A Normal Person’s Guide to Living Sustainably

Over the past year or so, Jonathan and I have slowly integrated more sustainable choices into our day-to-day life. By that, I mean we’ve tried to use stuff that has no or substantially less plastic packaging with simpler, “cleaner” ingredients, we’ve simplified our routines, and we’ve sought to support smaller, responsible businesses. We have a combination of reasons for doing so (which I’ll discuss below), and it’s been a work-in-progress, but it’s been a net positive for us in a multitude of ways.

I should preface this by saying I’m not a hippie, I’m not “crunchy” or “granola” or anything like that. I do still use bleach around the house, have toilet paper, and maintain a medicine cabinet with regular drugstore medication. But, there are a lot of little changes that we’ve made that produce a whole lot less trash and are a whole lot better for our own bodies, the welfare of the people employed in making the products, and the local landscape and waterways. The perfect “zero waste” lifestyle is impossible, but it is good to cut down on the amount of single-use plastic you use (that’s why it’s the first “R” in reduce, reuse, recycle!). It’s easy to go overboard and make sustainable life choices into an idol, though, and like any other form of self-righteousness, that’s a false religion. It’s not about proving how much better you are than other people; instead, it’s about using the freedom we have in Christ to serve our neighbor and be good stewards of the things given to us.

What does it mean to “live sustainably”?

By “living sustainably,” I mean making consumer choices that do the following things:

  • support small, family businesses so families and communities can thrive
  • use ingredients/raw materials that are safe for the people using and making the products
  • don’t harm the natural environment in the communities where they are made or disposed of
  • come from secure, ethical chains of production that are resilient to sudden change, so that you’ll be resilient to sudden change, too!

Why do this?

It was several things for Jonathan and me. Primarily, as Christians, it’s important to be good stewards and to love your neighbor. The information coming out about Uyghur concentration camps and forced labor links to major companies really put things into perspective: it’s not right to give money to companies that use slave labor! By supporting small businesses, you help families and communities prosper. Further, it’s becoming more and more obvious that plastic recycling isn’t a viable long-term solution—this whole sustainable thing was first set off when the town Jonathan and I are from announced they were ending their recycling program because it was too expensive to continue. That’s really when I realized how much plastic we were producing. Mankind was given dominion over the land and the animals, and trying to keep the land and seas clean is part of that. There’s also the financial side of things; a lot of the sustainable stuff is about streamlining the number of products you use. Though sometimes it costs a little more upfront to purchase a more natural product, we’ve found that they work better and last longer than the old stuff we were using, meaning we save money long-term. Also, it encourages us to work smarter and harder with the stuff we’ve already got, rather than just buying a new cleaner or cream or gadget to use and then toss. Simplifying our routines has resulted in less red on the ledger, and less mess around the house, too. All of that means we have more money and time to spend on the things that matter most.

Additionally, from a “Classically Conservative” (à la Roger Scruton) position, we live in a partnership “between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” We have been given such magnificent places to live and work, and we ought to maintain those places so our children and grandchildren can also enjoy them. We miss the point when we talk about “saving the planet” or “the environment”—no one person can actually do that. But, one person can make a difference in their local community, helping to keep it a clean, healthful place to live, filled with local wildlife and real nature.

Finally, and perhaps most pragmatically, Jonathan and I both have allergies and sensitivities to some of the stuff that’s in more conventional household products. Jonathan is allergic to sodium-lauryl-sulfate (SLS), a foaming agent that’s found in everything from shampoo to toothpaste to shaving cream. We noticed that Jonathan was getting these horrible canker sores and really aggravated acne from using different toiletries that contained SLS; once we switched, it all stopped. It’s extremely difficult to avoid it entirely, so we’ve opted to prioritize sulfate-free, especially in our hair and skincare, and use more naturally sourced/less processed alternatives when it can’t be completely avoided. Additionally, I am really sensitive to a lot of skincare and makeup—I had to completely overhaul my entire face routine after my moisturizer, eye cream, foundation, and concealer all started making my face burn! After switching to “clean” beauty products, not only has my face stopped burning (hooray), but I’ve also had healthier skin in general, with less acne and way fewer styes.

