Sustainable living is this broad, global concept, and everyone has a different idea about what it means to live sustainably.
There’s consuming less, in general. There’s moving away from fossil fuels. There’s consuming things that are more sustainably made. There’s consuming things that are more locally made. There’s choosing things that are long-lasting. There’s choosing things that are recyclable, upcyclable, reusable or repurposable. There’s choosing compostables, or disposables that break down more quickly. Every approach has its advocates, and everyone one has their reasons.
But it really comes down to the choices that we make in our everyday lives. It’s really about living simply, reducing what we consider to be needs, and making the best use of each of the resources that we have.
…and that you make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, even as we instructed you; that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and may have need of nothing.(1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, KJV)
But there are an enormous lot of variables to take into consideration in this approach to life! Not everyone can farm. Not everyone can drive an electric car. Is it better to buy organic if it’s imported, or to buy local if it’s not organic? If our sustainable-living choices cost more, and we have to commute farther to a job with higher pay, is that really a more sustainable lifestyle? And sometimes “sustainable” off-grid homes use so many resources in solar panels and high-end materials to support a luxury modern lifestyle that it’s hard to see how they are supporting sustainable living in any way at all! If we navigate all these variables and choices and decisions on our own, sustainable living begins to seem like a bit of an unattainable goal.
Instead, in our family, we choose to simply do everything by prayer. There are far too many variables in this complex life for us to figure them all out ourselves…But if we seek to honor God, He will guide us in the best choices according to His perfect wisdom and His eternal plan, and that is the most sustainable living we can possibly hope for!
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.(1 Timothy 6:6-8, KJV)
There’s always a lot more that we could do…But by doing everything by prayer, seeking to honor the Lord the best we can by working diligently with our hands and being good stewards of all He has given us, we continue to do our small part!
the little everyday things
These are some of the things that we do to live more simply and sustainably. Maybe you’ll find one or two ideas that will be a good fit in your own life!
There are a lot of small choices that we make every day to use less, waste less, and be better consumers.
We use muslin napkins instead of paper towels. We use tea-towels and beeswaxed-muslin wraps instead of plastic-wrap. We buy dry goods like rice, beans, oats and flour in bulk, a couple of times a year, to save a little money and cut down on packaging waste. We use hand-made wooden bowls, spoons, and furniture, instead of things made by factories.
We try to buy long-lasting clothing made of natural materials, like cotton t-shirts, canvas workpants, flannel winter shirts, and wool sweaters. We definitely make use of hand-me-downs. When our clothes wear out, we first try to patch them. I even darn socks whenever I can! When we can’t patch them, we try to use them for work clothes. When they’re beyond all use, we dispose of them, knowing that at least natural fibers will take a lot less time to break down in a landfill. We’re not trying to look like ragamuffins, and we’re not trying to be cheap. But we are trying to make the best possible use of something that took resources to make, and resources to buy.
We try to make the best use of our food. If we eat chicken, I make sure to also use the bones and skin for broth. When we eat root vegetables like turnips, beets, and radishes, we also eat the greens. We eat homemade a lot ~ even things like bread, pasta, cookies, mayonnaise, salad dressing ~ to reduce cost, enjoy better ingredients, and cut down on packaging waste. We don’t leave food on our plates. We eat leftovers. If bread goes stale, we make bread pudding or croutons. Really, we just try not to buy things that we can make ourselves, and we try not to waste the things that we’ve made or purchased.
When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.(John 6:12, KJV)
And of course, being on a small farm, what little food we do scrap, we compost!
home and personal care
Over the years, we’ve ended up making a lot of our own household and personal care products, for a lot of reasons.
First, they’re actually really expensive! Think about how much you end up spending over the course of a year on those little things that are only a couple of dollars at a time: deodorant, toothpaste, soap, face cleanser, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, chapstick, laundry detergent and cleaning spray.
Instead, we buy a few bulk ingredients, and mix them up ourselves. Using beeswax, coconut oil, peppermint essential oil, eucalyptus essential oil, baking soda, rubbing alcohol, washing soda, borax, sodium hydroxide (for bar soap), and vinegar, we make most of our cleaning and personal care products for everyday use. We save a little money, we save a lot of packaging, and we save a lot of weird chemical ingredients going into our bodies and washing out with our water.
