Part of our journey to subsistence living involves examining that which we consume on a day to day basis through a critical lens to establish how sustainable our lives can be. Clothes, food, toys, household items; I believe there is a hierarchy of sorts when sourcing good and consumables. My ideas initially follow Sarah Lacarovic’s Buyarchy of Needs (a play on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), but then add a few more steps to that last one:

  1. Can I make/grow it myself?
  2. Do I know someone in my community that can make/grow it?
  3. Is there someone in my city that can make/grow it?
  4. Is there a small business that I can support that sells an imported option? Is this option within my limited budget?

If the answer to all these possibilities is “no”, it’s time for me to re-evaluate whether the item is something that we truly need. If it is, that’s okay. We live in a world where being sustainable is really fucking hard and there needs to be room to make unsustainable purchases from time to time.

Where I often take issue, though, is how often people justify these unsustainable purchases, claiming the items are needed when really they are not. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being brutally honest.

Over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting and trying to find more sustainable options for food during the winter. I preserved a lot of food from the summer and have absolutely loved being able to make soups and stews during the winter months with vegetables we harvested in the fall. But our diet extends beyond what I can grow on our property right now so it’s the other items that I’ve been trying to source more ethically.

Some items are non-negotiable. My youngest eats chocolate granola bars like they’re going out of style and all the guys in my house enjoy wine gums for snacking. I’m not going to restrict their food choices entirely but we do talk about choosing local options when they’re available.

One of the items that I’ve been wrestling with lately is cheese. My family enjoys cheese on sandwiches, nachos, pasta, etc. and we used to just buy our cheese at the grocery store. But since my experimenting began, I did find a more local source of cheese that is produced a few hours away and distributed through a local farm store. The cheese tastes much better than the cheap stuff from the grocery store. By buying this new cheese, I’m also supporting two local food growers, which feels great.

The problem is that this more sustainably sourced cheese costs more than twice as much. As with the rising cost of commodities like fresh food and gas, our monthly budget is being stretched. We live on a fairly low income so it takes a lot to spend twice as much on something that we could get for less.

So here I am: if I can’t afford the sustainable option, should I be buying cheese at all? Not having cheese in our home would change our regular eating habits fairly significantly. Am I denying my kids something they enjoy needlessly? These are all questions swimming around in my head.

Then I pause to consider the state of the world and acknowledge how ridiculous it seems that I’m worrying about cheese.

And here we are: this is a cycle that I see myself move through often and I think others do as well. We want to do better. We mean to do better. We are thwarted by systems that prevent us from doing better. We ultimately give up and continue on business as ususal because making change is hard. This applies to small issues like sustainable cheese options, but also to larger issues like divesting from fossil fuels, fighting against systems that we know are oppressive, standing up for human rights. The endless work-buy consumptive capitalist cycle keeps us placated and trapped.

So yes, cheese isn’t such a big deal (although my kids might disagree with that statement) but it signifies the same endless loop of consumption that so many of us are stuck in that seems inescapable. What is it’s all our food? What if it’s our clothes? What if it’s our furniture and our computers and our cellphones and our cars? Even when we are presenting with sustainable options by producers and marketing, inevitibly so much is greenwashing, with the hidden cost of production still making the goods we buy contribute to ongoing systems of oppression.

If I was living on my own, I think I would be going without a lot more. But I don’t live on my own and I need to acknowledge the wants and needs of my children and partner in making these types of decisions that seem fairly insignificant when you’re not living in my brain. We’ve chosen a path for our family where we make choices together about how we live our day to day lives and, as a parent, I don’t have the “right” to make decisions that I know others won’t agree with, whether it’s about how they spend their time, or the food that they eat.

This is, however, great opportunities to have conversations with my kids about the means of production, and understanding the full life cycle of the goods that we consume and use in our home. It’s a fantastic time to talk about global inequality in a really practical way with grounded examples. This is real world education.

As for the cheese, I don’t have any answers. Maybe we buy cheese half the time. Maybe we use it more consciously in the food we prepare. Maybe somedays we’ll just have to go without. That’s okay – we’ll get by! I’d rather make the real, honest choice about the things we consume rather than sweeping the issues under the rug and ignoring them, because business as usual is getting increasingly dangerous.