On Simple Living

When I talk about voluntary simplicity, this is a concept that can be interpreted broadly.  The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong way to do it, and that it's a challenge and a goal to work towards.  The basics include living frugally (below or at the very least never above one's economic means if at all possible), "conscious consumerism" (living with and doing one's best to adhere to a heightened awareness of the social implications of one's purchases), sharing, sustainability and stewardship.  Some people in the VS movement live completely off the grid; others, like us, try to find a middle path, shopping our conscience whenever possible, using less as much as possible, cutting down on non-essential luxuries, and growing or making our own whenever possible.

When we first moved in together in 1997, this way of living evolved out of financial necessity and a strong desire to be unencumbered by material things.  This desire was spurred by our economic situation and further ignited for me personally after meeting people in the hippie community who lived very meager lives in order to be able to travel with their families and live the lives they loved.  While this ascetic life was definitely not for me, I just as definitely understood why someone would choose it.  A formative moment in my life happened when I was traveling with my parents around the age of 12, right when my dreams of becoming a writer were swelling from childhood fantasy to Ultimate Life Goal: We were dining at Akershus in Fake Norway when we struck up a conversation with a woman who was traveling alone.  She told of all the places she'd gone by herself, and at that moment in my mind, various neurons and synapses began dosido-ing at the possibility of such a fantastic life.  From then on and throughout my adolescence, I called the numbers at the backs of travel mags and ordered dozens upon dozens of travel brochures, plastering my walls with images of India, Europe, Japan, Australia.  I would write and travel, taking it all in, meeting the various, interesting personalities that make the world such a brilliant, amazing place.

But who'd have known I'd be one of the lucky people who fall in love very young to a handsome Prince Charming?  Plans changed a bit.  Our travels together tended toward the domestic, our excursions outside of the US limited to Germany, the Netherlands and Mexico.  But we still traveled, and often.  Within our first year together, Justin and I had set in place a life of habitual travel, leaving Tulsa frequently to visit concerts in other cities or to camp out in the woods.  Each year, we have always taken at least one major vacation, something that would never have been possible without simple living.  We quickly realized we would rather be dancing under the stars than paying off new furniture.

Thus began our gradual and continuing journey into simplicity.  Some of the steps we've taken:

*When we've purchased cars, we've opted for practical models in good condition, doing extensive research into which vehicles would last the longest.
*We bought a home in a cool little midtown neighborhood for well below what we could afford, something we've been grateful for in this climate of layoffs
*We've favored meals cooked at home over meals taken out, cutting down on our personal economic impact as well as on products consumed from mass conglomerates.  As a couple that met while working in the restaurant industry (and one of us having worked as a restaurant manager), we realize that due to the high expense of running a restaurant and the difficulty of preserving food, the vast majority of restaurants order their products from distributors whose food in turn comes from mass producers or agricultural producers, for example, Conagra and Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland.    Not dining out was a challenge for us, both because we love to dine out and because we love supporting local, small restaurants, but when we did eat out, we would enjoy our food thoroughly, making evenings out into events, complete with wine, hors d' ouvres, and loads of conversation.  Part of our implementation of this aspect of simplicity also includes dining out almost exclusively at local restaurants and avoiding chains (except for extreme situations: e.g. 3 A.M. in Rotterdam and no food around but a McDonald's...we skulked shamefully through the golden arches like dutiful American cliches; 3 PM on Music Highway in Tennessee and no time to hunt around for the local diner; 8:37 PM and our child hasn't had dinner because we've spent three hours hunting for the perfect wedding gift; etc.).
*We've avoided credit card debt as much as possible (for us...we absolutely support living entirely without credit card debt but we do use them occasionally), only using a card when purchasing emergency expenses or those that would be paid back immediately (e.g. tickets for an entire group of us to see a concert).
*We replaced most of our light bulbs with energy-conserving fluorescents
*Stopped using paper towels and napkins about 13 years ago, instead using only reusable cloth options
*Stopped purchasing individually-packaged products and began buying items in bulk packages if possible
*Began using our own grocery bags a few years ago, or if we've for some reason left them at home, avoided taking double bags or bags for large items/items with handles/items on hangers/anything we can easily carry or chuck from the cart to car to house
*Began to prefer alternate giving, the giving and receiving gifts that are handmade, vintage, or non-material (movie tickets, etc.)
*Began an epic effort to "go paperless"
*Began gradually moving toward making our own or purchasing second-hand products
*Began practicing Buy Nothing Day
*Began shopping at a co-op, a practice that we've come away from due to economic constraints, but plan to adhere to again when it becomes an implementable option for us.
*Began purchasing organic products along a hierarchy of necessity; e.g. we purchase what we can when we can according to what foods are most impacted by chemicals, hormones, etc.  For example, when an abdominal infection left me unable to feed our son without the aid of a complex support system including a team of lactation consultants, a medieval torture device, loads of Fenugreek and a pharmaceutical prolactin stimulator, we were grateful for Earth's Best organic formula, which eased the emotional transition when my doctors finally convinced me that the stressful situation was overshadowing the benefits around our son's four month birthday.  We also used only organic foods for our son's first year and a half or so of life, cutting into our own organic budget to give him what he needed.  Organic milk and eggs are our first priority now, followed by other dairy products or anything Arthur might consume; lowest on the hierarchy are fruits that can be washed thoroughly.  We also buy locally some of the time.
*Early in our relationship, we began a restriction on high fructose corn syrup and other refined products, including refined sugar, grains and produce.  Do we enjoy soda from time to time?  Yes.  But we do not ingest it regularly, and when we do purchase it, often pick it up at one of the Mexican stores in our neighborhood, where it's made from cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.  Label-reading is a major component of our lifestyle; the less ingredients a product has, (typically) the better.  At two years old, our son now occasionally gets to enjoy a refined food product, but we do not make it a habit (although we do abide by the rule "What happens at Grandma's [or Grammy's] stays at Grandma's").  Soda is viewed as an adult beverage, and we set an example by not consuming soda with meals.
*Boycotted Wal-Mart, many-times violator of human rights and safety standards, with similar general exceptions as our fast food ban (in this case travel, middle-of-the-night emergencies Walgreens can't solve, etc.) .

