REFUSE is at the top of the Waste Reducing Principles and, I’ve realised, for good reason. The more I look at ways to reduce our carbon footprint, the more I realise that the secret to eliminating many waste streams and carbon impacts is to simply refuse.
Just Say No
It is not often that we take a moment in our busy lives to stop and think. To consider whether the automatic and habitual things we do and the assumptions we live by are still serving us and our goals. Our family footprint project has given me a reason to reflect on the choices we make. That has often led to challenging the status quo. And that has, in turn, led to realising that sometimes we can simply say “no”.
On a concrete level, we can say “no” to things we don’t need. We can politely decline the free goodie bag or food sample in a plastic cup. Perhaps request experience gifts or no gift at all for our birthday. Or cut down on junk and fast food or cut it out altogether. We take a reusable cup with us to the coffee shop. I don’t mean to say we deprive ourselves of things we really desire. Nor the things that will add value to our lives. Rather it is just that we decline the things that slip mindlessly into our lives, that add no value – or worse, diminish our quality of life and are in conflict with our values.
Find the Right Balance
There are, of course, things in our life that we do need. There are also things that we want, which is fine too. Perhaps, though, there are not as many things as we thought if we take the time to really think about it.
First up, perhaps a necessary task can be completed with less than we think? Do we really need a different cleaning product for every cleaning job? Or would a simple natural cleaning kit do most things? Would a ‘capsule wardrobe’ be sufficient? Do the kids need so many toys?
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Individual circumstances will determine the right balance. There is also no need to be ‘minimalist’ but it is about making conscious choices about what you need and want in your life.
Make Conscious Choices
It may be that, during this process, we need to challenge some long-held assumptions. We slipped into being a two-car household a little by chance. We adopted my husband’s mother’s car after she died. Once we got used to having it and we found a number of reasons to justify it.
Then things changed and some of those reasons were no longer valid. However, we didn’t go back and challenge the assumption that we actually needed two cars. And then one of our cars was written off in a hailstorm… That forced us to really reconsider what had become the status quo. We did without the second car for 12 months. In that time we discussed it often, finally coming to the conclusion that a second car would be helpful. Just for a few years. Were it not for the fact we now have young drivers in the household with busy, independent lives, we would have continued with one. I would prefer to only have one car – or even none at all. As ’empty nesters’ we will easily manage to ‘refuse’ a second car. For now, however, I feel more comfortable with the arrangement we have because we have made the decision consciously. Imperfect? Yes. Unconscious? No.
I’m sure there are many other assumptions we hold that we have not yet uncovered. My point is that sometimes we continue to do or use things because that is what we have always done. We assume they are necessities but in actual fact, we could happily do without. It is worth using fresh eyes, with or without a precipitating event such as a hailstorm, to look at your stuff and decide if you want it or not.
Refuse the Weight of Expectation
At other times we might hold on to things or continue with ways of doing things because of the expectations of others.
School stationery is a good example of this. Schools request a, sometimes long, list of stationery to be sent to school with your child each year. I have long resisted buying everything new but have always supplied what has been requested. It is only in recent years (with over a decade of experience!) that I have started to question the school’s expectations. My children will be equipped but not over-equipped! I’ll top up their books when they need them (and they won’t be covered in plastic). I refuse to buy twelve exercise books at the start of the year just because the school estimated that is what they would need.
In actual fact, last year, my boys’ high school did not issue a stationery list citing waste concerns. They just said to send them with the basics and teachers would individually request any extra requirements. Hooray for some sense! I like to think that I played a part in this initiative having expressed my concern about the wastefulness of some requested items the previous year. A little everyday activism on my part.
I’m sure there are many examples of times we do things, buy things, keep things because of the expectations of others. I suggest that sometimes we need to identify those expectations and decide whether we accept those ideas for ourselves.
Refuse Peer Pressure
Finally, there are societal, cultural or peer norms that we might feel we need to adhere to. Again, it is about being conscious of the pressures and expectations on us from these outside forces and choose for ourselves whether to buy into them or not. We can weigh up the advantages of belonging to and identifying with these groups against the ways in which they conflict with our other values. Fast fashion is an example of this. Many of us want to look stylish and on-trend, buying new clothes frequently and throwing away out-of-date items each season, or more often. At the same time, the social and environmental costs of fabric production, garment manufacture and textile waste are now well known. We need to work out for ourselves the balance between outside pressures and our personal values. We can refuse to buy into them if we want to.
So when it comes to REFUSE, my message is to be conscious. It isn’t about going without unless we choose to. It isn’t about reducing the quality of our lives – it may well enhance it. The principle of REFUSE is about consuming consciously and questioning our choices, occasionally taking the time to step outside of our habitual and automatic behaviours and think for a moment.