Those two diaper posts I recently wrote brought up in comments and via email the question of expense. Parents wrote in to say it's not a financial option for them to buy the gel-free disposables I use, or lay out the cash needed to get a home-cloth operation going. This is a reoccurring theme, I have found, across the board when people are talking about making organic/eco/green changes. The expense complaint can be - and has been - made to me about organic food, green cleaning products, organic cotton clothing, no-VOC paints, recycled unbleached paper products (toilet paper, paper towels etc.) and more. You name it, people argue it's too pricey.
My response across the board is twofold (ok probably more than that).
First: there are cheap/inexpensive ways to go green. Trust me. I live well but very, very modestly. My mother loves to tease me about how frugal I am. More on that below.
Second: I believe that buying green/organic is the same thing as voting with my dollars. This is a concept that was first introduced to me by Joan Gussow, the author of This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. (Haven't read it? Stop reading this instantly and go get it. It's beyond wonderful.) I was interviewing her for The Complete Organic Pregnancy and we were chatting about why people shop at supermarkets over farmers markets and she said in passing something about how you vote with your dollars by shopping at places and markets you actively believe in supporting. It was something I was already doing going blocks out of my way to buy milk from a local all-natural small store rather than the big supermarket that stocked the same brand. But I didn't have a good way to explain what I was doing. Gussow's phrase perfectly sums up this act one of many gifts she has offered me through her writing and the several times I have had the opportunity to interview her.
Another thing I like to think about when choosing anything organic over a conventional (possibly cheaper) version is Sandra Steingraber's Organic Manifesto. She's the scientist/cancer survivor/mother/author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment and Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood. (The latter was the first book I read when I found out I was pregnant and it was a transcendent experience. If you haven't read this, either, I urge you to.) When a financial adviser questioned her about how much money her family spent on groceries, she was moved to write an Organic Manifesto with the following preamble (to read the whole thing, go to Steingraber.com):
"[O]ur groceries: $140 per week for food for a family of four. "And another thing," [the financial advisor] said. "I don't see a line item for charitable giving." Was this, she wondered, an expense that we had perhaps overlooked? I took a deep breath. It wasn't. Indeed, the absence of charitable donations and our generous food budget were directly related to each other. Virtually all the groceries Jeff and I buy for our family are organically grown. As well as an investment in a healthy environment for my children, directing my food dollars toward organic farmers is part of my spiritual practice. Simply put, we choose to support an agricultural system that does not rely on toxic chemicals to produce the food we eat. In attempting to articulate the depth of my commitment toward organic food, I realized it was time to write my organic manifesto, complete with all the reasons why I believe the decision to buy organic is rational, ethical, and in the long-run, cost-effective."
I couldn't agree more. Spending more for organic (which isn't always necessary see below) is not just about wonderful, safer produce. It's about keeping pesticides out of the earth our children are inheriting, keeping them away from the farmers and the farmers' families, supporting local sustainable farms, creating awareness about healthy eating and more. The words of these two women help explain why I buy what I do, even if it costs more. But I do truly believe green can be done on a budget. And here is how, in no particular order.
Buy less. Back when I was first out of college, I wrote about nightlife, fashion, and eventually food. I spent a lot of money on stuff. I went out often at night, I bought some nice threads, and I ate out to my heart's content. Motherhood means I have little to no time to go out. Good expensive clothing lasts a long time I'm still wearing most of it. I also wear hand-me-downs and vintage. My daughter's wardrobe is entirely hand-me-downs and grandparent presents. I certainly don't deprive her of toys and treats, but how much does a 2-year-old really need? Not enough to make a dent in my puny budget. She mainly likes to play with scarves and pots and pans, anyway. And as for eating out, there aren't many organic restaurants to choose from. We're happy to splurge for special occasions, but on the whole prefer to cook at home. Which we do, three times a day.
Speaking of food get a share in a local, organic farm (CSA - community supported agriculture). During growing season, it's less expensive than buying conventional produce at my nearby big supermarket. My CSA now offers fruit, maple syrup, honey, bread, and (through a collective) meat and a frozen winter share. It's wonderful. If/when shopping in a store, buy less packaged food. It's pricey and processed. Buy grains and things like nuts and dried fruit in bulk. Shop farmers markets, too. If they're more expensive, at least you get to look the people you're spending more money on in the eye. It feels good.
