Confessions of an EVERYDAY ECOTARIAN

creative, conscious and conserving ideas, thoughts and solutions

Are You Rich Enough to Buy Cheap? : bucking the disposable society February 7, 2009

My new Chaco's Z/2 Sparrow

My new Chaco's Z/2 Sparrow

I bought a pair of Chaco’s today. Considering that I’ve been out of a job for over two years now that may seem somewhat irresponsible. To be honest, it was a bit out of character for me, (although I did get them 40% off with free shipping). I am, after all, the woman who’s worn a pair of cheap $5 flip-flops for the last three summers. However, that’s probably equally foolish considering I have arches that rival those of the ancient Romans. Maybe it was a moment of impulsiveness or reckless spending or maybe it was the beginning of a new way of thinking and acting for me. I recently read a piece where the author was wrestling with the idea of being “rich enough to be poor”. Apparently, it’s an old Russian saying implicating the idea that if you buy cheap things, it will cost you more in the end. So, in theory, you have to be wealthy to buy cheap. Makes sense, right? Well, I think it’s much more complicated in the practical world than it is in the theoretical world, (isn’t that always the case?). After all, if you are already strapped for cash, how do you buy more expensive, higher quality items?

Well first of all, no one is saying that we have to have the best of everything. That’s an entirely different, (and equally misleading) mentality. I’m not talking everything. I’m talking some things. If we take a hard look at what we throw away -and how that’s changed in the last 100 years or so, we see some alarming patterns that I think not only represent a facet of our family economic systems but that also of our larger consumer economic systems.

Data from New York City Waste Collections indicates that the amount of garbage created per person per year went from 92 to 1,242 pounds from 1905-2005. Granted, packaging and containers represent 32 percent of that number, (and that’s another topic to be discussed). However, non-durable goods (products used less than three years) represent 27 percent or roughly 335 pounds a person per year. That’s 335 pounds of junk we each purchased last year that wore out, broke or stopped working too soon, (my flip-flops probably should be in that number, but I’ve resurrected them a few times with super glue). That number alone is about 3.5 times more than the entire amount of garbage per person in New York 104 years ago. Granted, things have changed since then. At some point, however, we need to start asking if this pattern is played out over time, where will we be? Is it something we can afford to continue?

So back to the family budget. How does buying cheap affect us and why do we feel compelled to do it? Well, let’s first take into consideration our extremely human and early-showing tendency to want more.

One of the first two-word phrases my kids learned was “I want”. That phrase along with “Can I…” are enough to drive a parent mad in a consumer-driven, thing-overloaded world. It’s so normal an occurance in our family that we have a code word: Greedy Gimees, (credit to the Berenstein Bears for that). So, to start with, we are all born destined to fight the Greedy Gimmees and if that wasn’t bad enough others, (also endowed with the Greedy Gimmees) have decided to exploit that tendency in us. Not only are we bombarded at all ages with messages of Bigger, Better, More! There is also this interesting little marketing technique, (can I call it that?) called Planned Obsolescence. From Wikipedia:

Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence[1] is the process of a product becoming obsolete and/or non-functional after a certain period or amount of use in a way that is planned or designed by the manufacturer.[1]

What? They want our hard drives to die and our break pads to wear out sooner? Feeling a little betrayed? A little more from Wikipedia:

The purpose of planned obsolescence is to hide the real cost per use from the consumer, and charge a higher price than they would otherwise be willing to pay (or would be unwilling to spend all at once).

That cheap computer that tanks on you in 18 months isn’t so cheap after all. Not when you have to keep replacing it, (even if it’s only one piece at at time). Which, apparently was the plan all along. A little bit maddening isn’t it? It costs us more money, it ends up as more waste all while we are encouraged to be in a perpetual state of the Greedy Gimmees. I can tell you from experience, the Greedy Gimmees push gratitude right out the back door. And life without gratitude is not very satisfying.

So what do we do about this? First of all I’d like to give kudos to the Brits for taking a stance on it. In the UK, it’s considered a breach of consumer rights to engineer obsolescence into products. They investigate claims of products that consistently fail just outside the warranty period, (just ask Apple).

As individuals, and families, I think we can make an impact by bucking the disposable society. Here are some ideas:

Do research to find quality items that last. Before you purchase something, do a little research about the product. Find companies that are interested in longevity and quality, (they are out there). Use the internet to look at the vast review sites for various products. If you see complaints that a product is failing just on the other side of the warranty date -avoid that product.