Sustainability is ultimately about stewardship, not one-upmanship.

Sustainable Solutions

A quick note: none of these are affiliate links. I have no idea how to do that, and I’m not really interested in making a commission off stuff anyway. These are just suggestions for things you can do on your own or types of things you can purchase—and I’d love to hear what you do, too!

Household Cleaning

Dishes: Refillable dish soap + Swedish dishcloths + beechwood scrubby things

One of the first (and easiest) things I switched over was my dish washing stuff. Our apartment doesn’t have a dishwasher, so we switched to a refillable glass thing of dish soap, Swedish dishcloths, and bamboo pot-scrubbers. Fair warning: in my experience, natural dish soap generally does not work with conventional sponges, so you kind of have to go the full nine yards on this one.

We use Cleancult’s refillable dish soap dispenser and get their dish soap refills about once every two months (it lasts FOREVER!). The dispensers hold a lot more soap than they look like on first glance, because they’re shaped like a triangle; I always freak out when we “go through a lot” in the first week or two, but the rate that the soap sinks slows down once it gets to the wider bottom-half. They’ve also just introduced some new scents to play around with, too, which is fun.

Additionally, because you need natural dish cleaning implements to make full use of the natural dish soap (it doesn’t suds-up like conventional dish soap), I use Swedish dishcloths. You can find them practically everywhere now, and with every possible pattern imaginable. I got mine from swededishcloths.com because I liked the happy cow ones. 🙂 The cloths are made of tree pulp, so they’re compostable! Also, you can run them through the washing machine, boil them, or clean them using whatever cleaning stuff you use around the house when they get gross. They last forever, and are a fantastic way to replace regular dishwashing stuff, as well as use in place of a sponge or paper-towel. I use the kitchen one like I’d use a kitchen clean-up sponge on the stove top, and I have a seperate one for cleaning off the counters in the bathroom.

I also use a natural pot brush, which you can find all over, though I got mine from Package Free Store. It’s made of beechwood and union fiber and is like the best thing ever. It cuts through stuck-on crud better than anything else I’ve ever used. Seriously. Keep it dry so it doesn’t get super cracked—mine is cracked, but it doesn’t affect its ability to be a mean, green, cleaning machine. They also seem to last forever. I’m still on my first one. Did I mention they’re extremely inexpensive, too? Win-win-win.

General cleaning and hand soap: Fizzy tablet magic

Over the past several months, I’ve been replacing the hand soap around the house and the everyday cleaners I use with Blueland, which is a subscription program where you get some really heavy-duty reusable, refillable bottles one time and some fizzy tablets every couple of months (all in paper, compostable/recyclable packaging). Fill the bottle up with hot water, pop in a tab, let it fizz, and boom, you’ve got hand soap, bathroom cleaner, multi-purpose spray, or glass cleaner. They also carry laundry stuff and dish stuff, too. I like how much plastic it cuts out of my trash can, and I also like how easy it is to store! If you like to make sure you’re not going to unexpectedly run out of cleaning stuff, this is a good brand to check out.

Laundry: Biodegradable laundry pods

Laundry was really tricky to figure out because of Jonathan’s issues with SLS. We finally settled on Dropps, which use a more naturally-sourced relative of SLS that’s found in coconuts (it’s in a lot of the stuff we use, too). I use the stain and odor formula to fight exercise/St. Louis summer stink. I’m curious about their oxi-booster things, though I haven’t tried them yet. They’re also a subscription service, which is nice. If you wash with cold water like us, you’ll want to make sure to use the little mesh baggie so it dissolves fully. (Full disclosure: the zipper on mine broke off, but it still works fine so I still use it.)

Bathroom stuff: Safe scouring stuff

Our apartment is a bit older, so sometimes the porcelain fixtures start to look nasty. I found this stuff called Bon Ami, which is just an old-school scouring agent. It’s hypoallergenic, only has five ingredients, and is SUPER cheap: I think I paid less than $2.00 for it at the store.

