Weren't We All Organic Once?
We all want to live more sustainably—but you don’t need to buy into the latest fads (or shell out the cash) in order to do so. Sustainable living isn’t a new trend, or even a new concept. Not that long ago, sustainable living was just called living. For our grandparents and great grandparents in the WWII and post-WWII era, recycling, buying local produce, cooking from scratch, and repurposing everything you owned was the norm.
While a lot has changed, we could learn a lot about our own sustainability efforts from those generations. To see how we stack up today, we looked to the pinnacle of the waste not, want not era: the United Kingdom during WWII and its post-war era. From victory gardens to homes built from scratch, we asked several British citizens about the way their families thrived with less.
Locally sourced from down the street and on your roof
During the 1950s, shopping was different from what most people are used to today. Supermarkets in the UK were rare. (Piggly Wiggly, the first major U.S. supermarket chain, opened its first location in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916, but there were only about 50 UK supermarkets in 1950.) UK residents mostly shopped at small, local stores—and they shopped often. While refrigerators were already standard in America, only two percent of British household had a refrigerator in 1948, so people would shop more often to have fresh food.
Charlotte Clark, from Devon, UK, remembers shopping with her mother in the 1950s, when Clark was a little girl. “We went to the rent office first, then Mum would check her shopping list and we would go to the greengrocer's, butcher's, and baker's shops.”
And when supermarkets did come along, some people preferred to still buy fresh food from the local grocers they had known their whole lives.
“All the small independent shops were visited first, and then anything left on the list that couldn't be got from the small shops, were got from the supermarket. It was a specific routine that she always did,” says Clark.
During and after World War II, homegrown gardens also provided much-needed food for a populace restricted by rationing. Wartime victory gardens—a tiny garden in the backyard, the apartment rooftop, or even window sills— helped families stretch out strict household allowances for food purchases. Many also went foraging for blackberries, gooseberries, nuts, and other fruits. Brenda Gatt from Kent recalls her parents gutting the landscaped garden to make way for a small fruit and vegetable plot. “I remember being very sad that all the flowers were gone, but it was exciting to see the vegetables growing and having our own carrots, potatoes, and onions.”
As well as back gardens being places to grow food, some empty pieces of land, parks, and sports fields were converted into plots. In Britain, rationing remained in place until 1954, but many people kept their gardens for years after.
Salvaging for victory (and thrift)
During WWII, when most manufacturing was redirected toward the war effort, people reused whatever they could, or did without. Saving butter wrapping to grease tins, reusing wrapping paper, sewing worn sheets together for quilts--these are just a few of the ways our grandparents used to reuse and recycle. Women even drew seams on their bare legs to replicate stockings.
A popular British pamphlet called “Make Do and Mend” provided useful tips on repairing clothing and cutting down adult clothing to make “new” clothes for kids. UK citizens were encouraged by the government to spend less on themselves (as can be seen in “The Thrifty Pig,” a British propaganda cartoon) and to spend more on war bonds.
After the war, the waste not, want not mentality stuck. In the UK, a 1948 National Savings campaign declared, “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it!”.
Cathy Law, from Queensland, says that her dad, born in 1914, once mended a hole in a $1 plastic bucket rather than see it go to waste. In Mary-Jane O'Connell’s house in Kent, Easter eggs were unwrapped with care so the colored foil could be saved for Christmas decorations.
Sharon Stickels, from Kent, recalls, “Nan used to wash the bread bags, peg them on the washing line to dry, then pack Granddad’s lunch in them.” Old clothes also found new uses around the house. “Nan always did the dusting and polishing with Grandad’s old pants,” says Stickles.
It wasn’t just small things that were recycled. Furniture and even entire houses were built out of discarded building materials. During the WWII rationing, Jilly Norris from Ashford, UK’s father actually built the family home out of scrap materials. “Being a carpenter, he had odd bits of wood. Chipboard offcuts he turned into parquet flooring. Wood offcuts made our kitchen table, the built-in wardrobes in the front bedroom, and the storage cupboards along the corridor upstairs,” Norris says. The house is still standing today.
The rise of mass consumption
While the WWII-era generation built a community on thrifty shopping and steadfast mending, the nation slowly turned away from hard times to economic prosperity. In turn, the new generation embraced a throwaway culture.
Growing up, Helen Carpenter, from Reading, says her gran cooked a chicken on the weekend and made the leftovers last through the beginning of the week. Between rationing and lower wages, keeping food going was often the best way to stretch a family’s budget. But for Carpenter’s mother, a childhood of leftover chicken wasn’t something she wanted to continue for her own children.
She was happy to buy what she wanted, when she needed it, and toss the rest. “My baby boomer mum rebelled from [my grandmother’s ways]; she buys massive roasting joints and feeds the leftovers to her dog!” says Carpenter.
Living like our grandparents is difficult, and a big reason why we don’t do it now is because of time constraints and sheer convenience of quicker, albeit less sustainable, options. It’s cheaper and easier to buy a new top than mend one. A quick takeout meal is easier—and sometimes cheaper—than cooking from scratch. For our grandparents, it was often a necessity, rather than a choice, to live such a way.
The millennial generation is starting to embrace some of the thrifty ways of the greatest generation. Carpenter, for example, says she’s gone back to doing what her grandmother did and keeps the leftovers for use throughout the week.
But there’s still plenty to learn from our grandparents. Even if we never build our own houses out of scrap boards and take just a few ideas or a touch of inspiration, it’s worth learning lessons from the past to help us look after the planet for the future.