For starters, by most accounts, my spouse and I are kind of extreme when it comes to simplifying. My wife describes the (main) set of circumstances that sparked our sustainability push more eloquently than me, but roughly speaking, here’s the short version.
When we had our first child, it was right after Katrina and with my wife being from New Orleans, it hit home on many fronts. The impacts of climate, people in need, and our kids’ futures all seemed bizarrely exposed. It was around that time, we both decided we had grown tired of hearing, “Don’t worry, someone else will take care of it!”
The problem was that we weren’t meeting a lot of those “other people,” the ones that were deftly operating behind the scenes. She basically led the charge at that point and moved beyond the rhetoric. Sometimes,we collectively decided, it has to be you. And that meant it had to be us.
We ended up in Houston a few years later for work, just in time to catch the arrival of another monumental storm, Hurricane Ike. And boy did that shift things. With Katrina still in the shadows, we were pounded in Downtown Houston and left without power for almost two days. Our daughter had also just been born, so here we were with two babies, no power, and stranded.
So there’s some context. And it’s not just about climate change, or being green. The latter is a byproduct of being acutely aware of our surroundings. We challenged ourselves to question things more —at every turn. Why did this happen? How do we keep it from happening again? I can’t explain why we didn’t change things sooner. We just realized that things in our world, our personal world, had to change. Over the last five years, here’s a few things we’ve done.
The Heirloom Principle
Consumption is the centerpiece of how we think things through. We both come from families that love to collect things, so it’s a constant challenge. Estate sales signs in older neighborhoods are our addiction. What we had to agree on was a simple set of rules.
We decided on “immediate utility.” Just what it sounds like. If we bought something, it had to be hung, worn, toted, or played with in an increasingly short time frame. Use it or lose it. Or in our case, take it back to Goodwill.
I was reminded of the term itself from the founder of Opportunity Green, Karen Solomon. “Buy stuff that’ll last,” she told me after a meeting in Austin.
Audit The Resources You’re Using
Start with assessing your usage. How much water and electricity do you use every month? And fortunately, it’s become much easier to see that information. Utilities, water districts, and municipalities are awash in data. The challenge is getting you and me to act on it. Beyond common sense and choosing fundamental options — Energy Star ratings or tips from your local utility — it’s part education and part discipline.
Living through a drought in Central Texas and summers in Dallas taught us early on that we might not want to be dependent on a lot of watering. Soon after, my wife blew past “quick study” status on native landscaping and voila!, our water consumption plummeted. It wasn’t all because of our lawns, but it was a big piece. That decrease in usage was one of those light-bulb moments. If this provided such an impact, what else could we do?
And don’t let anyone tell you that competition doesn’t have anything to do with it. Competition is word-of-mouth’s favorite cousin. We saw that the first time we went over to a friend’s house and mentioned our water bill (below). I’m not sure they believed us, but the next time we saw them, they mentioned they had no idea they were using so much water.
One other example that opens peoples’ eyes has to do with electricity. My wife took a weekend class a few years back that was focused on solar, mostly residential. A subset of the curriculum addressed “vampire power,” or the standby mode of particular devices. I haven’t compiled hard data from month-to-month, but we saw a pretty substantial spike after we starting using more power strips and aggressively turning everything off. Yes, that means unplugging the microwave, too. I told you we were extreme.
After a few months, it became habitual, and more so as we continued to see what was attainable. Dovetailing off that, we looked at all of our appliances. After seeing how much power a refrigerator eats up, we attacked that first. The key was to take a long-term view, especially since a few of our adjustments would require replacement costs. Wefound a fridge that was super-efficient, without an ice-maker, and with the capability to turn off the freezer as needed. The point isn’t to tell you to go out and buy new appliances. What’s important is putting your usage under a microscope.
How often did we really make those ice-tray popsicles ? Not very often. Why not head down to the local shop and support them instead? That’s what we did. We also got rid of our dryer and used the undervalued, often maligned, clothesline. Besides huge energy savings, there’s a certain vintage, if not ritualistic quality hanging out clothes provides. No room for a clothesline you say? Target has small drying stands for less than $15. Get a few.
Keeping the outdoor theme intact, we also bought a Sun Oven. That was an easy transition, considering we had recently yanked out our old range, which of course, had an oven. That left us with no oven inside, as we opted for an induction cook-top. Soon we had become “trial-and error” Sun Oven cookers. And it wasn’t that hard. We quickly learned which veggies and grains were best, and soon were wedging all sorts of other things inside the hard foiled edges of our new friend.
There was certain type of win we felt everyone time we got back to the house and pulled something out of the yard that was ready-to-eat, and didn’t require the grid. Now granted,our Austin house is about 1100 sq. ft, but in cooler months, all the things I mentioned helped us consistently hover around $20 for a full month’s power.
Lifestyle Choices Lead To Lowing Hanging Fruit
There’s also some less tangible, lifestyle choices we’ve made. The biggest ones have been buying local and moving to the second-hand market. It’s amazing, and a bit horrifying, when you try to find stuff made in the States, much less regionally. Buying second-hand became not only a quest for quality, but an economic vote for companies that had some backyard skin in the game. And if you have kids, well, that’s the multiplier.
It was absurd to buy new swim shirts for any kid under the height markings on our giraffe’s shoulder. They outgrow those things too fast. Besides, our local Goodwill creates jobs in the community — a win for everyone. It was also interesting to see how our thrifting tendencies drove our mindset in other areas.
By paying attention to what lasted,we developed an innate sense of categorization. We’ve become adept at classifying things that should always be found in “gently used” environments. No to mention, we got smarter, we saved money, and we gave back. Those are things everybody can relate to. So create your own playbook. And grow from it.
We posted this first on Medium.