Don’t count out second hand stores! If the product made it to a second hand store it just might have a better chance of longevity. Sift through the thrift stores and see if you can find a useful treasure that will serve you for years. My favorite coffee mug is a unique hand-made stone wear thrift store find, (it warms up like the beach in the sun…). It cost me .99 and I use it every single day.

Don’t be an impulse buyer. Impulsive buyers are the manufacturers best friends. They are the ones that planned obsolescence is tailored to. Impulse buyers buy into the ideas of bigger, better, more. No matter what you hear, you probably don’t need it right now. There is very little, (outside of oxygen…and coffee?) that we need right now. In fact, it would probably be good practice to let those impulsive feelings pass. Once you’ve ridden that wave without buying you will realize it wasn’t so urgent after all. The next time those feelings arise, it will be easier to wait them out before you make a buying decision. The name of the game in bucking the disposable society is delayed gratification.

Stop. Think. Then buy.

Save your money and wait for the right buy. If there is something you think you need or want to replace, then save your money, push that sense of urgency to buy back and instead wait and keep your eyes open. My husband and I deal with this by having a mental “list” of things we need to replace. For example, a table saw has been on our list for a couple of years. My husband did a lot of research, looking at reviews and inspecting actual saws. He settled on the one he wanted and then he waited. He waited a year. Now, my husbands business involves weekly, sometimes daily use of a table saw and he was using one that was an 11-year-old Sears special that cost $150 new. However, that old saw kept a’ spinnin’ and he let those urges past until he found a great deal. Just yesterday, in fact, the new models came out and the one he’s had his eye on all year long went on clearance, costing him 40% less than it would have new saving us hundreds of dollars. And instead of the perpetual Greedy Gimmees, he’s filled with gratitude that he now has a really nice saw that he’ll have for many years. Which brings me to my last tip:

Plan on using the item for the long haul. Fight the urge to go with the “Bigger, Better, More!” mentality. If you buy a quality product, then tell yourself you are going to use it for X amount of time -and stick with it. You will learn several things. 1. That you can get by without something bigger and better and 2.That those, (seemingly dire) urges to buy more are just that , urges. If you happen to be walking by the next generation of whatever you have, put your blinders on, remind yourself you made a commitment to fight the disposable lifestyle and keep walking -just let that urge pass on by you.

Sometimes, when I realize how enslaved our entire economy is to the idea of a disposable society, (some have argued that it was planned obsolescence that brought us out of the Great Depression) I wonder if our economy can survive otherwise. However, I know that people are endowed with this desire to have meaning in their life -to have their work mean something to themselves and to others. I’m just not sure manufacturing a ton of cheap junk is all that meaningful to anyone. Maybe, we could trade our disposable society for one that encourages high quality, carefully made items that will be with people for years. Maybe then we could afford to buy more expensive items and we could afford to pay the people who make them a fair, livable wage. And instead of being in a state of the perpetual Greedy Gimmees we could instead be in a state of perpetual gratitude for the care that was put into the items that go with us and gather memories during our lives.

So the next time you are considering a purchase ask yourself, “Am I really rich enough to buy cheap?”


Organic: Can You Afford It? December 7, 2008

Rows of Beans

Rows of Beans

So you want to eat organic but you think you can’t afford it. Well, let me tell you, you can’t afford not to eat organic. -Ok, so I don’t really mean that. Honestly, I get exceedingly tired of reading that in all of the elitist “green” publications or hearing it on the yuppy radio shows where the fiscally comfortable can have conversations amongst themselves on the “can’t do without” benefits of all-organic living. You know what I think? (and this is my blog, so you’re about to find out) I think only the well-to-do can have the leisure to even think this thought. Let’s face it, oranic foods cost two, probably more like three times more than “conventional” food, (and the word “conventional” is up for debate). For a family of 5 that spends $500/mos on groceries, (our family of 5 spends $300-400/mos) that means upping it to $1000-$1500/mos. Maybe if you make six figures or more a year you won’t notice that difference. However, looking at statistics, most families of 5 do not make that much and upping a grocery bill three times just isn’t going to fly. So, whether or not organic food is better for the future of the earth and our health, (and I believe it is) it’s a near impossibility for the budgets of average families. So what they heck do we normal people do about this? We all want to do the right thing. We all want what’s best for our families, right? All I can do is tell you how we deal with this. I think we do ok. I’m not going to give you a list of 12 things you must buy organic. I’m not going to tell you to roto-till your front yard or spread dirt on your roof and turn it into a garden, (although I enjoy any opportunity to spread dirt anywhere). I’m going to list a few general guidelines we’ve used for “going organic”.