Lotion & Chapstick
For a basic everyday lotion and chapstick I mix 1 part beeswax with 3 parts coconut oil, stirring frequently as it cools to keep it incorporated. It’s quite a thick lotion, and you do have to give it a minute to soak in, but it absorbs without any greasy residue and is especially great for dry winter lips.
I use home-made bar soap to scrub my laundry during hand-washing, and when the bar gets too thin to use, I dissolve the remnants in 2 cups of hot water. Once dissolved, I add 1/4 cup of borax and 1/4 cup of washing soda, and pour it into a 50-ounce detergent bottle which I fill with hot water.
For a lotion that eases stuffy noses and soothes scrapes and bug bites, I mix about a dozen drops of peppermint essential oil with 4 ounces of coconut oil, simply adding drops until the fragrance reaches the strength that I want.
I add coconut oil to baking soda to form a paste, and add a few drops of peppermint oil for freshness and anti-bacterial.
For all of my regular household cleaning, I add 1/4 cup of vinegar to a 32-ounce spray bottle and fill with water. I add about 30 drops of a half-and-half blend of peppermint and eucalyptus essential oils for fragrance and disinfecting.
For my deodorant, I fill an 8-ounce spray bottle with rubbing alcohol and add about a dozen drops of a half-and-half blend of peppermint and eucalyptus essential oils for fragrance and anti-bacterial. My husband prefers a mixture of baking soda and rosemary-water, which forms a paste that seems to work best for him.
We make two kinds of home-made soap (soon to be available for sale). We use our woodstove ashes and olive oil to make a soft-soap, which we use for hand-soap, face-soap, shower-soap, shampoo, and dish soap. We use sodium hydroxide, olive oil, coconut oil and essential oils to make bar soaps, which we use for hands, faces, showers, shampoo, and laundry detergent.
Electricity is one of the most costly resources in our world today. And our society has grown accustomed to using a lot of it!
In our own small way, we try to keep our electrical usage to a minimum.
We have very few appliances. We have a well-pump (which is what provides our running water), a hot water heater, and a chest freezer. We have electric lights with LED bulbs, a box fan for those few hot summer days, laptops and iPads and a cable modem for personal use as well as business use and homeschooling, and a weather station that lets us monitor the temperature and conditions at several locations around the homestead. We have a propane two-burner stove.
We don’t have a washer or dryer. I do all of our laundry by hand, and we dry on a clothesline during warm months, and on a drying rack by the woodstove in winter. We don’t have a dishwasher. We don’t have a refrigerator. Instead, we use the chest freezer to make ice for a Yeti cooler. We don’t have a microwave. We don’t have a TV.
We have a switch on our water heater, and only turn it on when we’re using it. We actually tested this out against the utility company’s recommendation that leaving it on all the time was more efficient. We use less than half as much electricity each month by turning off our water heater between uses.
We heat our home with just a woodstove, with only wood that we have harvested off of our own land ourselves. Right now, all of the wood that we use for heat comes from clearing that was necessary for other farm and homestead activities, so we’re not even taking down any trees to use only as firewood.
We cool our home with open windows! Of course, we can get away with that all summer long, up here in Maine, with the occasional use of a box fan when the air gets very warm and still.
We drive a big truck. We drive a big truck because it’s what we can use for every aspect of our life. It fits all five of us, it allows us to carry cargo, and it tows our 5 x 8 trailer. We can use it to travel to craft fairs, to transport tools and materials, maybe to deliver custom furniture one day, to travel across-country with all of our worldly possessions should we ever have to do that again, and to help our neighbors when we have the opportunity.
It is relatively gas-efficient for a large truck, but that is not very gas-efficient. Instead, we drive it as efficiently as possible! Truly, we spend a lot of time right here on the homestead. My husband drives to a few meetings a month at the town office, a few miles away, but for the most part, our own errands are only about once every week-to-ten-days, and we always try to consolidate errands into a single trip to save time and driving. A few times a year we take a longer drive up to Bangor to re-supply on some bulk items, and we make short day trips for craft fairs or outings as the Lord leads us.
