so that if I spend more money to buy from a seamstress who makes all her pieces herself and charges accordingly out of sustainably-grown fabric, it doesn’t matter that I can really only afford one new piece of clothing every month or so. Or if I decide to make my own new skirt for the coming cooler months, I can choose to order my fabrics carefully and spend a month sewing it by hand, rather than needing to get a fall and winter wardrobe all at once. But not everyone has that luxury.

Or in the case of my skin care. I’ve already spent years honing my skin care routine and determining my skin’s general likes and dislikes, so I can buy products with relatively confidence online, so when I want to transition from less plastic packaging, I can try a new facial oil or cleanser or hydrating serum without as much of the unknown looming. And it helps that my skin has calmed down incredibly since my pregnancy (touch wood). So far, I’ve transitioned most of my skin care to simpler products that are largely produced by small companies (or people I know somewhat personally, through social media) and are mostly packaged with less plastic. There are a couple things I know I cannot swap out, despite their plastic bottle, but I know where I can recycle those containers now. Once I’ve tested the last new potential product, I’ll do a skincare update, I think.

And I’m fortunate to have the support of my husband, who has made great strides in reducing his use of papers towels and coffee filters. We’ve now almost entirely switched over to using cloth towels instead of paper ones, especially for our napkins. Somehow using cloth paper towels was an easier leap than trying to use our stock of gifted cloth napkins because the napkins seemed fancier. Now we have an eclectic pile of napkins and towels that we use at meals or for small spills. And Dan uses a cloth coffee filter in his coffee cone every morning. It seems very civilized, but really, it’s just a way to make less trash. Like using a fountain pen: I see a way to generate less waste in the form of discarded pens because I can simply refill the cartridge, but also, it’s a fancy pen and I look fancy using it.

Of course, the quintessential civilized sustainability swap for me is my tea. Now, I don’t pretend that my tea is at all a sustainable habit. I get most of it shipped from halfway around the world in single-use packaging, despite my attempts to save tins and reuse them. The fact is that tea has to be sealed to prevent it from going stale. But using loose leaf tea with my tea ware (much of which is either handmade or secondhand) offers a bit of an offset, as I don’t create any additional bits of litter in the form of teabags. And I can have several cups of tea from one serving of leaves, rather than using many teabags per day. Plus, as far as hobbies go, sitting quietly and enjoying the outside with a cup of tea is far simpler than many others, and helps to quiet my mind so that I can find contentment with what I have, which is the ultimate sustainability.

2 thoughts on “On Simplifying and Civilized Sustainability

  1. This was a lovely read – as always! I have started something similar a few years ago, as you say, it is an incredibly slow process that is really hard to notice.
    What I find most astonishing is how much consumption seems to be habitual instead of a real decision. Once I got out of the habit of buying stuff, it got really easy to use what I have instead. Now, the process of buying something uses so much mental energy because I am just not as used to it anymore.

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    • I’ve always felt that way about the really big purchases. I just had to buy a new car and it took months to work up the motivation. Now I’m working on putting the same mental energy into smaller purchases.

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