Buy the most nutrient dense organic foods that happen to be cheap. Bananas, dried beans, (not sure what to do with them, check out this post), brown rice, whole wheat flour, carrots and raisins to name a few. These foods are highly nutritious and inexpensive in both their organic and non-organic forms. For example, non-organic bananas are .49c/lb at our local store. Organic? .69c/lb. Sure, it’s 28% more but the difference in cost for 3lbs of bananas? 60 cents.

Find a local coop to join. There may be people all around you gathering together once a month to order cheap organic pantry staples and you didn’t even know it! A few companies that have buying clubs are Country Life Natural Foods, Frontier Natural Products and Untied Buying Clubs. Basically, it works like this: You get a few people together and order once a month. Together you meet the minimum order requirement and each of these companies delivers the food to a common location where you split it up and bring it home to make it into wonderful meals for your family. Check out these companies and see if they already have a buying group near you or get your friends together and make your own!

Buy in bulk and share with friends. Speaking of friends… Sometimes you may have to order items in bulk to get the best deal. This is especially true if you are ordering from one of the aforementioned coops. No problem. This is a great opportunity to get together with friends and split up your item. Only need 10lbs of flour but you need to order 50lbs to get the best price? Get together with four other people and split it up. If you have proper storage you can just stash shelf-stable items aside until you can use them up yourself. Grains, rice, beans, olive oil and dried fruit store very nicely for quite a while in a cool, dry place. These are also items that you can get significantly cheaper in bulk.

Don’t count-out local foods just because they aren’t “certified organic”. Yes I know, strawberries are on the “dirty dozen” list. But if they are local and in season yet not certified organic, give them a chance! They are very pest-resistant by nature not needing a lot of pesticides to grow and ripen. The problem comes in when these very perishable fruits are shipped from CA to NY in the middle of winter. To keep them from molding, heavy fungicides are used. If you buy them local and in season, there is no reason for the anti-fungal measures. -and they taste much better, of course. That’s just one example. But, as a whole, vegetables and fruits that are grown locally and are in season often have less need for heavy pesticide use. Also, the more the fruits are allowed to ripen where nature intended them to, the more nutritious they are. Did I mention tastier too?. Just ask any kid if they’d rather have a sun-ripened strawberry or a shipped-across-the-country, box-ripened, tasteless, half-green Franken-berry as big as the kids head. One other benefit to buying local when you can: talking to the grower. Want to know what was used to grow your veggies? Ask the farmer. He may not be able to give you an organic label on your carrots but his word may be just as good. Maybe even better.

Grow your own. I know, easier said than done for many. Even those in the city, however, can often grow a simple tomato plant in a container in the window. One thing I just love to see in cities is community gardens. What a great way to get together with others and just get your hands dirty! Buy a small plot this year and just jump in. Start small with just a couple of varieties of easy-to-grow plants, (tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, herbs…). I think you will find that others are more than willing to help you figure it all out.

Don’t think you have to go “all or nothing”. I know, I know, the guilt sets in. I’m poisoning my family with horrible pesticides! I’m contributing to the raping of the earth! What if one day we all get cancer and it’s because we bought those non-organic grapes in December of 08?! I’m sure there are many, many people who would disagree with me, (the “you can’t afford not to (elitist) club” -did I say elitist?). Honestly, though. The bottom line with everything is, something is better than nothing and you have to start somewhere. For some it may be the infamous, (although variant) “dirty dozen” list. For others it may be the cheapest things possible. Some may be able to clear out their pantry and start over in one shopping trip, (I’ll take what you throw out!). Others may just have to replace one thing at a time and make some really careful choices on just what they will and will not buy organic. It’s all good. We all have to be informed consumers and we are all dealing with different circumstances. So, do the best you can with what you have and start with that. -and be willing to re-evaluate often.

So although I would not say going totally organic is affordable for everyone and you’ll never catch me telling someone they can’t afford not to go organic I do believe it can be affordable in part. Do some research, make a plan and figure out how you can best feed your family within your grocery budget. Don’t let others with more padded budgets make you feel less for not buying all organic. Just walk into that health food store, grab your 50 pound bag of organic rolled oats, carry it to the counter with your head-held high, (not too high or you’ll fall over backwards) knowing you just paid as much per pound as you would have for non-organic oats. -And now you can go home and split those oats up with your friends. Oat-splitting with friends, what could be better than that?


On Food: Making Yogurt June 12, 2008

I’m on a food bent today.

