Monday, January 4, 2010

learnings from a year of buying nothing new

my latest examiner article is about goals

with each new year, my biggest wish is that it be better than the last. january first is such a marker of how quickly time moves and how important it is to be conscious of the moments, good and bad, as they pass.

last year, our goals for 2009 included #4, a no-buying-new year. this has been an amazing eco-eco living challenge. can one live economically and ecologically? we reported on successes and failures each month as they passed, but wanted to share about our journey on the whole, a text heavy post i hope you read in its entirety.

the end of this month marks one year since we began, in earnest, our challenge to buy nothing new. while not perfect, we have done remarkably well, perhaps because the concept of used was not new to us. it did not take long before seeking used alternatives became habit, we began planning ahead for needs, we chose to do without, and many of the difficulties of the challenge faded away.

one area that provided us the greatest challenge and often broke our goals, were home repair materials. much of what we needed was either not available used or not available used in a form that gave confidence in the quality/integrity of the materials. and in buying new, it was difficult to always support the local hardware store. in my mind, shopping at the big box hardware store was one of our biggest flubs. thinking on this, i find it interesting that our continued shopping at costco does not invoke the same feeling of failure.

what i didn't anticipate, though, was that so many other environmental, parenting, and health choices would feel woven into this process and change or be questioned during this year. as with frugal living, environmentally friendly living is something we have always practiced. while we do not live in a thrifty area of the country, we do live in one of the eco-living hubs, and in fact, grew up here, recycling and doing other "green" activities from an early age. i have always considered mike and myself to be healthy, earth-aware individuals and i was startled at how much i felt these fundamental self-beliefs were challenged this past year.

in the past two years, too many people i know have been affected by cancer. perhaps diagnosis of this disease has improved due to technology, but as a scientist (yes, that is my background), i feel certain that cancer is on the rise due to environmental factors. it is my job to do all i can, no matter how seemingly insignificant, to keep our environment and our physical health as "clean" as we can. we thought of our children in our environment often this year and the changes in choices we have made have often been centered around them.

how does this all tie together? so many of the blogs, websites, and materials i have read (and continue to read) about our environment incorporate physical health, and often parenting. these aren't separate paths for a young family. they are very much intertwined.
on several occasions, i had to make the decision between used or new, a direct challenge to our goal of purchasing only used items.

used items are less expensive. they save items from the landfill. they can be repurposed into useful things when no longer useful in their original state. they are sometimes better made than similar new items. but in some cases, the appropriate item was hard to find used or was made of a questionable material.

new items can be purchased to spec. they can be bought sustainably and humanely. they can be safe materials. but they use new production resources and are expensive, particularly when the most eco-friendly versions are purchased.

and, of course, there were many times that we chose to do away with an item and simply not replace it or figured out a way to use something else instead.

this year has been such an introspective journey for me. what started for one reason wound down to this one year marker for so very many reasons. so many of them fundamental to who i/we have always been and the way i/we have always preferred things, but with so much more knowledge of products, resources, communities, practices, and so many more fundamental pieces that make up what we use and eat, how they are made, and where they come from.

this journey has tangled tightly with a journey into more informed and conscious parenting and more natural, mindful eating practices. the focal point spread from frugality to a holistic approach that suits our family. so many times i read and learned and felt startled and displaced with feelings of uncertainty about beliefs i have previously felt so certain of. i started the year thinking i was ahead of the masses in my environmental beliefs and now feel like i still have so much to learn. but i remain steadfast in my belief that each family has to come to their own place on their own terms, with no judgment. i know most of you will agree with that, but too many times over, i read directed opinions in various places or heard criticisms with my own ears. too many times during this past year, i felt self-conscious, criticized, or blatantly told what to do or what is right. (and yes, i realize that may have been as much my own self-doubt as it was the way the informant was expressing themselves.) it is my hope that in verbalizing our journey, i don't unintentionally make anyone else feel insecure of theirs.

although i love all natural materials, i have come to a balance that works for our family and our finances. i will still choose used first, because i have come to realize just how many natural items are available used, if one just has the patience to wait for them to become available and the organization to know what one really needs. and i have found informational resources that make me feel a little more comfortable about the non-natural materials we are still using. (see below.)

as my friend genevieve recently put it...the truth is, despite our need to live frugally, our family is by no means poor. if we really feel we
need something (and in most cases if we really want something), our frugal habits allow us to simply buy those items. it is because we are careful, pick and choose, and (in the grand scheme of american materialism) we don't buy much, that makes this flexibility possible. if we had been 100% true to our goals, we would not have been as frugal (we would have paid a huge amount for some new, handmade, local items), so there would be far less of this financial flexibility. it is for this reason that i do not feel too badly about continuing to use costco for some bulk food and eco goods.

so it is with this first year behind us (and i say
first, because, although we have concluded the 12 months we set out to do, we are by no means returning to where we were at the beginning) that we enter our second year with an acceptance (and honestly, an understood appreciation for) some of the plastics, chemicals, and other non-natural materials in our lives. it is as we start this year that i say this is where we are right now. one thing i already knew about myself is that i am open to changing my opinion and believe in learning every single day.

edited to add: i addressed some of criticisms i mention above in my post, self-contentedness. in writing it, i realized i neglected something huge in this post. a huge thank you to all the kind and generous souls who supported and encouraged our endeavor and the amazing friends we made along the way!


if you want to try a similar challenge of your own, but with the support of others, hip mountain mama has organized something similar for 2010, called a small change. there is already a wonderful group of people motivated to challenge themselves to change for the greener, one small change at a time.

our one small change for january is to reuse produce bags at the farmer's or produce market. (reusing one we already brought home, using cloth, or skipping individual bagging all together.) we have used cloth bags for shopping for as long as i can remember (since i was a kid), but the idea of cloth produce bags is somewhat new to us.

below are some of the resources that i found to be informative guides for helping us balance the need to be ecological and economical, as well as parenting and other guides that were altering in some way during our journey.
Safe Mama - reviews of baby/kid products, for health safety
Healthy Stuff - comprehensive chemical checks of a number of products
The Preventive Ounce - guidance for preventive parenting, rather than reactive parenting
The Environmental Working Group - the #1 library of ratings, reviews, chemical contents, etc of a huge number of health and food items.
Whole Foods Premium Body Care -Whole Foods has their own brand of very affordable toxin-free body products
Why Waldorf Works - information about Waldorf education and beliefs - information about Montessori education
The Natural Parenting Center - a resource for conscious parenting. i won a series of consultations with nathan of the NPC and was pleased how the guidance was tailored to fit me/us and not forcing me into an expected natural parent mold.
Monterey Bay Aquarium sustainable seafood guide - guide for earth and people friendly seafood, by U.S. region
Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op
And of course, and

in addition, although i am in the midst of re-organizing my labeled categories, you can still find many of my relevant posts by clicking on the labeled topics in the right hand column: earth, frugality, parenting (kids and us), food, and more...


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