Saturday, May 14, 2011

Green Living Principles: Quality Over Quantity

One of the most important things I have discovered on my green living journey is the importance of quality over quantity. This idea plays into many aspects of green living, including simplicity, gentleness on the Earth and handling such driving forces as rabid consumerism. Quality over quantity is a cornerstone of green living principles.

For many people, “quality over quantity” applies in various ways. I have discovered, in terms of food, I prefer an approach that is less about how cheap and easy to make the food is, and whether or not the food is of good quality and is an investment in my health. Quality over quantity, in this sense, means going slightly against my frugal nature, at least on the surface, and embracing an added short term expense to minimize a long term one. I believe, and have learned, that investing in my health now by way of modifying my diet to include organic and humanely-raised animal products will benefit me with lower health care costs as I get older. In the end, it is more frugal to take care of the body I have than try to fix it later on down the line.

I have also found quality over quantity applies in relationships with people.  I choose to spend time with people who enhance and fulfill my life, who support me and what I am trying to do and in whose company I feel loved, secure and cared for.  I find that so important that I honestly don't have much time for those who do not.

The easiest to understand, though, is “quality over quantity” in the consumer marketplace. How many people buy a cheap, plastic vacuum and eventually have to take it to a landfill because it no longer works, or the plastic cracks, sometimes within five years of ownership? Yes, the vacuum cost $59.99 at WalMart and was quite affordable; it probably met certain manufacturing standards and seemed like a really good buy initially – But, as time went on, it just wasn't a high quality durable good and its function seemed to decline...As a person experimenting with a green lifestyle, this has been a huge frustration for me. My frugal nature routinely encouraged me to buy the least expensive item out there, like the cheapest vacuum cleaner, and that vacuum cleaner would never last long so I would have to toss it out and buy a new one. Is this really frugal? Or would I be better served spending a bit more on a higher quality product that had real durability, and was fixable (if it broke down)? After surveying the landscape to see the cheap quality of everything from toasters to automobiles, I decided the latter was the better course.  As a consumer, I can only vote with my wallet.  It's time I stopped wasting my power.

Making that decision enabled me to also possess fewer items, overall, as I learned to apply the principle to items such as clothing and shoes. I used to have many, inexpensive and 'trendy' clothes items and shoes that were, almost literally, disposable. This was one area where I definitely did not embrace “quality over quantity”. Additionally, I was also encouraging my daughter to live this way. Sure, we often bought clothes at consignment shops or at clearance sales, so they weren't expensive. But were they of good quality, and could they take the wear and tear? Not to mention we often bought inexpensive shoes as places like WalMart, Payless or Target. Was it any surprise these shoes only lasted a season? In retrospect, it was probably not the wisest expenditure of money. In my experience, not many American consumers question the quality of the items they buy, they just buy them; and forget about the origins of their clothes, or the sweatshop conditions of those who laboured to make them. It often doesn't enter into the consciousness of everyday people.

Over time, I have pared down my wardrobe to essentials. I actively had to choose quality over quantity in this area. After all, I like clothes and shoes. A lot. So, essentials for me included putting a limit on shoes and sticking to that limit. I have a shoe organizer on the back of my door that holds 12 pairs of shoes. For some people, 12 pairs is bottom of the barrel, but I found that was a number I could live with; it gives me three pairs of dress shoes, two pairs of tennis shoes and seven pairs of casual shoes. It's hardly self-deprivation, and I am enjoying the freedom that comes with only having 12 pairs to clean, or polish, and care for. I am actually looking forward to reducing that number, as well, over time.  Since I also chose the most well-made shoes to keep, I expect they will have a fair amount of durability and will need to be replaced less often. For clothing, I elected to only keep those items I will actively wear; if I couldn't remember when I last wore it, it was donated to charity. Again, this activity produced a natural retention level and I was able to halve my required amount of closet space and hangers. I kept a couple of items that I wouldn't wear everyday, but which I could foresee a use: a cocktail dress, a business suit, a heavy coat; the rest, all gone. I repeated the process with books, CDs, jewelry and accessories. Now I have things around me that I truly like and enjoy, that will be used, and that add to my life instead of take away from it. If, for some reason, that no longer applies, I have committed to responsibly disposing of the item, either through charitable donation or sustainable practices.  That's green living 101.

I appreciate minimalists, the minimalist lifestyle and what they are trying to do, but I also find some of their behaviours more extreme.  That kind of extreme frugality has its appeal, but I'd warrant it is limited.  appreciate having items of beauty around me, such as art objects, or cushions, sometimes even if they don't have an actual purpose beyond comfort or decoration. I don't need 50 hand-crafted pieces of pottery, however. Six are plenty enough.

It feels kind of freeing, actually, to fall off treadmill of consumerism. Other than replacing items that wear out, I don't feel the need to be at the shopping mall and can easily avoid places that use sweatshop labour, or cheap materials, or which have bad environmental practices. I can be more choosy and discerning as a consumer. I can point my money in a direction to support those businesses with sustainable practices, who pay a decent wage to their workers. While I may never embrace the minimalist movement, I can be mindful and deliberate, instead of mindless and ignorant. I can choose to fill my time with writing, outings with my family, exploring natural parks and truly living life. And It feels pretty good.


Paul said...

Great read! Informative, plus I enjoyed it! I am a minimalist at heart, as you know, so I guess I am bound to agree! :-)


Shirley Alexander said...

I have been through a similar process in my life. I think, as we get older, we are better able to appreciate "things" and people for what they are really made of.

I am still in the process of clearing out most of my old clothes. After wearing the same size for so many years, and finally getting a little "spread" with middle age, I found I had too many of a lot of things. I have always tried to buy a quality and style which would endure time. This means that a lot of the things I no longer need or appreciate having can now be enjoyed by someone else. Every time I find something I know I won't use again, I pitch it into a hamper for the Salvation Army.

I have been trying to find ways to recycle other things too. An old bunk bed ladder became a guard for the high top steps on the back deck. Now, when my friends with small grandchildren visit, I don't worry as much. The thing that still bothers me most is all the large plastic (sturdy) detergent containers. I can only use so many watering cans. I'm looking for a facility that takes them to recycle, but those have dwindled lately. If you have any ideas for those, I would appreciate it.

Enjoyed the blog. You gave me some good things to think about too.


JoAnn said...

I enjoyed your article. It sounds like you've genuinely committed to living a more sustainable lifestyle. It's really an evolutionary process, isn't it? It is for me anyway. It starts with the three R's and evolves from there. Now I'm eating more sustainable foods, gardening with heirloom seeds, growing my own sprouts and eating mostly raw foods. I like it! I'm following your blog so I can keep in touch! And thank you too for following my eco-converts blog.

agwh said...

The vaccuum cleaner example made me smile. We bought a fairly expensive model back in 1990, and a few years ago it needed major repairs. The guy at the shop couldn't believe we wanted to pay for the repairs rather than get a new machine. It works great, though, and it isn't in the landfill yet!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Great way to achieving an eco-friendly house! Thanks for sharing.
P.S. has some great ideas for conserving energy!