Literally everything else: vinegar, baking soda, and/or lemon juice

We also use a lot of white vinegar around the house—it’s great for cleaning stainless steel cookware (I just bring it to a boil, let it cool, then wash as normal). I also use it to clean out my retainers (ha!), toothbrush, razor, and shower curtain liner. Baking soda is also great to cleaning off gunk; I’ve used it on the little baking tray in our toaster oven a few times. I’ve heard good things about lemon juice, too, though I have less experience with that.

Bathtime

All the hairs on your head: Bar shampoo and conditioner

Jonathan and I both use bar shampoo and I use bar conditioner from Ethique, a New Zealand brand that’s totally plastic-free, all natural ingredients, and has some really cool stuff working directly with family farms for their ingredients. Also, Target has started carrying their stuff! I use Mintasy shampoo and the Guardian conditioner, which really helps my weirdly dry-and-oily hair. Ethique recommends putting them in a place where they’ll stay dry and offer in-shower storage containers (which we call “soap houses”), which does help them keep their longevity. We both really like them, though it’s a little strange getting used to them. They also seem pretty easy to travel with, which is neat. There’s actually a lot of bar shampoos out there, and I’ve also heard about people making their own, which is a little too adventurous for me at the moment, but sounds interesting!

Body + shaving cream: Bar soap

Body wash stuff is probably the easiest thing to get with zero plastic and clean ingredients: regular old bar soap. We have a friend who makes his own soap, which is FANTASTIC, but until Dan goes public with his business, Ethique also makes good bar soap that lasts forever. (We like the pumice, tea tree, and spearmint one.)

I’d also check out getting a little soap stand (we use a bamboo one, so it’ll be a little sturdier in the slippery shower) and a soap saver bag, which helps you get the most out of your soap and adds some ~exfoliation~ to your soap experience. Or something. Both have helped us get more out of the bar soap we use.

Shaving: all-metal razors

Jonathan and I both use all-metal razors and switch out the blades, which not only keeps a TON of plastic out of the trash, but also saves us a whole bunch of money. Since we obviously have very different shaving needs, we needed different razors. He uses the Albatross flagship butterfly razor (and also their shaving soap), and I use the Leaf razor. A year’s worth of blades for Jonathan costs only $25.00, which is pretty fantastic. Mine is pretty close to that. And, both do blade recycling programs, which is also super cool. I was nervous about switching to “safety razors” but we both knick ourselves way less often and save a ton of money to boot.

Shiny teeth: Tablet toothpaste and plastic-free toothbrushes

One of the strangest things I’ve switched over to is tablet toothpaste and wood/bamboo toothbrushes. There’s a lot of different options on the market for sustainable oral care (including old school tooth powder or metal toothpaste tubes), but I use Bite. It’s really strange switching to “tooth bits” you have to bite down on, but it’s been pretty fun, too! Bite also makes floss and mouthwash, too, though I haven’t tried it yet. It cuts down on those really hard to deal with soft plastic tubes, and it also means a lot of mess in the bathroom.

Wash your face: Face soap

I’ve struggled to find a face soap that I really like since I was a teenager. I’ve finally found one that I like, once again thanks to Ethique: I use their Bliss Bar, which is for dry skin. It’s fantastic. I use it twice a day, and my face feel clean and hydrated (not all tight and dried out like it did with other cleansers!) all day afterward. It’s awesome.

Smell less bad: Bar deodorant

I’ve been on the no-aluminum, no-antiperspirant train for a LONG time, but I recently made the leap to package-free deodorant, also from Ethique. It’s a little funny rubbing a square on my underarms every morning, but it works great and is free from baking soda, too, which can cause a lot of problems for people too. Like any aluminum-free deodorant, you might need to reapply if you’re doing heavy activity, since it doesn’t actually stop you from sweating (which is good—you need to sweat!). I keep mine in an old jar so it stays fresh and keeps its scent.

