Wednesday, September 3, 2008

On Going Green

Being Green has become one of the most trendy things a person can do. It's exploded into a status symbol. Any famous person worth their salt is either planting trees in Africa or flying huge jet-planes around, preaching about being green, promoting eco-friendly habits or posing for organic clothing ads. However, I've noticed that the more trendy something is, the more expensive it tends to be.
Some time ago, I was a member of a naturally minded parenting group that met at each other's homes once a month for play-dates. My experiences with these women were my first hard-core introduction to doing things “green”. These women were all upper-middle class white women (for the most part). They all lived in nice houses, had two cars, manicured lawns, big back-yards, children that wore organic clothes and they all wore Birkenstock's. Ok, not ALL of them wore Birkenstock's but you get the picture. . They all did the same things I did (breastfeeding, cloth-diapering/ec, baby-wearing, etc) our approaches were about as different as they could get. They cloth diapered because it was “natural” and ec'd for the same reason. I did these things because I couldn't afford to do it any other way. These women's children sported the fanciest, prettiest most adorable $15-30 butt-covers I'd ever seen. It goes without saying that breastfeeding is the very best choice for my children's health, but I would be lying if didn't admit that the fact it's 100% FREE played into that choice, as well. For them, it was natural for well educated, progressive women to do the natural thing and nurse their babies. The natural lifestyles these women led came in sharp contrast to their SUV-driving status. My point is that at first glance, it appears that “going green” is something for the rich and famous (or at least the moderately wealthy). If my readers are anything like I was, going green is downright intimidating and may even feel impossibly cost prohibitive.
Thankfully, it doesn't have to be that way and without realizing it, we got greener and greener over the last couple of years, almost by default. “Natural” living is a slippery slope and even though it's not necessarily recognized, its' hard to go natural without going green, too. Surprisingly, in many ways it's actually cheaper than doing things conventionally, too (providing you don't buy into the consumerist gimmicks that have followed the green movement almost since it's inception). For us, it actually started with breastfeeding. Nursing our babies is the simplest, cheapest way to nourish our children. It never occurred to me to do anything else so being a “lactivist” was never part of my motivation for nursing my first child. I did a lot of research on the topic, however, because I wanted to be successful and what I learned caused me to become a rather outspoken breastfeeding supporter. Breastfeeding our babies actually has a significant impact on the the earth and therefore the people around us, not to mention those roly-poly little people that deserve nothing but the best. All health benefits aside, there are no big, pollution spewing factories involved in the manufacture of the bottles that aren't needed, the cans for formula that aren't used or, of course, the unnecessary formula. Some breastfeeding mothers will need some of those things (bottles, for example, or breast-pumps) but not necessarily. For those that do, they are saving so much money by not buying formula, that they can probably afford the extra expense for eco-friendly bottles/nipples/pumps.
From there we came upon the issue of diapering. I remember when I was pregnant with my first, I was absolutely adamant that I would NOT be cloth-diapering. Too much work! I still chuckle at myself, looking back. As it happened, disposable diapers turned out to be a much bigger money-drain than I initially realized so I began the hunt for affordable cloth diapers. It was during an Internet search for these that I came across a post by a woman who was talking about the success she was having with her 5mo old on the potty. I could not believe my eyes. EC (or elimination communication, also known as Infant Potty Training, Early Potty Learning, Natural Infant Hygiene, Trickle Treat and Un-diapering) is a practice as old as humanity. Growing up in the US, though, I had never even heard of it, except when wondering how African women carrying their babes in slings on their backs managed not to get peed on. So, of course, I scoffed at this woman's post and wondered where I could get some of whatever she was on. At the same time, though, she was so enthusiastic that I just had to look it up and figure out what on earth she was talking about. It was not at all what I thought it was and it made so much sense that I couldn't resist giving it a try with my 4mo old daughter. Our successful venture with EC is a story for a different day but it's worth mentioning here because within two months, we were done with disposables, I had a small stash of used cloth diapers and my 5mo old was reliably using the potty. How does this pertain to going green? Paper diapers take up an unbelievable amount of resources. The average baby goes through about 5,000 diapers between birth and toilet training. Diapers made up 3.4 million tons of waste, or 2.1 percent of U.S. garbage, in landfills in 1998 -- the last year this information was collected, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. An interesting excerpt from the following website says this:

“In 1988, over 18 billion diapers were sold and consumed in the United States that year.4  Based on our calculations ...we estimate that 27.4 billion disposable diapers are consumed every year in the U.S.13

No one knows how long it takes for a disposable diaper to decompose, but it is estimated to be about 250-500 years, long after your children, grandchildren and great, great, great grandchildren will be gone.5

Disposable diapers are the third largest single consumer item in landfills, and represent about 4% of solid waste.  In a house with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste.5
The manufacture and use of disposable diapers amounts to 2.3 times more water wasted than cloth.3

Over 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks and 20 pounds of chlorine are used to produce disposable diapers for one baby EACH YEAR.6”

