A couple of weeks ago for Enviro-Mama Thursday I talked about Environmentalism and Privilege. Specifically, I discussed the way that some sustainable products and environmentally-friendly choices are much more accessible if you have money. Like, say, buying only organic produce or driving a Prius. If you’re just getting by, some greener choices are out of reach.
As I discussed in that post, other times the greenest choice is also the most frugal choice. Like, say, buying less stuff overall, or shopping second-hand. Both of these actions are light on the earth, and both will also save you money. However, the same choice can feel very different depending on why you’re making it. If you enjoy second-hand shopping, and you’re doing it because it conforms with the sort of life you want to live, the thrift store may be your happy place. If you’re buying second-hand because it’s all you can afford, and you’d really rather be able to just go to the mall and buy a brand new pair of shoes, you’re probably not going to have an awesome shopping experience at your local Value Village.
In our culture (and maybe in most cultures), value and money are all tied up together. When you have a healthy bank balance, you’re said to have high net worth. When you’re shopping, you talk about how much something is worth. More money equals more value, for people as well as things. I’ve been on all sides of this equation, and it’s not much fun. It perpetuates the notion that we attain status by buying status symbols. And buying status symbols isn’t exactly good for the planet.
The fact that you can afford to buy something doesn’t mean that you should buy it. This is every bit as true for “green” products as for plastic tchotchkes with blinky lights that are manufactured overseas in a country with lax environmental standards. Sure, all things being equal, it’s better to buy something that’s created with the environment in mind, but in the end the absolute greenest choice you can make is to not buy anything at all.
One of the things that has helped me on my own personal journey towards living a more sustainable and meaningful life is learning to embrace a life with less. While I may not always be able to buy everything I want, the truth is that I already have everything I need. When I spend my time in gratitude for what I already have, instead of lamenting what I don’t, I’m much happier for it. I’m also far less likely to try to compensate for whatever isn’t going well in my life by spending money. This is another one of those things that is good for the planet and my wallet – plus it’s also good for me.
At the risk of being a little bit simplistic and trite, this act of embracing a life of less has implications in the discussion about environmentalism and privilege. When you feel as if you’re in control of the choices you’re making, it’s easier to make them. When you’re having a good time replacing some buttons on an old shirt instead of just buying a new one, it doesn’t feel like a burden. When you make lifestyle trade-offs so that you can work less, and you really do it with both eyes open, it’s easier to accept that you may not be able to take that big trip or buy the all-natural, hand-crafted, super-expensive, wooden Waldorf toys. When you’re clear on what you’re doing and why, things fall into place more easily.
I’m not saying that it’s okay that pesticide-free produce and non-toxic shampoo are out of the reach of many families. It’s not. But it’s the world we live in at the moment. We can advocate and we can write letters and we can contact our elected representatives. But at the end of the day we still have to make the best choices that we can with what we have. That may mean that we’re not able to do it all. No one person really can. But by doing what we can, and making our choices as consciously as we can, we come out ahead. Not because we have no other option, but because we are working to create lives that are imperfect, but meaningful all the same.
How does your attitude impact your experience of making green and frugal choices? And do you ever not buy something in order to reduce your environmental impact? I’d love to hear your thoughts on how embracing a life of less can make it easier to live more frugally and sustainably.