Lady Faces

Lotion, but for your face: Bar moisturizer

I have very dry skin, and have struggled for years to find a good moisturizer for my face. Again, Ethique came to the rescue with the Perfector moisturizer bar. You get three little lotion bars in the set, and they have been holding up really well so far. My face feels healthy, which is always something I struggled to find in moisturizers. It doesn’t make my face oily, either! I keep mine in a little Ball jar to keep them fresh.

Acne even though you’re a grown-up: Roll-on thing

Even though I’m an adult, I still get acne. Boo! I have struggled for a while to get it under control, and I’m realizing now that a lot of it had to do with being stuck in a cycle of over-drying and over-moisturizing. Remedying that has helped a lot, but so has this roll-on acne treatment from Plant Therapy. It’s an oil blend, and I don’t really understand how it works, but it does! (I’ve also used their wart treatment before and it works great, too!)

My face looks weird: Refillable pressed-powder foundation

After my concealer started making my face burn, I decided to streamline my routine and go with more natural products. I like using a powder foundation as opposed to a liquid one; I prefer a light coverage makeup, and Alima Pure Pressed Foundation with Rosehip Complex has been perfect. I love the coverage and the blending, and it doesn’t make my face feel gross. Though it’s not completely plastic-free, it is refillable, which cuts down on a good bit of waste, at least. It’s also pretty competitively priced, especially compared to other “clean” beauty brands.

Crayons, but for your face: Color for lips, cheeks, and lids

I LOVE a multitasking makeup purchase, and those neat lip/cheep/lid crayons are a great example of that. I like Axiology’s Of the Earth Lip-to-Lid Balmies quite a lot. I use the sort of neutral-browny one for eyeshadow and go back and forth between the pink and the red for my lip color and blush. They seem really small, but it’s because they are packaging-free and are actually normal size.

Grandma mascara: Cake pigment

For my mascara, I decided to go old school and try cake mascara from Bésame. I haven’t completely gotten the hang of it yet, but the gist is you gently wet the pigment cake (I keep an eye dropper with my makeup stuff to do that), swirl around the brush, and then apply as normal. It’s a pretty big change and I’m not totally used to it, but it’s been a fun adventure so far.

Man Faces

Men have crazy hair: Hair and facial hair styling products

My husband has also helped spearhead our sustainability project, and one of the ways he’s done that has been through his styling products. My husband absolutely loves Lox Hair Wax Co., an American-made, veteran-owned small business that makes all natural hair products with sustainable packaging. He styles his hair and chops sideburns using their Styling Cream and Beard Oil. They smell wonderful and don’t aggravate his acne or allergies, which is a home-run in our house.

Gotta smell good too: Aftershave balm

My husband had issues with razor burn and knicks, and also tries to keep his face naturally moisturized for his acne problems, and for all of that he also uses Lox’s Bayonet Butter Aftershave Balm. It’s fantastic, and it’s a good way to get him to remember to moisturize his face.

Food Time

Keep things fresh: reusable containers and beeswax wraps

Food storage was a big source of plastic in our house, but no longer! We’ve switched to all glass and ceramic food storage, primarily Corningware and Pyrex. We also use beeswax food wraps—which you can find lots of places, but we bought from Package Free Shop—which are super nifty, great for the fridge or on-the-go.

Lunch to-go: Metal lunch pails

With two full time students, we carry lunch out a good deal. We’ve switched to this cool little metal lunch pails, which you can find all over the place, though ours are from World Market.

Hydration nation: Reusable bottles and mugs

Jonathan is an Eagle Scout, so he’s a big proponent of hydrating. His go-to water bottle is the classic Nalgene, which, yes, is plastic, but they hold up for forever and considerably reduce the number of disposable bottles you go through. I’ve tried other water bottles and this has been my favorite. I have a really bad habit of dropping water bottles, so the glass ones are out for me, and the metal ones always get smashed up from, well, being dropped constantly.

Miscellaneous

Mightier than the plastic sword: Refillable fountain pen

I go through SO MANY PENS. As I enter the phase of my grad work that involves less in-class, on-campus work and more at-home, read-a-book-until-my-eyes-fall-out work, and looking into the future where I will likely be working from home in some capacity, I thought the refillable fountain pen might be a good option for me. Jonathan loves him a good fountain pen and highly recommends the website JetPens, which is where I got mine. I have a TWSBI ECO-T in mint blue, but they’ve got like a million different ones to pick from. It writes amazingly, and it really encourages me to have better penmanship, a very recent development for me.

