On my return to Australia, I was conscious of all the small ways in which Western capitalist society was encouraging me to consume. I would walk down the street, passing shops on every street. I would see advertising bombard me from trucks, from cars and buses. Going into the supermarket was an overwhelming adventure, with bright colours and ten different types of the same product, just with screaming slogans proclaiming like a cheap street preacher that it was 100% tastier, sure to improve my gut health and probably make my hair curly.
I would go home, open my cupboards and these screaming products were there, reminding me where I got the thing, what brand it was, and how amazing it was for me or how tasty it was. This isn’t even to mention clothing, whose marketing machine was incessantly telling me I could be more fabulous if I only shopped for every micro-season that their problematic supply chain churned out faster than people could buy. I opened my wardrobe after living on about one and a half suitcases and was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of things. I thought that I had pared this down before I left I said to myself. There was clothes in there that either aspirational Renee (she’s got problems and choices ain’t one) had purchased, or good enough but not quite right (a.k.a cheap) Renee had purchased. Hidden amongst these not-loved riff-raff were the treasures that I’d lovingly purchased – a red lace dress purchased in Capetown that made me look like a sleek spy, the bird cardigan that I’d debated over for months (almost losing an eye and my best friend’s love for the length of the debate), my all purpose navy chiffon number that is great for both funerals and job interviews, my green wool knit that made my green eyes look greener and my fun giraffe jumper with sequins that make small people smile brightly when they see it.
During my time away, I had ample time to think. Lots of solo walking and a bout of the mumps ensured that. I had observed on my island home, rubbish collecting on the beach, on the street, or being burnt by neighbours who couldn’t afford, or chose not to use the rubbish service. I saw the gleam in everyone’s eye for the new and shiny here too, fuelled by connections to the diaspora and social media in part. I realised I wanted to get off the stuff train, but didn’t really know how. I knew every time I bought a cheap pair of underpants, I was complicit in poor labour standards for mostly women textile workers in the global south. I knew that by buying synthetic materials, I was washing micro-plastics into the ocean. I knew that by buying packaged products from elsewhere I had participated in the compounding problems of both waste, marketing and a problematic supply chain with food miles, possibly unethical practices and preservatives that was making my gut bacteria wince every time I put those delicious chippies in my chip-hole.
I said to husband when I got home, I wanted to try and transition our home into a zero waste (or at least close to zero plastic home). This decision had impacts beyond just our food or consumables. I experimented with lots of different aspects of changing our shopping and eating habits, some which have been stickier than others. Its made our meals more wholesome, and often simpler, its made our life less crowded, and sometimes it makes things annoying and inconvenient (hello dropping the frozen compost on the carpet!). Its made me almost paralysed by indecision about clothing. I love clothes, and as I’ve continued to pare down clothing that neither suits me or my lifestyle, I’m beginning to feel the knife-edge of wanting novelty, of wanting something new and shiny. Reframing that feeling, and telling myself that at one stage the bag of clothes that I’m re-homing, was once the salivating purchase of something new! interesting! different! is the only way I’ve been able to control that feeling. I’m trying to go as long as possible without engaging in consumption, but the embarr[ass]ing realisation that my pre-loved activewear pants were see-through is going to send me on a tailspin trying to find something ethical, sustainable and in my size!
The positive benefits are beginning to come to light. My cupboards are wholesome places where mostly glass jarred or the occasional (pre transition) tupperware containers store flours, spices, legumes, noodles, rice and pasta live. I still purchase a couple of things from mainstream stores, after the effort and cost overwhelmed me with the change of seasons – at the moment a tin of crushed tomatoes, husbands instant coffee, stock powder and cordial for our soda maker. Its calmer in there without the screaming. Our fridge, is deceptively empty most of the time, its door filled with a range of condiments in glass, and the precise amount of vegetables, protein (eggs and tofu) and milk that we need for the week. I refuse to throw away produce because I’ve bought too much anymore. I’d rather MacGyver a meal out of what we have, than overbuy. The freezer is the storehouse of the place. We buy in bulk what we can’t purchase from eco-friendly bulk stores where you re-fill containers. Our meat and fish consumption is very low, with one of our maybe twice a week meat based meals (usually a four serve meal for dinner and lunches) usually using an average one persons serve of meat, by utilising vegetables and legumes creatively. I make our own baked beans in the slow cooker and freeze them. I make curries and save one two-person meal in the freezer for a lazy day. Its about designing systems to prevent going to take-aways or going for convenience food at the supermarket. I’m happy to make treats out of our pantry, fridge and freezer, but we do sometimes have treats from the store and recycle their packaging.
I have experimented over the last six months with making – crumpets, muffins, six types of bread, barbeque sauce, cordial – most of which were a culinary success. But theres a balance. Spending four hours making bread a weekend, whilst fun, didn’t always work in Australia’s hot summer, and would limit my ability to participate in other (mostly community based) activities. Crumpets and muffins were better than store bought and freezable – so they are a win – but aren’t strictly necessary for the running of the house. They are going on my semester break bulk cook list. Barbeque sauce was put into separate glass jars and one is frozen ready for the next time I need it. Making my own ginger cordial was a success, but it was time consuming, labour intensive, used a lot of electricity and I’m not sure I trust the supply chain of the ginger enough, to repeat that performance. I refuse to make my own soy milk or tofu. Its too much effort and I’m not the ultimate pioneer woman living her life to milk a soy bean, and we simply don’t eat them enough. Like anything being extreme is a way to set yourself up for failure. I’m not aiming for perfection, I’m aiming for a balanced life where I can manage my responsibilities to myself, my relationships and my community and reduce my impact on the environment. I believe my impact needs to be in a venn-diagram between influencing others, personal responsibility and community action.
