As a mom living in this Western, North American consumer culture, but also the owner of a refillery and a goal to change things up for people and planet, I am working this year on a number of blog posts to put a few of the Sustainable Living stories I have worked on for Instagram into blog format. Last week I began posting about some holiday themes and elements that we partake in as a consumer culture, and how we can go about shifting them a bit to ensure we are decreasing our impact. The nice thing about a lot of the shifting decisions in looking at the holidays through a more sustainable lens is that it often costs a lot less, and involves editing to remove things that really aren't bringing joy to your family and this period of the year. If you're interested in a bit more reading on this, we wrote about it a couple of years ago in this blog post, as well.
So, revising traditions.
It can be a tough thing - perhaps it unravels some grief, or some anger, some happiness that then tugs on other difficult emotions. In my own journey (yes, I love to call these things journeys, because I never quite feel like the destination is reached, but things endlessly travel onward) towards some more meaning around the holidays, it became the search for less of what didn't feel right rather than the addition of more. I hated the expense and the debt that prevented a fun holiday in the months after, the piles of unnecessary/plastic/unwanted presents and wrapping that I knew would be waste very soon, overwhelm at the incoming amount of things that as the mom, I would be in charge of caring for, the feelings of emptiness in packed schedules and travelling and meeting everyone else's expectations, the exhaustion, the "too much."
And, as my sustainability mindset grew, it tainted the whole holiday 'fun' of a lot of the traditions. I saw the holiday pyjamas as a strange thing our first world family enjoyed that had been made in third world poverty by families that didn't get to live like ours. The advent calendars and pyramids of special box sets in every shop just looked like unnecessary single use plastics, my moments of holiday treating leading to plastics that would take centuries to break down into my future family member's water and landscapes. The glitter on the wrapping paper or the expensive thick foil bows that I was supposed to be wowed by suddenly seemed like something toxic for anyone to be around, let alone burn after or try to squish into the muck of a landfill. The holidays no longer felt good. But, in saying this, I don't regret that blindfold coming off, the realization hitting me - dare I say, the waking up (?) that happened as a result. The consumption in our culture is meant to be sleepy, without us really noticing that we are trading our time for more stuff, wondering why we aren't happy, but never really stopping the cycle or stepping out of it.
So, we rethought some traditions and in explaining the rethink, see how sustainability can be brought into the equation when making those consumption decisions.
An Example: Rethinking Advent
Advent is one of those holiday traditions that has roots in a religious thing, but has now become a tradition of consumption and it really feels like a "must have" thing. Advent just means to anticipate and look forward to Christmas; a preparation; and it involves lighting a candle each Sunday in advance of Christmas four times. I think sometimes it can be interesting to take what's happening in our time and set it back 100 years or so, and that can really highlight just how consumer-based we are now. So, Advent, 100 years ago, was the lighting of four candles inside a wreath or circle, and in my family (I think we can actually take this back even say 25 years to see the craze that is our lifestyle now) we just participated in this at church. It wasn't even a mandatory thing in the home. The idea was to prepare the spirit and our internal world, not eat chocolate. But now, we have to get each family member an advent calendar, and chocolate and candy (and even little plastic toys) have entered the picture, every chocolate company gets in on this, and it's all encased in single use plastics, to really ramp up what you need to buy.
Maybe the tradition is something you'd still love to do. And you definitely can. If this is something that speaks to you, there are a ton of ideas on Pinterest and reusable calendars out there that can be filled with your choice of item. We have done package free bath bombs (using seasonal scents from our shop's local maker; this helped make the home smell like Christmas without the artificial frag'd candles), puzzle pieces (luckily puzzles do often come in 24s), ideas from the 1000 hours outside organization or acts of kindness cards, leftover Halloween candy or bulk candy, or a mix of all of these things. We were able to get a cloth calendar with pockets almost ten years ago from a maker, and we are no longer consuming in the same way, but have switched the tradition to be more sustainable in considering the production, waste, and impact that occurs as a result of the tradition.
Another Rethink Example: Family Jammies
Holiday jams are another tradition that we can see a consumer boom in when just looking back a couple decades in my own life, but certainly when we look back 100 years. Most of the pyjamas made for the short period of the holidays (as many do donate these items immediately - see my picture below of the thrift shop in our area full of holiday pyjamas) are fast fashion based, of very poor quality and often made of plastic fabrics, and are made overseas in poor working conditions that affect our fellow humans and the earth negatively. But, it can be hard to opt out still. I remember a couple of years ago that I had already worked so hard at shifting some of my consumption, I still had a moment when I saw an Old Navy ad during Black Friday week of a family in the cutest plaid. I had filled my cart and checked out so fast I didn't even stop to consider the things I already knew. I felt terrible in the days it took to get the items shipped to me, feeling like I was never going to be able to do this, but also knowing these clothes were not going to make us feel like the people in the picture I had seen. On receiving the package, I shipped it back immediately (and yes, I know that fast fashion returns rarely actually make it to being resold/used). This ended up happening to me a few times when trying to break out of a fast fashion - buying without thinking, then returning it because I knew it wasn't part of the future I saw for my family. So, if you're trying to change some really hard things, know it is going to be a process and you don't have to be perfect. It does get easier over time!
Deciding whether this tradition is something that you feel you really need to do (is it just for a photo for the 'gram? Do you feel it will bring *true* happiness? Will you use these long term?) is a good first step. My husband and I opted out immediately. We want to be comfortable on Christmas, and our regular lounge wear was much preferred to me. We upcycled a few sweaters with some vintage holiday iron-ons and wore those a few times, but we didn't really like it, and actually just stopped and were happier like that. I didn't have to store these things, I didn't have to make sure they were washed, I didn't have to collect and put away one more thing. We are both happier as a result. And with our boys, we decided to keep the tradition, but revise it to be more sustainable. We choose jams that are not fast fashion, so generally that means they are a little less theme-y, and can be worn until they grow out of them, and still passed on. I was lucky to find some second hand Mini Mioche zippy jams on Poshmark this year, and they will be gifted those. Last year, we bought from a local maker a set of grow-with-me lounge suits, and they still wear those as pyjamas, comfy weekend cloths, clothes when they are not well and need something soft, but also to school as a sweater. Rethinking how long something can be used for, how it is made, and how it will break down, is a great place to start with this tradition.
Do what works for you and things that truly add meaning, not what we are told to buy to add the meaning
So, I think in presenting some of the questions that come up about traditions we are supposed to partake in to keep up with everything and not quite think about, I hope you can see some elements that can work for you. Choosing at the point of consumption based on sustainability can help begin the shift. Opting out of consumer trends is a radical thing to do, so go for it! We have found savings in opting out of certain things has made choosing sustainably in the categories we do care about accessible.
In closing these thoughts for the day, I challenge us to all rethink our traditions - for Christmas, a seasonal event, or really any time of the year. What is it that we are trying to find, and what is the meaning? It often isn't found in the stuff, and can often be found in the moments we spend with others, the happiness found in choosing a simpler life and choosing for ourselves rather than a huge system that needs us to be unconscious and always spending inside, and bringing joy to those in our community and those we see this time of year.