What Have Our Grandparents Taught Us About Living Sustainably?

My great grandmother was amazing at handicrafts, she was particularly skilled at knitting and crocheting, teaching my mother these skills as well. There are a number of blankets in my home she made, with bright coloured bits of wool in different patterns. In making these blankets my great grandmother had used every bit of wool she could find. Pieces of wool some less than 5cm long had been carefully knotted and sewn into longer strands. Growing up during World War II, my great grandmother had learnt to make the most of what she had, resources were limited, so everything was used as much as it could be, even a 5cm piece of wool! What we now think of as being eco-friendly was simply living to our grandparents and great grandparents. Perhaps it is the guidance of our grandparents that we need to return to, because despite the greater access many of us have to so much, our resources are still finite. The following are the pieces of shared wisdom written into us by our wonderful community and the 1 Million Women team.

Quality is key

Focus on the quality; of relationships, of the food you eat, where you spend your time and what you spend your money on. This advice came through in many responses in different ways, and what seemed clear was that we once placed a much higher value on the things we had.

One member of our community recalled how her grandfather only had two shirts, two pants and two knits, all good quality items that would last him years. He didn't need more than this, he used what he had and didn't like buying new things. Nowadays overconsumption has run rampant in many parts of the world and we seem to have confused what we desire with what we need. In some fast fashion models, retailers make clothes for 52 fashion seasons in a year! Consumerist models encourage us to buy the next new item, linking it to ideas of success and happiness, only for that cycle to repeat with the next new product.

For many of our grandparents what you did decide to spend your money on was an investment, it was about buying only what you needed, items that would last you a long time and be well used. By focusing on the quality of what we have, what we use and what we buy, we can start to recognise what the most important things are to us and reduce the rest.

Growing & making our own food

This was perhaps the most popular advice we received, so many people wrote in to tell us how their grandparents had always grown their own food. Growing our own food has so many benefits for people and the planet. It can help to reduce our shopping miles (how far your food has travelled to get to you), save water, reduce packaging and save us money!

It also means we know exactly what conditions our food has grown in (i.e. without pesticides), and gardening has been shown to reduce stress levels.

We can also make a lot of the food we eat from scratch, before we had packet mixes, flour, sugar, butter and eggs came in (and still can) recyclable paper packaging. To continue with the baking theme, does anyone remember their grandparents having a biscuit tin? One of the great parts about visiting your family as a kid was raiding the biscuit tin!

Using up leftovers, making cakes and sweets out of overly ripe fruit and making sure food wasn't wasted was also advice many people mentioned. Bubble and squeak is also perfectly acceptable for dinner!

We couldn't move on from food without mentioning composting. Something which has gained more and more popularity in recent years as an eco-friendly way to reduce our waste, is also something that our grandparents have been doing for years. Statistics show us that within Australia 35 percent of the waste we send to landfill is food waste. By composting we not only create a nutrient dense fertiliser for our own gardens but reduce the amount of methane gas created from food waste breaking down in landfill.

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

Reuse and Repair

Reusing and repairing items is another thing our grandparents learnt to do, for my great grandmother this meant using every piece of wool she had when creating clothing or a blanket or re-knitting a jumper when someone grew out of it. For my mother and grandmother this meant repairing clothing like learning to sew a button on clothes. So many people mentioned how their grandparents repaired what they had, learning skills that would allow them to mend items like clothing. Unfortunately, nowadays we are more inclined to throw something away if it's broken or in need of repair, especially when the next new item of clothing we buy could be a little as a few dollars. By repairing what we have and learning skills like sewing even a little, it brings that value and care back to what we have. Valuing the time and effort it took for something to be made, for us to earn money to buy it and to ultimately extend the life of our items longer than a few days or weeks.

A few more gems

Oh the jars! One thing I have learnt from generations of women in my family is that glass jars stand the test of time. My grandmother still has a jar that her grandmother used for preserving fruit! As a popular low waste option now, many people are using glass jars for aesthetic purposes, but for a long time before, our grandparents used them to store food in bulk, make homemade jams or preserve fruit. Other tips people mentioned were using cloth napkins instead of disposable ones, plates as lids instead of gladwrap, buying butter in paper and storing it in butter dishes, using wooden pegs for the clothes line that are brought in after each use, and finding a way to reuse everything, like saving and reusing wrapping paper.

For all these things it is clear that there is a great amount of wisdom we can learn from our grandparents. Focusing on quality, growing our own food, finding ways to reuse and repair what we have. We can carry these things on with the hope we can impart this learning onto future generations.

Written by Aidan Rushworth

Aidan is an Australian Communications graduate and yoga teacher. With a love for the environment and travel she is often trying to find ways to explore and tread as lightly on the planet as she can.

Read this next: What's Permaculture Living And How Can We Start Doing It? Our Chat With Milkwood's Kirsten Bradley

Header photo: Shutterstock

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