Mom knew I leaned hippie, but imagine her surprise when, quite blush with embarrassment, she told me our toilet was broken and I told her it was intentional. We had cut water off to the toilet and jerry-rigged a gray water system. There was a cat litter bucket under the sink to catch rinse water, which was then to be poured into the tank to flush solids. And for the liquids? “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. …”
It was 2006 and Matt and I, along with our little ragamuffin intentional community, had new convictions for creation care and to be honest, we were quite proud of our new practices. We recycled anything we could, and repurposed the rest, doing things like making welcome mats from plastic grocery bags. We made bread and gluten roasts, brewed beer and kombucha, grew sprouts (and their BFF mold), and made almond milk and whey from scratch. (Food was a huge part of community life. All PETA-made vegetarians, we hosted a vegan Thanksgiving feast for 40 of our closest friends where the piece de resistance was a homemade Tofurky.)
And then there was the dumpster diving. I drew the line at dairy products and unwrapped fruits and vegetables. There was just something unholy about eating a cucumber out of a dumpster, I rationalized. But all the rest was fair game. Some nights the finds were paltry and we’d come home with a couple of boxes of cereal. Other nights we couldn’t have asked for more – and not just food. Candles, notebooks, pens, things that just didn’t make sense to find in a dumpster. And on one awesome night when Cat happened to remark, “Dude, I could SO use some hand sanitizer,” we found a case of it in the very next dumpster. God was with us.
I decided I was going to make my own clothes to avoid purchasing clothing made in questionable factories. I started off slowly, first repurposing jeans into skirts or purses. Then came the embroidery and stenciling – taking old tee-shirts that were in our rag pile, turning them inside out and making them new with a purple paisley here, a clever quote about the myth of redemptive violence there.
Then came the sewing. I bought a new sewing machine (the guys – yes, the guys – had broken my other one sewing pouches for their iPods) and set out to find some suitable fabric for this endeavor.
And that’s when it all fell apart.
I did some research on fabric and learned polyester is made from coal, air, water, and petroleum. Spandex is a polyester offshoot. Nylon’s another petroleum derivative. All right, so plant-based fabric it is… I thought. A little more research and I learned that most plant-based fabric, including cotton, is treated with toxic chemicals to dye the fabric and print the fabric. So, I decided that I’d just weave my own fabric out of naturally dyed yarn. Then I learned that plant based fabrics, including cotton, are customarily treated with pesticides. Fine! Organic. Cotton. Yarn. And then came the news that laborers who pick cotton, many of them children, are subject to horrendous working conditions. I drew the line at growing my own cotton.
This is just one example. I stopped buying bottled water only to find my reusable bottle was made with BPA. I bought Tom’s antiperspirant only to notice it still has aluminum in it. It seemed like the further down the sustainable rabbit hole I went, the more overwhelmed I became by the fact that I could never ensure my actions and purposes weren’t hurting someone somewhere along the line. Alongside all of that “conscious” consuming that was supposed to be life giving, I felt crushed underneath a burden of never being able to do enough. I needed to know how far was far enough, and no one could tell me.
I came to a point when I realized I’d either need to quit my job and make every single thing I’d eat, drink, apply, wear, ride, flush, or bring into my home with my own two hands, or I’d need to begin prioritizing and compromising. Never one to compromise well, I began seeing it all as futile.
Seven years later, I must admit I’ve swung too far the other way. I’m back to drinking aspartame. Today I bought clothes at Kohl’s and shoes at Target – not made in the USA and certainly not organic. I’m a meat-eater and though most of the times we do try to eat organic meat, eggs, and dairy, with two small kids we also eat a lot of convenience meals and I don’t ask many questions. I flush when I pee. I run the water when I brush my teeth. I take long showers. I don’t compost. Sometimes I’m too lazy to wash out plastic containers so I just throw them in the trash.
The little community at Renew and Sustain has given me a gift – courage to commit to sustainability again. Courage to ask questions. Courage to make my own decisions about the practices that will fit in the rhythms of my life and bring joy and the practices that will just weigh me down. Courage to define how far is far enough.
It’s still a working definition, but what’s swirling in my mind is something like this:
“If, to preserve my own convenience or comfort, this choice will put someone else’s health or life at risk, I will make another choice. If I do not have the skills or capacity to pick the best choice, I will look for an alternative. If there are no good alternatives, I will pause and I will make a choice – knowing full well it may not be the best possible choice there is – aware of the impact my choice has on another of God’s creatures.”
I still wish I could make my own clothes. But it is simply not within my current capacity to add picking cotton, spinning cotton into yarn, weaving yarn into fabric, and turning fabric into clothing to my routine. So I will continue to buy clothing. But I can commit not to buy so much, so often – just because I need a change. And I can commit not to buy from stores with known connections to child labor and sweatshops. It might not be far enough, but it’s also not too far to go.
Angela, our Wednesday Wise Woman is partner to Matt, foster mom to O and J, Truth-chaser, and education addict. She loves to play with words, workflow rules, herbs, and dirt. Angela lives in rural Illinois, where her family is part of an intentional Christian community. When she gets up the gumption, Angela blogs over at Leaping Greenly and hatch*.