Lessons from Our Grandparents: Proven Habits of Personal Sustainability


It seems like yesterday that the SUV was a coveted status symbol and the sight of a compost bucket could elicit a raised eyebrow. As for drying clothes on the line in the backyard? Now that’s just…frugal.

That was then. This is now. With green issues at the fore (both economic and environmental), “going granny” isn’t such a bad idea. We can learn a lot from our older, wiser relatives. They had to make do when there was little to make of anything. Many of our elders – whether grandparents or parents – have lived through a Depression and at least one war. What can we learn from them? Here are 7 lessons.

- Save and reuse containers. It’s a completely practical way to reduce waste and go green. Why buy brand new Tupperware when a yogurt container will serve just as well? How about washing out empty spaghetti sauce jars and using them to store anything from nuts and grains in the pantry to nails and screws in the shed? (An overnight soak in water will help the paper label peel off.) There’s no end to what you can save and repurpose. You don’t have to be a packrat, but it pays to be practical.

- Line-dry laundry. No excuses! Line-drying is not just for summer. This is something you can do all year round. I’ve read stories of New York City women who would line-dry in the winter and bring stiff, frozen clothes inside for a final warm-up by the radiator. I’m not saying you have to be that extreme, but even a day outside to dry and then a final 15 minutes to fluff up in the dryer (which I do like for lint removal) can save a lot on your electric bill.

- Grow a Victory Garden. During World War II, regular citizens were called to grow food on their urban and suburban lots in order to reduce pressure on the public food supply. Well, with a food crisis looming on our horizon, now’s as good a time as any to tear up your front lawn and plant something edible instead. It’s an empowering practice to be part of the process of feeding yourself. If you’re busy or not much of a green thumb, just start small: container gardens on rooftops or balconies, growing herbs in your sunny kitchen window, or just a small garden bed with a few essentials to begin with. Getting to know the process of life that is all around you helps you appreciate your home and your habitat so much more. Even if you’re not worried about a crisis, the act of eating your own organic, local food is both healthy and green.

- Work with what you got. Surely you’ve heard the phrase: “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do or Do Without.” This doesn’t have to be some kind of austere punishment, but rather a call to creativity. It’s the concept of “touski,” where you only have a few ingredients left in the fridge or a few clean items left in your closet and you put together the finest meal or outfit that you never would have thought of before. From now on, rather than assuming you need to buy something now, look around at what you have and see if you can figure out an innovative, even artistic, way to do what you need to do.

- Staycation. For previous generations, hopping on an airplane or taking long road trips across the country weren’t such easy options. Take vacations closer to home; every region has a natural treasure worth visiting. Or spend time on the homefront with your family, playing games, catching up on lost time and relaxing right where you’re most comfortable.

- Buy Used. Swap meets, thrift-stores, and Craig’s List are all great places to find what you need. There’s no stigma these days – it’s considered practical and green. It’s just a way of people cycling perfectly good objects back into the product stream where someone else who needs it more will find it. Last week I found a HEPA air filtration unit at my local Goodwill for $14.99, and it works perfectly. Got kids? At the rate your little ones stain and grow out of their clothes, it’d be crazy not to buy them used. Household appliances? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen sturdy glass-jar blenders at swap meets for a mere $10. Give it a chance; you’ll be surprised at what you find.

- Toughen Up. We’re no longer in the day and age of cranking up the heater in the winter and wearing shorts around the house. Wear sweaters, socks and slippers to stay comfortable as you lower the thermostat. If you find yourself staying mostly in one or two rooms at certain times of the day, lower the thermostat even more and use efficient space heaters. Why heat the whole house when you’re not using it? This goes for summertime protocol as well: open windows, use window fans, and spritz yourself with cold water & peppermint oil to stay cool in the summer. A/C use on occasion is necessary, but try to limit it a bit.

We all might have to tighten our belts a bit over the coming days, but it’s really not a punishment; it’s an opportunity to tweak our lifestyles to a more sustainable model.

Image: mrhayata