Make your own cleaning products or use less you often do not need as much detergent or dishwashing soap as the instructions might claim.
Make your own coffee and tea at home. Spend money up front on a good coffee machine to entice you to do this. You'll save money and be able to use organic coffee, teas, milk, and sugar in a ceramic not paper throw away cup.
Don't dry clean. It's expensive and horrible for you and the environment the chemicals used in it are carcinogens. Most things can be washed (even if labeled dry clean only). For the ccasional item, locate a wet cleaner or a CO2 cleaner. For some reason the national databases of these cleaners online are (sorry for the pun in advance) spotty. You're better off Googling (or Blackle-ing.) your town and "wet cleaner" and going from there.
I sort of covered this in my "buy less" suggestion but as this blog is about parenting, I can't help but repeat myself a little. All an infant needs is love, a breast (or a bottle), a swaddle, and a car seat. The mountains of the plastic junk that people (and books, and grandparents, and other parents) tell expectant parents they will "need" from special garbage pails to swings to chairs to foam wedges to prop heads up to what have you aren't necessary and are a total waste of money. Spend money on important big-ticket items like organic crib mattresses instead of all of this stuff. Wait until you meet the kid some like swings and rockers, some don't. She'll give you clues to what she needs. Use what you have around you pilates balls become birthing balls become baby rockers, white noise and lullabies can come from a radio you already own. Take and give! any and all hand-me-downs and shop resale stores for what you might want. Parenting/mom message boards are another excellent place to get and offload baby gear, usually for free. So much baby stuff is gently used for a short period of time, it rarely makes sense to buy it new, and all parents green or not are thrilled to be able to extend the period of use by passing it along.
If you're in the market for furniture, buy antiques instead of cheap new furniture that will need to be replaced sooner rather than later. Antique wood has already been cut down, it's hard, real wood (not particleboard which off-gases formaldehyde glue fumes) and unless you're looking for museum-quality stuff, chances are antiques are less expensive or cost about the same than new put-it-together-yourself versions.
Stop the renovation insanity! Make do with and spruce up what you already have. Not only does renovation release chemicals into your home environment you don't want any member of your family to be breathing (especially the ones with little lungs), it's expensive, too! Do you really need a new kitchen or bathroom? Absolutely splurge where it counts no-VOC paint costs more and takes longer to dry between coats (so a painter might charge more) but its not worth saving the cash to expose your family to the chemicals.
Ok, a radical suggestion I make because I'm a born and bred New Yorker and don't really know how to drive because I can walk or take amazing public transportation anywhere I want to go: give up your car! I don't have one. [Ok Ed. Note: the baby daddy just read this post and told me this was an insane thing to write and that I had to lessen my stance. The point is - if you live in a place with public transportation, use it.] You'll save tons on maintenance and gas and parking and I don't need to explain how much environmental good you'll be doing. If you have two or three, can you go down to one or two?
Cut any corners you can that don't make you feel like you're missing out. My daughter still hasn't had her first haircut but when the time comes, I'll probably do it. I've cut her dad's hair for years. He couldn't care less and we save money.
I could go on but I think you get the point. I swear I'm not a crazy hermit pinching pennies at all time. Remember, I'm the one buying the expensive gel-free diapers. My fridge, freezer, and cabinet are stocked with all of the organic goodies my heart desires and my family needs. I have lovely green cleaning products under my sink, luxurious BDIH-certified cosmetics lining my medicine cabinet shelves and shower ledges, and (the least expensive) organic cotton sheets on a green cotton futon (we couldn't come up with the cash to buy the organic mattress I wanted). I cut financial corners all over the place. But when I do open my wallet I vote with my dollars to support what I support. It makes my life fuller and it's a charitable contribution to the world I live in and my daughter's future.
Every family has its own budget. Milk and egg prices go up and down like the stock market. Families have to make the choices that are right for them. The above is how I rationalize what I do within my own financial constraints. I'll never see a sign that says apples $1.99 a pound next to a sign hat says organic apples $2.35 a pound and reach for the cheaper ones. Even if I have no story assignments on the horizon, haven't been writing enough, and am basically broke. For me, it goes beyond price.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.