All of the above plus, they are expensive. They don't seem so at first, but the bigger your baby gets, the prices on the packages go up and you get LESS diapers per package. Some people truly feel that cloth diapers start-up cost is rather high (and it certainly can be) but in the long run, it saved us a lot of money. Un-diapering saved us even more money and you can't get much more environmentally friendly than skipping diapers altogether.
Along with diapering comes the question of wipes. Wipes certainly aren't the most expensive item on the “must have” list for parenting but the reality is that every penny counts. I like to sew and I tend to have scrap bits of fabric laying around so, after being inspired by seeing someone else do it, I made a bunch of cloth wipes. I'm so glad I did, too. Not only were they practically free (they can be made out of anything from old towels to old t-shirts) they were so soft and had no chemicals in them. I was a happy “wanna be green” Mama! Four years later, I'm still a fan and I use my home-made wipes for everything from dusting the furniture to washing my face, to say nothing of the stack JUST for my baby's bottom. I'm not saying I never use conventional wipes or that I never buy paper towels. Sometimes I do. But usually, I use my home-made wipes. That reduces my personal use of the world's resources to water and some natural gas-powered washing machine usage. Oh! and laundry detergent (I've heard that you can make your own and I have a recipe but haven't tried it yet).
When we had our first baby, everybody and their brother gave us clothes. At that time, most of them were brand-new clothes as well wishers from seemingly every area of our lives showered us with gifts. When we had our second baby, though, we didn't need all that stuff because we had hand-me downs! We were blessed with another girl, so that made it even easier. I think this is one area of being eco-conscious that people often overlook. The clothing industry is a HUGE one. The clothes do not make themselves, they are usually manufactured in sweatshops (unfortunately) and are often made from non-natural fibers and even when they are not, textile mills are notorious for pollution. Our family is not wealthy enough to feasibly afford organic, fair-trade, entirely natural fiber clothes BUT we can afford hand-me downs! And we do so, without any shame. Good-will, Salvation Army, friends closets, etc, are doing more to help our earth than people realize. And of course, when those clothes are finally beyond wearable, we make wipes! Recently I began turning some baby clothes that weren't in good enough condition to pass to anyone into a patchwork quilt. Someday it would really be nice to be able to afford the aforementioned “super-green” clothes but in the meantime, we do what we can. It saves us a tremendous amount of money and it feels good to know that in some small way, we are doing our part for the environment, too.
It is my opinion that going green goes hand in hand with “waste not, want not”. We live in a disposable society. We want everything now, we want it to require little or no effort on our part to cook, clean up, put together, etc. We love our microwaves, our gadgets, our plastic throw-away containers and our dishwashers. The question is, though, “Do we NEED any of that stuff?” My husband and I have discovered that no, we do not. Having these things is not necessarily wrong, however, if every person was to take a hard look at all their “stuff”, I'm betting we could each pare down some things. This would positively impact the earth, removing one person less of various industrial wastes. Reducing how much we consume is a fantastic way to better our world. The fact is that things sell because there is a demand for them. If there is less of a demand, there is less production and less waste and ultimately, less garbage. Perhaps if, as a society, we moved away from needing to have every gadget and newfangled thing on the market, we'd do better as a planet.
One of the ways my family strives to do this is by paring down stuff in our home we don't actually need. Do I really need another bottle of shampoo to join the collection on the bathtub? Are 25 towels actually a necessity? Do I really need an entire closet-full of sheets for one bed? And what about those towels and sheets? They look ratty and worn? What could they be used for instead of running out and buying something else I don't need? Wouldn't it be better to use them than add another 2 or three bags of garbage to the dumpster? I have a friend that takes old bed-sheets and turns them into diapers for her kid. I know another woman who was very good at making summer play-clothes and pajamas out of things like that. I've seen baby pants made from Dad's old sweatshirts and beautiful diaper covers converted from a sweater that had a hole in it. I made a sling recently out of a sarong that had a hole in it. We ditched our microwave (it broke and we decided not to replace it) and we've never missed it.
There are many other little things that we do in our day-to day lives that I believe makes a difference. They don't have to be expensive or come with trendy labels on them. Most of the changes we have made that are better for our family and our environment were simple, inexpensive things that happened without our even realizing they were “green”. It is just simple, smart, frugal living.


Rixa said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you! I go to the public library most days, which gives me the opportunity to read all sorts of magazines--from People to Mother Earth News to Newsweek--while Zari plays. In several "green" or "natural living" magazines, it was all about over-the-top (but organic! and sustainable!) consumerism.

We buy the bulk of our clothing secondhand. I've even had good luck recently with some really nice, and almost brand new, women's shoes. There are some things I have to buy new: running shoes, underwear, etc, but most things I can find used. It just takes some patience. And I don't buy a lot of new clothes anyway. I really don't like to go shopping so that helps quite a bit!

One of my guilty pleasures is buying books, though. I have a big collection of birth books that I refer to a lot--and many of these I can't get at my local library or often even ILL. But I do use them and read them all the time.

I think you'd like this article about brown being the new green:

Heather a.ka. Mom said...

I came across your blog because we share a friend in The Sherman Tribe. I have to agree with you completely. Our family was "green" before it became trendy because we are a big frugal family. Very well put

Hot Belly Mama - taking it all back said...

I found your blog because my husband and I just made an offer on a little patch of heaven (a former pig farm on 8 acres) and we're just waiting to see if the bank will approve. We hope to be self-sustaining as well in the very near future. Thank you for a beautiful blog... My blog is currently about trying to get pregnant but when we buy our new home and have children - the nature of my blogs will certainly change.

Housefairy said...

Wonderfully written! You have reinspired me to go back to some of the stuff I was so into when we had 1 and 2 children..somehow have lost our way, but with five now it makes more sense than ever to get back to the Earth and fast!

Thanks for the motivation--I too was in one of those Mommy-play groups with some other "natural" Mamas but I was doing it our of true lack of money and they...were not poor by any means.

You know what, though? If Going Green is trendy, I guess that is one small annoying step towards something that *IS* based in goodness. Perhaps more respect/understanding for people such as ourselves..being ostracized is thrilling and daring at first, but for our family, it got lonely, too.