By Chere Di Boscio
When it comes to saving the planet, most of us have great intentions, but don’t go the full mile.
It wasn’t always this way. While the French do tend to waste far less than Americans in general, when Bea moved to the USA from France she bought into the American Dream–she shopped without reason, merely as a leisure activity; drove a SUV, lived in a huge house and truly believed that bigger was better.
‘I really fell for the idea you should have a bigger car and a bigger house and fill it up with stuff,’ says Johnson. ‘But then we realised living that life didn’t really bring us anything.’
It was a financial crisis that sparked the downsizing. Her husband didn’t earn a salary for a year while he was trying to start a company, Bea was working four part-time jobs and it was the middle of a recession. The couple were having trouble making ends meet, especially with two young boys to raise. To help solve their problems, the family moved into a smaller home, and a new, simpler lifestyle was born.
But soon Bea’s concerns grew beyond her monetary circumstances as she started to consider the environmental impact of how she had lived.
‘We started to educate ourselves on the environment and that made us feel really bad about the future of our kids,’ she says. ‘So we decided to do something about it,’ she says.
Today, any knicknacks and other objects that don’t perform an exact function have been removed from her minimalist home, which is beautifully decorated in white with eternally chic design classics, like Tulip Chairs and Sputnik lamps. She shops with clear jars and cloth bags, refusing plastic containers and bags from the farmer’s markets where she buys food. As so much of what we buy is based on marketing alone (is there really such a huge difference between hand and nail cream and body cream? Body gel and shampoo?), Bea washes everything in her house with one, multi-purpose product: traditional French Marseilles soap. Windows and shiny surfaces sparkle with white vinegar.
The family’s wardrobes have also been stripped down: Bea owns five pairs of shoes; two dresses and just a few tops, trousers and skirts, which she mixes and matches with Gallic flare. The bathroom shelves contain the same shampoo and soap for the whole family, as well as recyclable toothbrushes and home-made toothpaste. Her young boys take their lunch to school wrapped up in recycled paper, using a Japanese wrapping technique known as Furoshiki.
Small wonder then that where the rest of us continue to produce horrendous amounts of waste, Johnson and her family produced one small mason jar’s worth last year. Zero waste is not about ‘trying to be eco-friendly’ by recycling or giving away old clothes: it’s about not buying what you don’t need in the first place.
‘You might recycle or even compost but that’s not actually what it’s about – it’s about not buying, period. Once you buy something, you’ll have to find a way of disposing of it when it’s dead.’
That’s something too few of us think about. When we do buy something, what will happen to it when we no longer need it? Not just the object, but the packing, too–we may eat every apple in the bag, but the plastic bag they come in is pure waste, for example.
Johnson certainly has this in mind all the time, and follows a simple mantra: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot (compost). By following these five Rs, she says, you too can live a streamlined green life. But it wasn’t always easy for her, her family, or even her friends–there was a point when she even refused to allow them to bring wine over for dinner, as she didn’t want to have to waste a bottle! She soon came to realise that keeping her friends happy meant some flexibility, so now she allows some recycling in the house.
Once a regular fillers-and-Botox girl, Bea has since given those up, and even makes most of her own makeup (though she does buy a UVA tinted sunblock). She’s also promised herself she’ll wear the same skirt 30 different ways during the 30 days she is on her European book tour this summer. So far, she’s been nothing but incredibly elegant. In short, she’s living proof that a woman can still be beautiful, even with minimal shopping and beauty routines .
If there’s anything that still frustrates her, however, it’s that people think her lifestyle is difficult. It is, she insists, totally the opposite: zero waste means less clutter, less cleaning, less contamination of the food they eat, less money spent and less worry and stress.
In short, Bea and her family have truly freed themselves from the shackles of Western consumerism, and have proven that less really is more.
Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide To Simplifying Your Life (Particular Books), is out now, priced £14.99.
You can see a video of Bea’s home here.