How Sustainable Practices Keep Me Focused on Living Intentionally
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t consider myself environmentally conscious. My generation grew up watching Captain Planet and learning about global warming from Bill Nye: The Science Guy. It’s not too crazy to expect that I understood the impact of our choices on the Earth from an early age. Paper over plastic. Always put your empty Coke cans in the recycling bin - don’t forget to snap off the tab. Keep the thermostat set to 78 in the summer and 68 in the winter. Turn off the lights and fan when you leave a room. These are all lessons most of us heard, but the idea of being a protector of our environment really spoke to me. If there was a product, service, or mission that was more eco-friendly, that was always my choice. But regardless of how deep my passion was for being a tree-hugger, my understanding of my choices and how they affected the environment were under-developed.
When I started college, my career path was Architecture with a focus on Environmental Sciences. I wanted to design structures that were not just eco-friendly, but echoed the functions of plants. In the book “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things” by Michael Braungart and William McDonough, the authors begin to describe the architecture of the future by saying “imagine a building like a tree, a city like a forest….what if our homes and workplaces were enmeshed in the landscape, harvesting the energy of the sun, sequestering carbon and making oxygen. Imagine on-site wetlands and botanical gardens recovering nutrients from circulating water. Fresh air, flowering plants, and daylight in ample supply. In short, a life-support system in harmony with energy flows, human souls, and other living things.” There isn’t another quote that speaks more deeply to me than this one. Even re-reading it now leaves me feeling just as inspired as the first day I read it, over ten years ago. With the inspiration from this book, the lessons I learned from my architectural studies, and the forward-thinking students around me, I dove deeper into the idea of sustainable practices and how I could make them applicable to my life. I drastically reduced my water usage, traveled by foot and public transportation as much as possible, purchased secondhand clothing, and moved my diet towards veganism. I was beginning to feel more connected to my environment as I became more intentional with my choices.
At the same time, my academic career was taking a nose dive, and I soon ended up without a degree and in search of a better financial opportunity. My focus shifted from sustainable choices to finding a job. And after months of searching, I found a great job, and I was on my way to a new city, a new place to continue adopting my sustainable, intentional lifestyle.
However, there is a funny thing that happens when you remove yourself from an environment that reinforces your values. It wasn’t long before I was not only forgetting to put paper into the recycling bin, but printing out unnecessary items on a whim. I was driving to work the 0.9 miles from my apartment to the office, even when the traffic was so bad it would have been quicker to walk - I even had a sidewalk and places to safely cross the roads through the entire distance. I found myself blasting the heat in my apartment on those “cold” Florida winter nights because I was so excited about having my utilities included in my compensation package. I still identified as being eco-friendly, but I wasn’t truly making eco-friendly choices. My car ran perfectly fine, but I was dead set on buying a Prius with the justification that it had better gas mileage, and therefore, was the more eco-friendly choice. Regardless of the fact that I drove a Corolla with great gas mileage and had a walkable commute.
Fast forward three years later, I’m back in my college town with my college boyfriend, now husband, and our infant twin babies. I’m driving a Jeep Grand Cherokee for my two mile commute to work. I tried to justify my choice to buy the nice SUV and business casual clothing from Banana Republic and take 30 minute showers because I was buying recycled toilet paper and bringing my own grocery bags to the store. But I was living comfortably, focused on material goods, and not being intentional with my choices.
I can’t say there was a specific day that I decided to focus on sustainability again. The arc into this lifestyle was very subtle and occurred over many months. One day I was removing extra decorative items from our living space because the babies were starting to crawl and get into everything. Then I started to not miss those items that had been moved to the highest shelves of our closet, so they were donated. The more the kids grew and became curious to the things around them, the more I realized I didn’t love many of the items in my apartment enough to be constantly keeping guard over them or putting them back when they were moved from their usual home. Around this time that I was culling more and more of our belongings, we were relocating from Gainesville, FL to Huntsville, AL, and I was transitioning from full-time working mom to stay-at-home mom. I had a lot more free time on my hands, and I found myself perusing books, blogs, and YouTube channels associated with zero waste living, minimalism, and green beauty.
"With minimalism, it is often easy to just remove something unnecessary. With sustainability, we want to avoid having that unnecessary item in the first place."
During this time that I was highly focused on removing unnecessary things from my life, I also began to focus on what I was bringing into my life. The idea of eco-friendly and sustainable had vastly grown since my college years in the club “Gators for a Sustainable Campus”. With the time and effort I put into re-educating myself on sustainable practices, I developed a detailed idea of what intentional choices I needed to be making to not just cultivate an environmentally-conscious lifestyle for myself, but for my family as well.
I started with the basics - water conservation, electricity conservation, purchasing items with little to no packaging, recycling, and composting. In my family’s case, it was easier to slowly transition away from our previous habits. My wonderful husband is supportive of my choices, but is not quite ready to embrace into an environmentally-conscious lifestyle for himself. So I lead by example and give him little nudges. And like most partnerships, he has his strengths in areas that help me do better – like remembering to not let the water run and only buying what we truly need. And he’s more than supportive of my choice to not go crazy with interior decorating.
Because of this continued focus on sustainable practices, we spend a lot more time thinking about whether we need to bring something into our lives. With minimalism, it is often easy to just remove something unnecessary. With sustainability, we want to avoid having that unnecessary item in the first place. Therefore, a lot more thought goes into what ends up in our home. If I’m in need of green juice, I’ll place a pick up order at our local juicery because they source their products locally, return vegetable and fruit remnants to local farmers to be used for compost and feed to those same farmers – they even package it in returnable glass bottles. This requires me to be intentional about my purchase as I won’t just throw a bottle of Suja in my shopping cart during a regular grocery run. As I move towards a more zero waste lifestyle, I use a simple system before I bring something new into our home. First, I ask “can I repurpose what I already own to address this need?” If not, I will attempt to borrow this needed item. If that’s not possible, I will scour secondhand shops. If an item must be purchased new, I seek out a local merchant with sustainable practices. While we have far from eliminated our need for a trash can, actively working towards zero waste and sustainability in our everyday lives keeps things simpler, allowing for more time to focus on our family.