It also bears thinking about that having a single vehicle, instead of having one vehicle for good gas mileage and a second vehicle for utility, is actually a much more conservative approach. The environmental cost of the lower gas mileage over the life of a single vehicle doesn’t even begin to compare to the environmental impact of manufacturing that second vehicle!
There are lots more environmentally-friendly vehicle choices. But when we took our decision to the Lord in prayer, He showed us one choice that was right for all the aspects of the life that He had in store for us, and so we balance all the utility and functionality of a big truck with stewardship responsibility to take good care of it and use it wisely.
Wood is a resource like any other – it’s abundant when you begin, but if you’re careless, it is quickly depleted!
We heat our home with a woodstove. Instead of taking down hard-wood trees and splitting large logs into small pieces of firewood, we harvest our firewood from everything that we are already clearing, whether for the farm, or dead-and-damaged out of the forest. We work our way down a tree by separating all the useful woodworking wood first. Branches that are too small or damaged for woodworking are what becomes firewood. This results in a mix of hard and soft woods for our woodstove, which some people don’t prefer. The wood is a bit less efficient in heat, and we have to clean out our stove-pipe twice a year. But these are small disadvantages for us, compared to the great advantage in using scrap wood for heat, instead of good wood that could have served a more functional purpose, like furniture or household goods.
We’ve also found that we are able to make a wonderful soft-soap from the ashes, even with the mix of hard and soft woods, and so this one small choice is much more sustainable in our way of life.
So far, we haven’t had to cut a single tree just for firewood, and we still have many years’ worth of downed-and-damaged wood in the forest awaiting us. This means that our small forest can support our daily-life use for many years to come.
And if we continue to be good stewards, even planting and nurturing as we harvest, our small forest may even be able to support daily-life use for many generations to come!
The Lord has led us on a journey to live a homestead life, to learn to do more things by the work of our hands, though we were both raised in cities all of our lives.
We are farming, establishing about one acre of farm beds in which to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables, hoping to raise enough for our family, enough to share, maybe one day enough for a farmstand, too. We like to keep it simple and nutritious, and hope to be able to do a lot of our farming with perennials and with our own seed.
And there are many good things already on this land that God has given us, and so we do our best to learn about foraging as we go along, as well. We have already found so many native plants to be of great use, including elderberries, chokecherries, pineapple weed, brambles, wild blueberries, dandelions and sorrel.
Since early settlers to this area planted apple trees, both on purpose and inadvertently, we have a bit of an old wild-apple orchard which we are slowly rehabilitating, and to which we continue to add fruit and nut trees that are hardy to this area.
We clear by hand, we till by hand, we plant by hand, we deal with pests by hand, we harvest by hand…We plan crop rotations, we learn about compatible plantings, we compost, and we are learning how to keep bees, in order to not only use the land, but use it well and sustainably. We try to make the decisions today that will be best for the whole homestead for years to come, whether it’s what to plant or what to clear or what to build or what to raise.
There are a lot of little things, and we have a lot to learn…
A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.(Proverbs 16:9, KJV)
But we take it one day at a time, simply seeking to honor the Lord, and learning from Him to work with our hands!
Of course, the most important aspect of sustainable living is seeking God often in His word.
Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.(Deuteronomy 11:18-19, KJV)
As a family, we share the word of God often. The children share their memory verses first thing every morning; we say a prayer of thanksgiving and read from the Bible every time we sit down to a meal; and the last thing we do before bedtime is pray together as a family and read from the Bible. God’s word is where we encounter Him, and we treat it as such – as a reference, as a privilege, as the first place we turn when we have questions or when we are looking for comfort or when we simply want to be amazed at just how awesome our Father in heaven really is. We look for reminders of His word everywhere, in our daily activities, in the world around us, and in the things that we make.
The Lord leads us all along different paths. But He leads us all according to His one, perfect Way. If each of us does our small part to honor Him with the things that we do every day, I think we would find that we would be living the only truly sustainable lives, after all!
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.(John 10:10, KJV)