2021 – the year in which less was more

A change of focus

2021 was the first year in half a dozen years that I did not spend considerable time or energy on business goals. Instead, my 2021 focus was on consumption habits. I asked myself how little I could consume in a year, especially personal items such as clothing. Don’t get me wrong – I definitely believe in business goals. And yet after an utterly brutal 2020 (which also happened to be extremely busy with real estate work) I was straight-up TIRED of of asking how I could do more, and chose instead to ask how I could do less. And worry about less. Over the course of 2021, that question expanded to influence various aspects of daily life.

Accumulating zeros

During this last year, I’m mildly surprised to say that I bought zero items of clothing (not even thrifted, which is how I excused quite a bit of shopping in previous years) zero accessories, zero jewelry, zero makeup items, zero prepared skincare or haircare items.

In addition, I consumed zero plastic tubes of toothpaste, having switched at Christmas of 2020 to dental tablets, and threw out zero plastic toothbrushes, having also switched to compostable bamboo. (The heads still need to be snapped off and tossed unfortunately, due to the nylon bristles.) I consumed zero plastic bottles of store-bought shampoo or conditioner, having also switched to a shampoo bar that comes packaged in cardboard. Also zero plastic shavers, having switched to an all-metal safety razor.

I consumed nearly zero feminine care items, having switched in late 2020 to reusable items there as well.

None of this was particularly difficult, and I intend to continue most of it. I was struck again and again this past year at HOW MANY items of clothing I own, and how long it will take to actually wear anything out. I have precisely three items of clothing that are falling apart right now, and they are all sleepwear. And there are many items that I never even wore at all. (Will I ever wear a blazer or high heels again?) I also had a very robust stock of haircare items, that even after 12 months are nowhere close to running out. (I’m talking about combs, brushes, hair clips and binders here.)

The hard part

What proved EXTREMELY challenging to not buy this past year was books. I cannot say that I didn’t buy any – last spring I mindlessly bought 6 books for an Airbnb library while thrifting for furnishings, and didn’t realize I I had broken my rule until I was through the checkout. And to be honest, I was so relieved to have something to read. Subsequently I made trips to the library, re-read old books on our shelves and borrowed from others, as well as little free libraries.

(In previous years it would be nothing for me to purchase 40+ books including many new releases, which I justified as business expenses since they were nearly always related to business or productivity.)

But speaking of productivity, I found myself thinking in 2021 that so much productivity is needed to keep up with so much consumption.

And what if I consumed less?

What if there was more space in the day? More space in the year?

What would that do for me? For my family?

Attempting to make ALL the things

In 2021 I caught up with some of the 2020 fads like baking bread. In my desire to push the limits of plastic waste removal from our household, I made sandwich bread, Italian bread, hamburger buns, sour cream, ice cream, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, BBQ sauce, taco sauce, mayonnaise, vanilla extract, mint extract, cocoa extract, salsa, salad dressings, vegetable dips, cheese dips, pita bread, bagels, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, paneer, and fried store-bought tortillas into chips. (I did not make my own tortillas. Maybe this year.)

I started making my own wine from juice kits, using mostly borrowed or gifted equipment, and bottled in used (sanitized) bottles from friends and neighbors. (And from my own consumption, lol.)

Much of these efforts came from a desire to consume less packaging, and then sort of morphed into a curiosity about what it would be like if I COULDN’T just go to the store and buy a squeezy bottle of mustard.

Buying local

I took up canning in 2021, and bought more farmer’s market vegetables than ever in the past. I still have several bunches of garlic hanging in the root cellar, and it looks promising that they will last until I can buy more from the same local farmer who grew last year’s. I feel good about that, especially since learning that some prepared garlic in the stores is peeled with prison labor. I also began serious bulk shopping at my local co-op. I’ve reused countless single-use containers to fill with things like flour, sugar, chocolate chips, coffee beans, rice, dried beans, even liquids like olive oil, canola oil, soy sauce, honey and maple syrup. (I also learned that you need a serious container-management system in order to do all this.)

Less money, more money, & conscious decision-making

Several of these changes resulted in less money spent. (Hello homemade wine!) Some changes resulted in MORE money spent. For example, in 2021 I began to purchase milk in glass bottles. Previously I got milk at Aldi for about 2.50 a gallon. This past year we averaged almost $9 for a gallon, not including (refundable) bottle deposits. I’m okay about this because we’re supporting a Minnesota dairy farmer whose operation I was able to view in a virtual tour of the farm. I decided that I wanted to see humane animal conditions with my own eyes, in addition to reducing plastic jug consumption. Also, when I think about the various things that I was able to make with the milk, the overall cost goes down. Cheese and high-quality Greek yogurt are not cheap to purchase.

In the spirit of fully transparency, I do have one complaint about the glass bottled milk, and that is that it’s a real bitch to haul from store to home in any significant volume (like 2 gallons at a time, which is four heavy bottles.) I wish we could get delivery to our door. Unfortunately, not so many people want the job of delivery driver, and so routes are few. I don’t blame anyone for that, it’s a reality in today’s environment. I wouldn’t want a driving job either. Especially if it doesn’t pay a living wage.

High heels gathering dust

Another thing I did less of in 2021 was drive. Clearly, given the pandemic, I’m not alone in switching from an office commute to working from home. That was something I hadn’t previously thought I could do, but once my kid was back in school and the house was quiet for a few hours per day, I found that it worked just fine. I also overcame my fear of showing up to a client’s house on foot or by bicycle. Since much of my real estate business is right at home the community where I live, it now seems natural just to walk or bike to a showing or a listing appointment. Yes, this means I no longer wear pretty shoes. And skirts or dresses are out of the question when bicycling. But so far so good – sellers are still hiring me even when I’m more practically attired than in the old days.

Working together & spreading the love

A couple of related things that I felt proud of include suggesting a pen recycling box from Terracycle for my real estate office, and starting a buy nothing Facebook group for my community of Near North/Bryn Mawr. I’m gratified to see how much stuff is given second life right here in my neighborhood through the group, as well as human connections made by people who live near each other yet would not otherwise meet.

What’s the point of all this?

One thing that I’ve discovered in the last year is that I am no longer romanced by the concept of hustle and grind. This is no criticism of anyone or anything, it’s simply where I’ve arrived personally, at least for the moment. There certainly was a time in recent years when I was all about it – my vocabulary was filled with the language of goals, always bigger, always more. Perhaps the change is related to age, or the pandemic, or a combination. Whatever the case may be, I find myself thinking about I can live more gently on this Earth, using less, doing less.

But there is a paradox in that, because using less and doing less opens up a space. It opens up time. And there is an urge to fill that space and time. But with what?

While I think about that, I’m going to shop for some pajamas.

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