I was walking to the supermarket this morning when I started thinking about this article. If you follow me on Instagram, you might have seen several posts where I declared that I don’t frequent the supermarket anymore, but I still do my groceries there once in a while. After all, you can only buy so much from a farm or a specialized shop. Cooking oil, rice and such essentials are still easier to find in the supermarket. It’s pointless to burn fossil fuel while buying sustainable products from different locations.
I’ve always been in a conundrum about this whole sustainable living discussion. Practicing sustainability in the Netherlands, where I now live, is starting to feel like a privilege. Whereas in my land of birth, children from poor families grow up with less choices, and are almost automatically pushed to what first world countries consider sustainable living.
Take for example upcycling, re-using and re-creating stuff to lessen the impact of garbage to the environment. Upcyling was a way of life for us, especially when it comes to clothing. When you could only afford to buy clothes once a year, you don’t throw them away even when they’re worn out. You turn them into rugs, or menstruation pads or fillings for pillows. You repair them when they have holes or bring them to a tailor to re-purpose them (old dresses into skirts or pants into shorts).
There’s a whole economy around second-hand fashion in the Philippines. You would find ukay-ukay shops everywhere , from small towns to big cities. Imported, second-hand clothes, shoes and bags from rich countries end up in these little stores, and entrepreneurial Filipinos would sell them for a fraction of the original price. My entire wardrobe while going to college was bought from several of those shops. Ukay-ukay transcends social status, poor and rich people visits these shops, the former as necessity, the later for novelty.
Unnecessary consumption was also something unknown to me until I moved to the Netherlands. Because our budget was limited, my parents won’t buy us footwear until the old ones were worn out and have holes in them. School uniforms would be made a size bigger so they would last several school years. Nobody raised an eyebrow or thought it was pathetic, perhaps because my friends and I all came from the same social background.
Were we ever jealous when one or two classmates would have brand new sets of clothes, bags and shoes every school opening? Well, that couldn’t be avoided. But we were taught to chew and spit out our jealousy, accept the fact that life is unfair and others live better than us, at least financially. I carried that belief throughout my early adult life.
Buying local and organic was a matter of course because it’s considered stupid to spend money on transportation when you can just buy meat and vegetables from the farmers nearest you. Same as with buying seasonal produce. The logic is simple, what’s not in season is expensive. Sadly though, the influx of imported produce have impacted this practice, ultimately hurting local farmers in the Philippines.
I remember going to the fish market every afternoon together with my father, after his work and before we go home. We’re a suki (regular customer) to one stall, and the vendor and my father were on first name basis. What you can buy always varies because vendors wouldn’t know what the day’s catch would bring, even the easier catch like sardines won’t be available sometimes, depending on how “bright” the moon was. To expect a constant supply of one sort of fish was unthinkable. So it was a luxury when I could buy salmon and tuna all year round in the Netherlands. Which I later learned is not particularly friendly to the oceans.
The question of whether sustainable living is a privilege reserved for those who can afford it had been burning in my mind lately. I view minimalism in the same way. I was raised practicing a sustainable lifestyle because there was no other choice. But in the Netherlands, I can live sustainably because I can afford it. Can a truly sustainable lifestyle ever be accessible to everyone or only to a minor few, the ones who already have it better?
I can afford the organic produce and fair-trade products because my husband and I have earn good salaries. I can choose to forego buying toys for my daughter because we have family and friends (and neighbours) who give it her anyway, and she can play outside because there are ample and safe public spaces in our city. I can take the train or bike to work because public transport and bike lanes are accessible in the Netherlands. I can choose a capsule wardrobe because I already bought enough quality stuff years ago, which don’t fall apart after 2 years of use. And I can travel less because I’ve already done enough travelling. I didn’t have to see the world anymore.
I’ve had my fair share of unsustainable lifestyle. That’s the period after I got my real job in the Netherlands and could afford three H&M bags in one go, or a €300 pair of shoes on a whim, and fly to wherever I like every 2 months. The affluence in the first world was so addicting and I relished it because I felt deprived growing up poor and now I can pay for a lavish lifestyle. Then I became a mom and had to re-think my way of life.
That’s one of the reason why I changed my blog from The Weekend Traveller to Girl From The Barrio. I’m in a point where I’m slowly trying to find my way back to that simple life on the island. Of course that doesn’t mean going back to basics, moving to a tiny house (grew up in one, never going back), not buying clothes for a decade or ditching our car. If you have to humble brag about those things, you’re in a privileged position already.
What I mean is a life of less consumerism, with less desire for worldly possessions or achievements but leaning towards a more socially-connected lifestyle. I really believe that the only solution to the problems we have now, from climate-change to the wealth-gap, is consuming less and desiring less, taming our greed even if we are biologically-wired to consume.
Just never expect me to go back to basics, ever again.