The products we purchase for our cupboard mostly now come from the Food Coop. I try and volunteer at the Saturday international kitchen once a month to participate in that community. Women from refugee communities cook the meal and we help prepare (peeling things, stirring things) and help serve (my favourite part) customers. The women get work experience in Australia and I have a delicious lunch, trying new cuisines. A few things come from privately run bulk shops like my premium coffee and snack type things. I’ve been trying to scratch the shopping itch by going to op-shops to fill voids. For example, one of my goals for greater connection, was to try and host monthly dinner parties, meant I was in need of some serving spoons and more plates. Twenty minutes at the op-shop meant I had all I needed for $14 and didn’t purchase anything new (and how flash to have intricate gold patterns on my plates). We purchased some produce bags and try and shop at the fruit and veg market (this doesn’t always work depending on scheduling) to reduce food miles.
This process has given me time. I don’t need to go shopping on the weekend. We don’t need to go and buy things when there’s nothing convenient in the cupboard. Its meant I can volunteer with the food coop, the RSPCA and a local theatre. I’m using my consumption time, to get out there in my community and build the world I want to see – less stuff, more animals and excellent theatre! Its made me re-trust my cooking skills and reaffirmed to me that I can try and fail. Its cheaper and less stressful, but its also fun to figure out how to get around consumption. Its opening up new conversations with people. Its also cheaper, through the combination of wanting less, using less and consuming less.
I’ve been asked a couple of times by people for suggestions on how to get started. There’s a million and one zero wasters with glass jars of their last few years of rubbish on the internet. Their advice is good, but I think it builds it up to a point of perfection that leads to people feeling overwhelmed, and falling into the trap that they think that the whole process is so hard that they couldn’t possibly do that. Not everyone is a great cook, or has time, energy or start-up money to get started. Not everyone lives in a house with people who will be on their side and help out (the division of unpaid household labour is for another day folks!). I think there are some sensible steps:
Beginner (low cost, low conflict)
- Get a drink bottle. Take it everywhere. Fill er up. Try to only drink that, rather than popping in to get a sugary something in plastic when you`re thirsty.
- Stop using disposable plastic things: no plastic cutlery, no straws, no carry bags
- Get a reusable coffee cup and actually use it (don`t leave it at home) or make a rule that you sit in the cafe and drink it out of a real cup.
- Get a couple of reusable shopping bags to carry purchases in and leave one in your bag, your car and by the front door.
- Write a list of what you need (and why) before you go shopping. Its ok to need undies, its probably unnecessary to come out of Kmart with them and six new cushions, a cat costume and six new pieces of trash jewellery.
- Give up cling wrap. Use it up (or save it if you know you`ll make doughs where its necessary) and find ways to store food with reusables. e.g. Glass jars from pasta sauces = freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!
- Set up a system to sort your waste. There`s issues with recycling in Australia but we shouldn`t give up! Sort your hard and soft plastics, educating yourself on what can and cant go into recycling.
Intermediate (a little cost, a little time, a little bit of conversation)
- Purchase or make some produce bags. Extra points if you support a small business or one that recycles materials (try etsy).
- Find some old facewashers or scrubby towels and make them into dishclothes that you wash weekly. (or go to etsy)
- Use up things in plastic containers that have nasty side effects – looking at you dishwashing and washing powders – and find some alternatives that work for you next time you shop. I love my soap berries and I`m happy with ecostore dishwashing powder. Next up is refilling our dishsoap at the coop.
- Toilet roll – who gives a crap ❤
- Find alternatives for single use items – menstruation and makeup removal. I have zero waste options for both. Whatever works for you.
- Before purchasing something new, try and reframe what you already have. For example, at the moment I desperately want a black pleated skirt. I have many skirts. How can I pair things differently to come up with a new option?
- Beyond that, try and find pre-loved options for your needs. If its washable and hygienic is my motto. If not research options that are more ethical, local or environmentally friendly. Micro-businesses are the best way I reckon.
- Maybe join a buy nothing or zero waste facebook group in your community
Advanced (effort required)
- Set up a system of composting. For apartment dwellers like myself, find a friend with a compost or ring your community garden to see if (and what) they`ll accept your compost. We freeze our compost and once a fortnight take it to the local community garden.
- Start shopping at a bulk store. Reduce the number of things you think you need from mainstream supermarkets.
- Challenge yourself with new recipes that use simpler and fewer ingredients.
- Go on a shopping ban for a certain period of time, and honestly clean out your closet and cupboards, finding new homes for things that no longer serve you. Reframe your relationship with shopping and stuff. Do your research, know your brands and understand that your choices have impacts.
- Talk to others about why you`re trying something new. Encourage them (but not berate them) to try new ways of doing things.
- Read about slower living, minimalism, zero waste and challenge your assumptions, but also the writers assumptions. Like me, not all tips will work for your life and needs.
- Be willing to try and fail.
- Be generous of spirit, when faced with a smiling colleague with a takeaway cup for you.
- Think and act about how you can try and improve the community you live in. How can you help others? Is there a food pantry that needs help?
- Have polite conversations to challenge suppliers. I had a twenty minute chat with a supermarket manager about how their business could support me to continue to shop there.
Stuffocation by James Wallman http://stuffocation.org/
Wardrobe Crisis by Clare Press (or her podcast) https://www.clarepress.com/podcast/
The Rogue Ginger`s Blog http://www.therogueginger.com/