Last year was our first Science Fair. My seven-year-old daughter and I decided we were going to do some research on the ladybugs that had magically appeared in our apartment in the middle of February. We went online and learned that ladybugs love old buildings with a southeast orientation, and, on cold days, make their way through crevices into these sunny and warm living spaces.
When the time came to start the Science Fair project, we looked around to see how we could create it using what we had at home. A cardboard box, some leftover paint, a couple of empty paper towel rolls, and a few clips to hold the rolls in place as ladybug antennae. Glue, paper, and a few failed homemade shrinky dinks, and we were done. It was fun, simple, cheap, and almost zero waste.
A few days later, we took the project to the school gym and were impressed to see how "perfect" most of the other entries looked. Standard trifold display boards, lots of glittery foam letters, and most projects that required store-bought items to work. They all looked great, but to me they were missing the essential: the kids had not "made do" with what they had at home. They had not adapted what was available to them to meet their needs. They had just gone out and bought what they needed.
Since we'd moved to the U.S. from Spain only a few months before, this got me thinking (again) about how decisively our culture affects our behavior—and how this, in turn, has consequences on our planet.
When tackling the Science Fair project, my priority for our household had been to spend as little money as possible, or ideally none at all. As a mother, I wanted my daughter to execute the project using things she found around the house. In doing so, she would exercise the art of working with limited resources, use her creativity and skills, and ultimately feel self-reliant and empowered.
Both of these facets of my persona (the frugal homemaker and the make-do-loving mother) were responding to my cultural upbringing in Spain, a place where "making do" is not only good, but is expected.
Having grown up seeing how people transformed what was available to them into what they needed, I had assumed that this was a universal skill, something inherent to humankind. In Spanish, the verb "make do" (apañarse) is a common one; you even use it as a compliment (apañado/a), meaning that someone is resourceful and can do well with what is available to them. So, yes, in my world "make do" was something good. It was only when we stepped into the Science Fair that I came to realize that this was not true for everyone, everywhere.
"In Spanish, the verb 'make do' (apañarse) is a common one; you even use it as a compliment (apañado/a), meaning that someone is resourceful and can do well with what is available to them."
Seeing that "making do" wasn’t a coveted value in our new environs made me realize that I was going to have to make an extra effort to teach my kids the virtues of this skill. In a world where "new" and "perfect" are the norm, empty paper towel rolls transformed into antennae are kind of not cool… at all!
It also made me realize that I make do all the time. To me, "managing with limited or inadequate means available" means getting by with what is around me, so that I save time, money, and resources. It means using ingenuity, learning new skills, and accepting the end product as good enough (since it is never store-bought perfect). It also means saving money, needing less stuff, and having more time to be with my family. So, how could I give up such a wonder?
"Making do" is at the core of sustainable practices, zero waste movements, and voluntary simplicity philosophies. Wouldn't it be great if we could reclaim it as a valuable skill, teach it to our kids, and reinstitute it as an essential part of American culture?
I invite you to use your "make do" mentality before you walk out your door to buy something you think you need. Here are some tips on how to go about it:
With food, make do with whatever leftovers you have in the fridge. You can make great soups with leftover chicken roast and some withered vegetables; a hearty stew with leftover meats and any legume; or a wok with yesterday’s steamed salmon, some rice, and withered leafy greens. Or freeze any of the leftover veggies and make a great vegetarian soup when you have a bagful. Check out savethefood.org for amazing recipes made with soon-to-go-bad ingredients.
Repair before replacing and become a handyman! Check out tutorials on how to fix zippers, mend holes in clothes, and fix small appliances. Or, visit a Repair Café… or even start one in your community!
Try owning things that serve multiple purposes. You’ll accumulate less stuff, be able to afford better-quality items, and exercise your brain, all at the same time. Examples include using a cast-iron pan as a toaster, displaying beautiful functional items as decor (a crystal vase, a vintage quilt, a family kettle), and using your favorite piece of fabric as a Furoshiki handbag.
Settle for almost-as-good alternatives and be content with them.
And remember, any time you need something, exercise your “make do” muscle by asking yourself these three essential questions:
• Can something I own serve my need?
• Can I make what I need, using what I have?
• Do I have an almost-as-good alternative that is "enough"?
Enjoy the experience of voluntary making do, or, as I call it, being purposefully resourceful!
Bea Echeverria is a Sustainability Advocate and Zero Waste Activist in her community and through her website simpleandsubversive.com and Instagram @Simplerfect. She is from Barcelona, Spain, but lives in Chicago with her family.