One of the biggest challenges for us, especially me, has always been our clothing; although I am proud to say that we are doing better than most people, it's been a long process.  There are some things that are easy: our wedding is one example.  My wedding dress was sewn by a friend and is absolutely gorgeous.  Here I made a minor mistake: we used artificial flower arrangements (thinking of the lower cost and the pesticides/fungicides in the flower industry) that could be given as gifts to our bridesmaids and made the arrangement for my hair (a flower circlet).  The circlet was made from paper flowers and is thus a sustainable option; the flower arrangements, on the other hand, were likely produced in a developing country by workers exposed to various toxins for little pay.  I didn't know this at the time, but all in all, I could have done worse.  I do not believe it's fair to blame people for practicing consumer habits that they don't realize are harmful, which is why it's important to educate others.

Back to clothing...when I first met Justin, I loved shopping at GAP, Old Navy, and their ilk  As I was growing up, my family hadn't had lots of money for nice clothes, and when I had my own money, I loved the feeling of popping into the Utica store and emerging with some super cute khakis (it was the 90s, after all) and a darling embroidered top to wear over my black patent leather Skechers (made in China), white K-Swiss sneakers (made mostly in China) or brown Doc Martens (at the time made in England, now produced in China and Thailand [although the "vintage" line is said to be made to original "specs]).  But after watching a documentary on Saipan (a US province where terrible labor practices are allowed and a "MADE IN USA" label can still be slapped on the products), I became aware that GAP products (and those of its sister companies) were manufactured in socially irresponsible conditions.  However, the supercompany insisted they'd changed their ways, so I took them back like a boyfriend I just couldn't give up.  Unfortunately, the years have shown numerous indictments to the company, and I finally had to say enough was enough.  They tend to approach problems on an individual basis while continuing to pay people pennies on the dollar to create products that sell for as much as 100 American dollars.

Does that mean I've not set foot in a GAP or Old Navy in the past ten years?  No.  When my son needed socks and onesies as an infant, these were some of the most convenient places to pick up inexpensive, fashionable products.  Does this make me a hypocrite?  Totally.  But for our family, voluntary simplicity isn't about extreme living all the time; it's about practicing conscionable living most of the time.

