From conspicuous consumption to conspicuous frugality

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus

Ever since Al Gore sounded the alarm about global warming, everyone on earth is aware that mankind (an oxymoron if ever I heard one) must preserve itself and the environment if it is to survive. We must waste nothing. These days, you don’t have to be a member of the Corleone family to be in waste management. But it’s not normal for people to practice abstinence, restraint, even self-denial, no matter how much we hear about the planet’s impending demise, unless some marketing genius can make thriftiness more appealing.

“You can threaten children with dire consequences if they don’t clean their teeth… But give them a toothbrush with a Chompy the Caterpillar handle and some multi-colored toothpaste and you’ve begun to make tooth-cleaning more than just a resented necessity. You’ve begun to make it attractive,” said Jeremy Bullmore, former head of J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency.

Mr. Bullmore must be Mexican, since nothing is ever wasted in Mexico. Not shards of broken glass, bits of leftover string, or even methane gases released into the air from flatulence. Seriously.

  • Landfill gas facilities in Guadalajara and Monterrey capture methane and use it for power generation. An off-grid renewable energy supply at a poor community in Nuevo Leon is expected to be completed by 2010. So just as you’re about to dig into those cheese-draped beans, think about powering an entire town with the results. Makes you feel good all over.
  • And what about old candy and gum wrappers? What do we do with them after they’ve been torn off? We toss them into a trash can and sometimes, if we’re slobs, we just drop the wrappers in the gutter, except in Mexico where a beautiful something arises out of an ugly nothing, like a Phoenix from the ashes. Indigenous artisans of Tlamascasapan, Guerrero, make exquisite woven paper purses.
  • In addition to incorporation into works of art, shards of glass are cemented into the top of walls, points up. This is way cheaper than an alarm system and seems to do the trick most of the time.
  • Then there’s the matter of left over soap bits that we throw away when they’re so small, they look like a chickle. Melt the bits in top of a double boiler (other methods will burn the soap chips) until they soften. Press them together until you get a whole new bar of soap, even better if you can find an old-time soap mould. It may not be as pretty as a new bar, but then, you don’t wear it around your neck to the Oscars, and it will get the job done.

  • What about string?” you may be thinking. If you’re smart, you’ll keep old bits of strong in one drawer, and rubber bands in another – even those fat ones from bunches of broccoli. This is the opposite of Conspicuous Consumption; this is Conspicuous Frugality. First we tried to save trees by using recycled plastic grocery bags instead of paper grocery bags. Then we learned that the plastic bags weren’t any more biodegradable than are disposable diapers. What about eco-friendly, guilt-free string bags? They expand when full and collapse into your palm when empty, and they’re reusable. If crocheted or knitted from string bits you’ve saved, they may not be beautiful, but they’ll be serviceable.
  • As to the rubber bands, here are instructions on how to make a rubber band ball are at or, if you’d like to donate some, contact the Rubber Band Man.

Humans are gloriously ingenious when it comes to inventing things, which may be what got us into this mess in the first place. Here’s what I figure –we must either invent alternative sources of energy and products that we can enjoy as much as what they’re replacing, or we can just do as Mexico does, and waste not, want not.

Published or Updated on: February 1, 2009 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2009
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