Hi Julia! For those who are unfamiliar with you and your work, tell us a bit about yourself.
Sure! My name is Julia Watkins, and I live with my husband Scott and our two children just north of Chicago. I share about living simply, slowly, and sustainably on Instagram at @simply.living.well and on my blog at www.simplylivingwell.com. I’m also the author of the book Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home. On occasion, I also contribute to magazines like Willow and Sage and help my husband with his conservation nonprofit (called Lookfar Conservation), which we founded in 2016.
Can you define what it means to simply live well?
Simple living means different things to different people, but for me it’s all about creating space in your life. Everything in our lives takes up space, whether it be mental, physical, or temporal. When we have less stuff and fewer obligations, we have more space (and time and energy) to focus on what matters most to us. I care a lot about the environment, too, so my version of living simply translates to consuming less and living in a way that considers my impact on the planet. Regardless of why you do it, I think living simply and creating space for yourself allows you to live your values and, ideally, meet your physical, mental, and emotional needs. At the end of the day, that’s how you achieve wellness – it’s not from acquiring stuff but from having the space and time to take care of yourself and live in alignment with your true self.
Tell us more about when and how your low-waste lifestyle journey started? What inspired you to live more sustainably?
I’ve been on this journey for a very long time. I was first introduced to environmental issues when I picked up a book about them in the 9th grade. I can’t remember the name of the book, but I remember it having a huge impact on my conscience. One thing led to another, as things tend to do, and I found myself learning all about the environment. I ended up studying marine biology and ecology in college and going on to work in the environmental field afterwards. Professionally, I’ve worked in conservation most of my life.
All that said, it’s one thing to work on environmental issues professionally and another thing to integrate environmental values into your personal life. When I was younger, I was committed to living my values, but I sort of lost track in my late 20s when I started working full time. Then when my first child was born, I reassessed what mattered most and did my best to create a lifestyle that reflected those values. I cloth-diapered my babies, hung a clothesline, switched to green cleaners, shopped at the farmers market, and did my best to consume consciously.
Then when my oldest child was six, we moved to Berkeley, California, where I was introduced to the zero-waste lifestyle. I read Bea Johnson’s book The Zero Waste Home and had several friends who were living low impact lifestyles. I was awestruck by how intentional they were in their habits and behaviors. One family really inspired me – they were car-free and biked everywhere; they grew about 50 percent of their food in a backyard kitchen garden; they shopped with their own produce bags and containers; and they created so little trash they were able to cancel their service. They also made it look easy.
I slowly adopted some of their low-waste habits, like bringing my own produce bags to the grocery store and shopping bulk bins. Then in 2017, we moved to Chicago. That same year, my children started school and suddenly I felt I had the bandwidth to try going completely zero-waste. That’s when I started my IG account and began sharing my journey online.
Inside the pages of your book, we can find so many tips on sustainable living – from practical projects, to recipes, to tips on how to eliminate waste in every area of our homes. How did you learn everything?
Sustainable living looks different for everyone. I’m inclined to make things from scratch – much like our grandmothers did – so instead of looking for commercial versions of items like cleaning supplies and lotion, I tend to make them myself. My book reflects how my interests in sustainability and slow living converged at a certain stage of my life. I learned a lot from books, friends, and family. Some of the natural wellness recipes are from our pediatrician, who often recommends traditional approaches to healing. Of course, I didn’t learn everything overnight. What you see in my book reflects about a decade of learning.
What is one of the biggest challenges you faced throughout your clean-living journey?
I’m not sure I’ve found clean living that difficult, mostly because I tend to take a less-is-more approach to how I eat, clean, and care for my skin and health. But I have found trying to go zero-waste to be challenging and – for many – impossible.
About six months into my zero-waste experiment, I started to look past the photos of trash jars and come to terms with the fact that a zero-waste lifestyle isn’t practical for most people in the industrial world. I think what changed my thinking the most was learning that the term zero-waste was never really meant to describe an individual’s lifestyle but instead an industrial system where products are designed for an end-of-life without waste.
Instead of throwing items away, in a zero-waste economy, they can be technologically or biologically used again. Products are designed for reuse and our systems are created to support that ideal. In our current linear economy, products are designed for waste, which makes it hard for individuals to practice zero-waste at the household or individual level.
At the end of the day, waste is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed by governments and businesses as much as by individuals. I think what I’ve learned through the process is that we can only do our best within the current system and that aiming for “zero” isn’t realistic without more support. These days I tend to use the word sustainable to describe my lifestyle, if only because it comes with less pressure and more acceptance.
How has going low waste has enriched your life?
Although I still create more waste than I’d like, I think focusing on simplicity and sustainability (and continuing to share about it) has continued to help me create a lifestyle that reflects my values. I consume differently than I used to, and I think a lot more about the types of businesses I want to support. I’ve also become much more interested in supporting environmental work in my own community and I’ve learned to focus on what I can do (rather than what I can’t), like composting and gardening. I may not have solar panels or an electric car, but I think I make an impact by sending 50 percent less waste to landfill and growing a lot of my family’s food.
What would be your advice for someone looking to transition to a more sustainable lifestyle?
I always suggest starting with what feels easy and fun, remembering that changing your lifestyle is a life- long process. Living sustainably needs to feel sustainable – the best thing you can do for the environment is stick with sticking with it. Also, you’ll have a bigger influence on the people around you if you look like you’re enjoying your lifestyle…you’ll also be more likely to sustain it.
What are 3 things you are loving right now?
I’m loving watching spring creep back in after five months of winter. Our neighborhood is lush with trees, shrubs, and flowers. Right now, we’re enjoying all the blooms from magnolias, forsythia, tulips, daffodils, and crab apple trees. Soon the lilacs will bloom, which is one of my favorite weeks of the year!
I’m also loving the longer days, the brighter light, and the fact that my kids are back in school and activities after being homebound for a year. I loved having them home, but it feels good to see them learning and playing with other kids.
Thanks for your time Julia!