We also continue to shop at Target, which has been in trouble for low wages and other such issues on a much lesser scale than Walmart.  But when I look in the labels of the company's clothes, I see this:


Even the little Paul Frank monkeys were stitched together in Peru and China.

So why should I continue shopping there?  My working excuse is that it's just about impossible to avoid these kinds of products--even many of the boutique brands manufacture at least some of their products dubiously--and all in all, sometimes we just need two more pairs of shorts and three t-shirts on the fly; if I have to buy sweatshop-crafted clothes, I'd rather take less money out of my family's grocery or travel fund to do it with.  It's a matter of striving for balance...we  buy as many of our clothing vintage, handmade and secondhand as possible (especially from Ebay).  We also repurpose old clothing into other household linens or fabric (i.e. the cute little rattle we took Baby Miles recently).  The key to our household practice is to do what we can and lessen our impact as a whole.

Here is a list of where other brands are manufactured, according to http://theprotagonist5.wordpress.com:

Ann Taylor Loft: China, Hong Kong, Indonesia (2), Siapan (usa), Vietnam
Anthropologie: Taiwan, USA, India
GAP: Hong Kong (3), Phillipines
H&M: Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Hong Kong, India, Turkey
J Crew: USA, China, Hong Kong (2), Hungary, Malaysia, Turkey
Kohl’s: USA, India
Marshall Fields (now Macy’s):England, Honduras
Nordstrom: India, China, USA, Hong Kong, Mexico (all these items were $50-100 dollars)
Old Navy: Cambodia (2), China (3), Colombia, El Salvador (3), Indonesia, Mexico, Moldova, Peru, Phillippines (2), Turkey, Vietnam (everything from Old Navy was under $30, hello $8 T-Shirts)
Target Cherokee: Bahrain
Target Merona: China (2), Guatemala, UK
Target Mossimo: Guatemala (3), Vietnam
Victoria’s Secret: Mexico

Other simple living links:

Oprah on Voluntary Simplicity
Center for a New American Dream

What other simple practices can you suggest we add to our lifestyle? Do you have any suggestions for alternatives to Target? Where are your clothes made?


Anonymous said...

You contradict yourself more than anyone I know. Your house is well below your means but you have had to use Emergency Infant Services to meet your sons basic needs. Say your ECO conscious, Then blog about ‘wanting’ boutique brands and linens for you and your child?

Mrs. Owen of Yorktown said...

It's true that we did use Emergency Infant Services for assistance when Justin was laid off suddenly earlier this year. I struggled for a long time with whether I should post this comment, but I am not ashamed of what we've been through, only sad that someone would use it to hurt us.

We are truly grateful for all of the assistance we received in our time of need; the blow to our income was extraordinary, and I am a monthly-paid employee. Nonetheless, I am tremendously proud that after recovering from that initial shock, I was able to support our family almost entirely on my income while Justin enjoyed being a stay-at-home father. We adapted, and we soon found joy in our hardship as we always do.

And we believe it's okay to be contradictory; it's all right to enjoy having nice things and that doesn't mean we need to spend our money on expensive ones. As I stated in the above blog:

"Does this make me a hypocrite? Totally. But for our family, voluntary simplicity isn't about extreme living all the time; it's about practicing conscionable living most of the time."

My point in posting this wasn't to make anyone feel that we are better than them; on the contrary, it was to show that even small changes matter.

One of the basic tenets we live by is kindness to others. We don't understand why a person would read our blog so regularly, yet attack us so viciously, but as I told you once before, we are pacifists, even when it's hard.

Does that mean I never screw up and run my mouth off and sometimes even hurt others? No way...I am human!

But what's important is that each day, our family continues to try to be better people than the day before, and anyone who knows us well knows that neither Justin nor I would never cause anyone pain intentionally. Whatever reason you established a new Google account just to post an attack on our family, I hope you can move past your anger toward me and Justin and know that we wish you only good things for you, primarily peace.

You and I were once friends. I do not wish for that friendship back; I only feel very sad that I said something to you that so affected you that you can't let it go almost two years down the road.

I would never have hurt anyone on purpose, and I hope that you soon realize that all things pass, that everything turns to dust in the end, but that as human beings, we can try to be good to each other, or at least not bad to each other. I can't stop you from saying the things you say, but I can refuse to show you anything but kindness, and that is the path I choose.

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