Friday, January 30, 2009

Making Choices: Frugality, the Environment, or Social Justice

I stumbled into the carfree lifestyle because I'm a cheapskate. I'm allergic to spending money, and cars drink up a lot of money. I get to feel overly proud of not owning a car because I'm being environmentally responsible. Living without a car brings two of my core values together. But those values are often in tension, particularly around things that I consume on an ongoing basis. Do I buy local, organic produce (expensive but environmentally sound), or do I buy cheap produce trucked up here from Mexico (cheap but environmentally costly)? And I'll throw one more value into the mix -- social justice. Is that cheap broccoli I buy in the winter picked by someone being paid far less than a living wage?

I've been thinking about the choices I make with my time and money and where they lie on a matrix of social justice, environmental responsibility, and frugality. Wherever I am on that matrix now, what changes do I want to make? I'm particularly interested in making changes that move me in the direction of satisfying all three core values -- these will be the efficient choices that get me the most payoff for my efforts.


Buy Less. Buying less is usually environmentally responsible (remember, everything you purchase will be trash someday) and frugal. There are exceptions -- for instance buying weather stripping may help you reduce your fossil fuel waste and save you money. I think that buying less is generally socially neutral. If you don't buy something, then in particular you aren't buying something from a corporation that exploits cheap labor overseas. But you also aren't buying something from a local merchant who employs people in your community at a fair wage. In other words, you aren't putting your money into building and sustaining a socially responsible local economy.

Buy Used. You are not making new waste, you are probably saving money, and you are likely giving your money directly to someone else in your community. The real challenge here is that buying used often takes more time than buying new.

Dumpster Diving and Trash Picking. Like many of you, I do the occasional neighborhood curb crawl for discarded treasures. Since we have a very small space, we are limited in the amount of junk we can bring in, and as a result our use of curbside goods has diminished over time. Mostly we just don't want to bring stuff into our house, period, whether it's cheap stuff or free stuff. However, inspired by Amy Dacyczyn's review of John Hoffman's book on dumpster diving, I'm interested in increasing my trashpicking skills and expanding the types of things I'll consider picking. Rescuing usable items from the trash keeps things out of the landfill and it's free. Two social justice issues surface here. Many people trash pick as part of their livelihood, and since I would consider it more of a hobby, I wouldn't want to interfere with others' ability to get their basic needs met. Also, dumpster diving behind a store might deprive the store of sales (you give your kid the "My Little Pony" set in the crushed box with the missing whip and bridle instead of buying a new one at the store) which could have a negative impact on your community.

Conclusions so Far?

After writing all this down, it seems clear to me that I need to focus on purchasing things used whenever possible. It meets all of my big goals, so it's a very efficient action to take. If I really take that on, I'm going to need to be more organized about the purchases I make, since getting something used takes more time that running into a store or ordering online.


The big thing I haven't yet tackled here is food. The options I mentioned don't necessarily work well for food. Yes, I can buy less food and perhaps I should. Yes, I can get perfectly serviceable food out of some dumpsters, but I just don't see myself being willing to go that direction (and I don't think the rest of my family would be happy about it either). So I'm going to spend a couple of weeks trying to buy used, and then I'm going to do some blogging about the food issue and try to determine my most efficient options there. Suggestions are very welcome!


MN_homesteader said...

Great post! More people need to have these heart to hearts with themselves

Angela V-C said...

Thanks. I've been thinking a lot lately about how I simply can't do everything, so it makes sense to get strategic about things.

RowdyKittens said...

Great post! I just tried to submit a comment, but the internet hates me tonight. So I'm trying one more time. :)

Have you thought about doing an indoor garden to save money? This is a great post via Apartment Therapy -

Or what about Farmer's Markets in your area? We have been shopping at our farmer's market since the new year and not only have we saved a lot of cash, but are eating much better too. :)

The book you mentioned in your post sound inspiring. I've got to pick it up at the library.

Ohh and you might like this article I linked too on my blog (it's about dumpster diving).

I love your blog - keep up the excellent writing.

Angela V-C said...

Rowdy Kittens -- We've actually been thinking about indoor gardening a lot lately! We have a porch that is very sunny, so would be an ideal spot for a vertical garden -- maybe I'll get inspired to build something...

And I love that dumpster diving article!