Do you love really good, organic yogurt but feel like the budget is too tight to buy it? Perhaps you just feel wasteful buying disposable, (or recyclable) container(s) of yogurt every week.

You can make your own yogurt and it is EASY. Really. No laboratory needed, no big sterile environment is necessary. Just you, some milk, some culture and a warm place. Yogurt is one of those things that is as old as man and domesticated livestock. If they could do it, so can we. -and the best thing is you control what goes into it.

I use a 1-quart “Yogurt Maker” by Salton. I got it from Amazon for about $15. I now see that Amazon no longer carries it. However, they do have an individual cup yogurt maker for $29. I’ve often wished I had the options of individual cups so perhaps this is a better option anyway. You can make yogurt without a yogurt maker but I’ve found the incubator is inexpensive and makes the process much more predictable and the product more consistent.

Regardless, the process is the same. You buy milk -whatever milk you desire. I love using whole-milk for my yogurt. If you use homogenized milk your yogurt will be consistent throughout. If you use milk that has not been homogenized your yogurt will have a cream layer on top, (oh, how I love that cream layer!). You heat the milk to 200 degrees for 10 minutes. You let it cool until it is lukewarm. Some people add some dried milk powder at this point but I’ve found it isn’t necessary. Next, you take some live cultures and mix them into the milk. You can either use live culture that has been freeze-dried, (like Yogourmet) or just buy one cup of plain yogurt that has live and active cultures to mix into your milk. You then place the milk/culture mix in the incubator and let it rest for 4-10 hours -until it sets. If you like your yogurt more sour then let it go towards the 10 hour mark, mild let it go towards the 4 hour mark.

You will now have plain yogurt that you can add whatever you’d like into. Save about 4 ounces of this yogurt to start your next batch. You can re-culture your yogurt about 3-4 times with yogurt from the last batch. After this the cultures will be too weak and you will need a new set.

One more thing: The consistency of homemade yogurt is thinner than the kind you buy in stores.  You may find yourself asking, “How do I thicken my homemade yogurt?”  I have worked and worked to find a way to thicken it up, (my family prefers it thicker). After much trial and error I’ve stumbled upon a couple of solutions. The first is to add unflavored gelatin to it before you incubate it. I’m not sure I like its texture this way. It’s kind of like…well…Jello. The second -my preferred method- is to use a product called Instant Clear Jel. It is a pre-cooked corn starch. Therefore you can put it in something cold and it will thicken it almost instantly, (think instant pudding). I have found that you use about 2 TBS to 1 cup of yogurt. Sprinkle it over the top, whisk it in good and let it set in the fridge for a while. Then, go back to it and whisk it again until it’s creamy and thick. My family thinks it’s perfection!

Plain yogurt is also a great, healthy substitute for sour cream. You can also put the plain yogurt in a colander lined with cheesecloth and let the whey drain from it until you have yogurt cheese -which is a lot like cream cheese.

You can make a quart of yogurt for the cost of the milk plus your culture, (which can be simply one individual cup of plain yogurt). Healthy, delicious, nutritious and inexpensive!


On Food: Homemade Chocolate Syrup!

How do you make my 6-year-old climb walls like Spider Man? -Give him something with sodium benzoate. We found out this interesting yet annoying reaction when my oldest son had some “Sunny D” for the first time at an event. -He was about three years old. My husband and I were busy playing for the event while someone else watched our kids. When we finished playing I went to find my kids and I literally found my son hanging from the bleachers. I asked him to get down and he just stared at me with a wild and far-off look in his eye. I spent the rest of the time chasing him from one crazy dangerous act to the next all the while wondering, “Who are you and where have you put my son?!”. When I tracked down exactly what was different in his diet that day I found that it was the kid-appealing, drink-like liquid substance known as “Sunny D”. Never being one to jump to conclusions I tracked some down and gave him some a few days later. -Wild boy returned. That was enough of that. Seeing that it was my job to make sure he lived until adulthood I decided he must never ingest it again. Well, through other experiences and some experimenting I found that the specific chemical that seemed to affect him was sodium benzoate. Then I started reading labels and found it everywhere. Parenting just got more complicated…again.