Keep your phone safe: Compostable and recycled phone cases

Phones need protecting, but phone cases usually end up in landfills. Not with Pela! What’s super cool with them is they also will take back their own or competitors’ phone cases and recycle them into new ones, which is pretty neat. My iPhone 7 needed a new case, and I’ve been really happy with theirs. If only they’d carry one for the Light Phone, which is what Jonathan now uses (and I plan to switch to once this phone ceases to be usable).

Bye-bye bugs: Peppermint spray

I learned this one from a friend’s mom (Thanks Mrs. A!): to keep bugs and critters out of your home without spraying a whole bunch of chemicals everywhere, try spraying a mixture of water and peppermint oil around the door frames and in the corners of your house. Bugs don’t like peppermint; they don’t really have “noses” but they don’t like the smell and will generally stay out.

Another worm’s treasure: Composting

The latest thing that we’ve made an attempt at is composting. It’s a little weird doing it in an apartment, but composting is surprisingly easy and low-maintenance, according to this article Jonathan showed me. We usually keep our things in empty jars and then take them to the composter on campus, though you can also just start a pile in your backyard.

I read therefore I am: Yes, I still buy physical books

Jonathan and I do love a good book (or, like, hundreds). Jonathan has been on the Kindle train for a LONG time, and he tried to get me into them for YEARS. I used to have a Nook when I was a kid, and though I liked some elements of it (looking up words easily is a huge plus when you like nineteenth century Brit Lit), it just didn’t really jive with me long-term. Jonathan kept trying to convince me to try the Kindle, and I held my Luddite nose up in the air at it for a long time.

Over the 2020 Covid Quarantine, however, we went to stay with my parents and I had to lug a suitcase full of books home. It was pretty annoying. And I still didn’t have everything I wanted! Jonathan finally convinced me, and I decided to spend a little of my stimulus check getting a Kindle Paperwhite. Let me just say: I have been win over. I love it. I don’t read everything on it, mind you—I still love a good physical book, especially if it’s something really meaningful, a textbook, or, of course, a signed copy. But it really is great for your “reading while out” books, and the cost savings in ebooks is really quite staggering, especially if you like older stuff or are an avid Kindle couponer like me. I also got into Audible back in January, which has been a great way for this grad student to cram in some extra book time while doing chores around the house, driving, grading, or doing homework.

I do still buy or (grab off the seminary’s free shelf) a good number of physical books. I really like getting used books, though, mainly for the price savings, though I did just get a new (and signed!) copy of the wonderful English Pastoral by farmer and author James Rebanks. (Sidebar: I had a hiccup with my PayPal after my credit card information was compromised, and let me just say that I had the BEST customer service experience I’ve ever had with the lovely man from Waterstones on our transatlantic phone call. It literally made my day.)

Conclusion

I have been pleasantly surprised again and again by our little sustainability project. It’s saved us money, kept a whole lot of trash out of the landfill, and is helping us get more connected with small businesses and more directly support communities at home and abroad.

I’ve also seen how easy it is to go overboard with this stuff, though. You can’t become a Pharisee about this stuff—or anything else, for that matter. It’s not about being better than other people or justifying yourself by your consumer choices; it’s about caring about your neighbor and being a good steward through the sorts of products you buy or the things you do around your house.

What do you do to cut down on waste, save money, or support local/small businesses?

Published by Molly Lackey

Molly Lackey is a wife, author, and church historian. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Alabama with a triple major in History, German, and Latin, and she is pursuing a Master of Arts in Early Modern European History, with an emphasis on the Reformation in Germany, from Saint Louis University. Molly has contributed to Words of Strength and Promise: Devotions for Youth (CPH, 2021), has written for Higher Things Magazine, and has appeared on KFUO. She enjoys reading and talking theology with other laypeople, creating art, and drinking tea with her husband.

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