When you type the phrase “American consumers” into Google, you get 976,000 results. That two-word phrase is mentioned 1,494 times in Google News stories just today. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of hearing about American consumers. I’m all for supporting farmers, booksellers, manufacturers, craftsmen, bakers, and artisans with my dollars – especially those doing business in a fair, sustainable way. I’m just convinced that this meme that Americans are essentially consumers is destructive, not just to the environment, but to our psyches.
Consumption is passive, bland, and boring. Consumption requires little of us. We humans are creative and innovative creatures. Our minds churn with thoughts, impressions, and opinions. We erupt with ideas. We produce symphonies, skyscrapers, bridges, frescoes, novels, poems, quilts, ocean liners, and airplanes. We’re not mindless buyers, purchasers, or consumers. We are producers, inventors … creators.
How can we buck this oppressive notion that our most important role in life is consuming? Easy. We can buy less and get creative. I’m all for art. Draw, paint, sew, knit, crochet, sing, and dance! But what I’m talking about is more accessible. It doesn’t require a paint brush, knitting needles, a sewing machine … or talent. All you have to do is bring imagination to the day-to-day.
Look at your shopping list; think outside the box, bottle, or container; and ask yourself, Can I make this? Sometimes the answer will be no … or the learning curve, labor, or time you’d spend make it a bad candidate for your efforts. But often you can make things.
It may be hard to shift your consciousness from buying to creating at first. Most of us have watched and listened to literally years of commercials selling everything from boxed rice, to jarred baby food, to taco seasoning, to deodorant. Corporations have convinced us we need loads of products. And the government and media have even conflated consuming with civic responsibility. So it may seem strange that a lot of the products and packaged food we buy are unnecessary. Some don’t even save us time; many are inferior to what we can make ourselves; and worse, many (and their packages) are destructive to our health and to the planet.
When you start thinking about what you can make and start practicing that first (and most ignored) part of the recycling mantra – reduce, reuse, recycle, your grocery bills will inevitably shrink. You’ll probably experience an incomparable glow of satisfaction when your creations taste fabulous or nail the job they’re intended for. You might also notice positive changes in your health. But the best part is you’ll begin to see yourself as the imaginative, resourceful, amazing creator that you are.
Four easy ways to start buying less and getting creative:
1. Grow food
Turn your lawn into an edible landscape, put a few containers of tomatoes on your balcony, plant a fruit tree, or just grow some herbs in your kitchen window. When you garden, you and nature become co-creators in a grand project. And fruit, veggies, and herbs are never again something you mindlessly buy at the supermarket year-round.
2. Cook from scratch
You can easily afford some good cookbooks with all the money you’ll save by ditching expensive, nutritionally-deficient, processed food. Cooking is easy. If you’re a newby, just follow the recipes closely. Of course, cooking with whole foods takes more time than heating up processed food or spinning through the drive through. But you’ll save buckets of cash, eat healthier, and the taste difference is nothing short of astounding. Some of my favorite cookbooks: Cooking for the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, Laurel’s Kitchen by Laurel Robertson, and America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook.
3. Make bread
The authors of Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book insist there are “subtle, far-reaching, and distinctly positive changes that can take place when you begin to bake (bread) regularly.” They claim the process is therapeutic, creative, calming, and can transform a house into a home. I agree. I’ve been making my family’s bread for much of the past year, and I’m amazed by how much I look forward to bread-making day, not just because the house smells delectable and I get to eat slices of steaming hot bread fresh from the oven. There’s also something about the process. It leaves a lot of room for learning and growing. Bread-making undeniably takes time, but you can use a bread machine, stand-up mixer, or food processor to help with the kneading, and for most of the rest of the process, the dough simply rests and rises on the counter, leaving you free to kick back or attend to some other chore. Start with a basic loaf, and you might find yourself moving onto more complicated recipes, like desem or sourdough, before you know it.
4. Mix up green cleaners
Years ago my friend Beth told me she started looking forward to cleaning when she started making her own cleaners, but it took me years to heed her advice. It seemed complicated. It’s not. Trust me, you do not need to be a chemist for this. All you need is distilled white vinegar, baking soda, and liquid castile soap (Think: Dr. Bronner’s). And Beth’s right – homemade cleaners make housework more fun. You can mix up an all-purpose bathroom cleaner with 50/50 vinegar and water. Find more recipes for everything from furniture polish to mildew remover in The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen or Organic Housekeeping by Ellen Sandbeck.
You don’t have to stop there. You can make herbal teas, tonics, tinctures, cosmetics, lotions, salves, yogurt, butter, ice cream, beer, wine, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, jams, and so much more. And for the more crafty – of course, you can sew clothes; crochet blankets; knit sweaters; create art for your walls; or build furniture. You may find that the more you create, the more creative you become.
(Originally posted on May 13, 2009.)
Are you already buying less and getting creative? I’d love to hear what you’re doing!