All of this to lead into a great recipe I found. One thing my kids adore is chocolate milk, (especially chocolate goats milk). Unfortunately most chocolate syrups have sodium benzoate on their list of ingredients. -Amongst other things, (and often a lack of actual chocolate). You can find brands that have simpler ingredient list. AH!Laska Organic Chocolate syrup for example, (Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Water, Organic Cocoa (Non-Alkaline), Xanthan Gum (a Natural Fiber Thickener), Organic Vanilla, Citric Acid). -But even on Amazon it’s about $4 for a 22 ounce bottle. I can do better than that. Here is a recipe for great, easy, homemade chocolate syrup

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 cup tap water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In a 2 quart sauce pan mix the cocoa and water with a wire whisk or fork. Heat the chocolate water over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and continue to stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and boil for a full 3 minutes. Remove the syrup from the heat.

Add the salt and vanilla, stirring to blend. Pour the syrup into a clean pint sized canning jar, or any container you would like to use. I use one I can “squirt” the syrup out of. Store it in the fridge.

You can use organic, fair-trade sugar, or substitute the sugar for honey. I would use about 3/4 cup honey for each cup of sugar and then reduce the water to 3/4 cups. Also, you can buy really good cocoa powder and have a really nice finished product. One that you just may eat by the spoonful right from the fridge…not that I recommend that, (well, every once in a while).

One other thing I do is substitute a vanilla bean for the the vanilla extract. I just take a bean, split it and scrape the seeds into the cocoa mix before I heat it. I throw the bean in there too. I leave it in as the mix heats and boils and then take it out before I put it in the fridge.

That’s all there is to it. You can have your very own wholesome chocolate syrup for a fraction of the cost.

I’m going to make some now!


On Food: The Musical Fruit June 9, 2008

Filed under: On Food — adm @ 1:14 am
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The Musical FruitOh how I love beans! Kidneys, pinto’s black, white, cranberry, garbanzo and so many more I don’t have time to mention. They’re cheap, versatile, (did I mention musical?) and nutritious. Mixed with a grain you have a complete protein. What could be better?

Beans are a staple food in our home. They are actually one of those foods we can buy organic almost as inexpensively as non-organic. We belong to a very local buying club that orders from Country Life Natural Foods. Their prices are great. We can buy a variety of dried beans for $1.10-$1.35/lb. You can also find them fairly inexpensively in the bulk section of many health food stores. So, if you’re trying to buy organic and want to save money in the process choose dried beans over canned.

“Wait!” you say, “They take too long to cook and I don’t think that far ahead!”. Either do I. I’m great at whipping something up out of whatever I can find, (even weeds or berries from the backyard). Forethought and food, however, do not often go hand in hand for me. So here is what I do to have ready-made beans on hand for any occasion, (and what an occasion it will be!)

Now, before I start you should know that there is all sorts of controversy over how to correctly cook beans. Soak or not soak? Use the soaking water or throw it out? Salt the water or leave the salt until later? I say, they’re BEANS for pete’s sake. If you want to get some expert advice on bean prep go to the Central Bean Co. I guess that’s all I have to say about that. Anyway, onward.

Have a bean cooking day. Soak whatever variety of beans you’d like to have on hand the night before in room temperature water. They should be softer and ready to cook by morning. Then, drain the soaking water off of the beans, put them in a pot that will hold them and cover them with new water by about and inch or so. Do not salt the water. I have found that it interferes somehow with the cooking process and causes the beans to be crunchy. Get the beans to a simmer and cook for 1-1.5 hours. Drain the beans well. Start the second batch/variety of beans on the stove. Meanwhile, take the cooked and drained beans and prepare them for the freezer. There are a few ways to do this, here are the two I’ve had success with:

You want the beans to be frozen somewhat individually so you can scoop out as many as you need for a recipe. So take a towel and carefully dry off each bean, place it gently in the freezer…just kidding. Really, it depends on how you want to store them in the freezer. If you want to store them in plastic freezer bags then put them in the bags and stack them flat on the freezer shelf so they are not in a clump but a thin(ish) layer. When they have completely frozen you can give the bag a good whack on the counter and they will break apart into separate beans and manageable clumps. If you are averse to plastic you can also store them in tempered glass jars in the freezer, (like canning jars). To do this you will want to freeze the beans on a cookie sheet first, scoop them off when frozen, put them in the jars and back to the freezer.

Now you have beans all ready for a recipe. I usually scoop out what I need, (sometimes let them thaw a bit depending on the recipe) and I’m ready to go. I’ve found that since I’ve started doing this we eat beans on a more regular basis.

I will close with this very interesting use for beans. I got this idea from a friend. Try substituting the butter for beans in a cookie recipe. Mash the beans really, really well, (white beans work best but any will do) and mix them in the dough instead of butter. It sounds crazy, but it really does work. You get higher protein, lower fat cookies with a few extra anti-oxidants. Try it!