April 20, 2009

Life Less Large

We’ve all been hearing a lot lately about how people are cutting back, economizing, living more frugally. “The Crisis! The Crisis!” my nightly NPR broadcast screams. Even people who are comfortable and haven’t been laid off or foreclosed or even had their hours cut (although they may have seen their 401K disappear) have been trying to spend less and cut out extravagances. Of course this isn’t doing anything to help the economic recovery – there are a lot of people who have the same paycheck coming in now as before – but fear and uncertainty and also a certain solidarity that “we’re all in this together and it just isn’t fashionable to indulge” have cause a lot of people to reign it in. I think it’s good in one way because the American culture of excessive consumption could use a little balancing. But on the other hand of course, people are going to have to unfreeze their wallets eventually if any promise of recovery is to be realized. They will, we can all be sure of that.

In some ways, principally psychological, Brazilians haven’t felt the full impact of the global meltdown. The middle class was just starting to stretch its wings into the buy-more-spend-more areas. They were just beginning to dip their toes into those shark infested waters alternately known as “Living Large” or “Spending beyond your means.” So now that they’ve had to scale back, it feels more like business as usual than the sky is falling. For most part, that is. Certainly there have been layoffs and people are feeling the pinch in very real ways. Retail sales are down, wallets are closed, people are complaining. But given all the economic upheaval Brazilians from the age of 25 + have had to weather in their lives, I think for many this just feels like one more spin around the economic merry-go-round that has once again been manically and recklessly pushed by the invisible hands of greed. So they heave a big sigh, put their heads down and trudge onwards.

Anyway, all this talk got me thinking about the ways that living in Brazil has caused me to live less like a pre-crisis American with swagger in my pocketbook and more like a Brazilian, cautious and frugal. And although these changes were initially made out of necessity over choice, I’ve come to appreciate how it often translates into a less impactful way of life.

Here’s a few things I noted that have changed about my lifestyle. And I think they hold true for a large swath of Brazilians down the middle as well.

1. No clothes dryers:
Clothes are hung up to air dry. Electricity is just too expensive for the great majority of people to run them. A very small market for them also makes it a very expensive appliance to buy.

2. Lights on timers:
All the public spaces in our building have light switches that you flip when you come into the area and that automatically shut off after a few minutes. This is largely a hold over from Brazil’s energy crisis in 2001. Energy saving compact florescent bulbs have also been omnipresent since that time.

3. Conscious car use:
Gasoline is expensive, although the reasons for this are confounding. Brazil is now 100% fuel independent yet gas prices remain nearly double than what people pay back home in the States. (Someone’s Petrobras pockets somewhere are nice and heavy). Current gas prices are hovering somewhere around R$2.55 a liter, which translates into USD $4.70 a gallon. Remember when gas prices hit that high in the United States? People were freaking out. For Brazilians it’s just another day at the pump. What that means for many is more carpooling, public transportation (when available) and smaller fuel-efficient cars.

4. Less packaging:
I’ll never forget buying a small bedside lamp at a behemoth home improvement super-store back in Brooklyn. It had a tiny stem base and a small square paper lampshade. The whole thing wasn’t bigger than a breadbox, but it came with more plastic, Styrofoam and cardboard than my Imac. The added cost of producing and shipping goods with useless, unnecessary packaging doesn’t make any fiscal sense in Brazil. Packaging on everything from ketchup to dry cleaning to the new printer we just bought is lighter, leaner and minimal. Thinking about this, the line from that fake Trader Joe’s commercial keeps playing in my head – the one about 4 Fuji apples in a plastic box. Is there anything more pointedly indicative of unnecessary packaging than that?

5. Fix it, re-use it, milk-it-to-death:
There are repair shops for everything imaginable in Brazil. Recently I stumbled upon a galleria in a poorer section of our downtown shopping district that has a line up of 4 stores that specialize in umbrella repair. UMBRELLA repair. Yes. You can fix that bent, broken five buck umbrella that flipped itself inside out not ten minutes after buying it on a street corner one rainy day you got caught out wet and empty handed. It seems they’ll fix anything here in Brazil. Blender on the fritz? There’s a fix-it store for that. Cheap boom box isn’t reading cd’s anymore? They can fix that too. Blew out your counterfeit Nikes imported from Paraguay? Yep, there’s a store on every block that will put a new sole on them. When things finally do grow worn and tired, they aren’t typically thrown out either. They’re passed down to the maid who proceeds to fix, re-use and milk-to-death whatever comes her way.

6. Everything smaller:
And that applies not just to the famous bikinis. Not only are things less weighted down by unnecessary packaging, but the quantity, volume, general bulk of things is more diminutive. I’m thinking principally of items on my grocery list. You’ll never find a gallon of milk on the shelves here – 1 liter (1/4 gallon) is the biggest it comes. Gigantic tubs of mayonnaise? Not at the consumer retail level. Even the regular sized jars of things like mayonnaise are sold in a smaller quantity than they are in the States. Try to stock up on Tylenol – you’ll never find a big fat economy bottle, but instead will go home with a bag of pills in 8 count sleeves.

There have been numerous studies done on our consumption habits that have proven over and over that we eat/use more when things are presented in larger quantities. Hand someone a giant bag of Smartfood and ask him to eat until he’s full and he’ll eat far more than the guy next to him who was handed a bag half the size. Talk to any Brazilian who's traveled to the US and one of the things they always marvel at is the portion size of food in restaurants – “and on top of that they give you breadsticks!” they always exclaim in disbelief. (Followed inevitably by a comment about American waistlines…)

In Brazil things haven’t typically been sold in larger quantities, largely in order to keep retail prices attainable (with grocery items there is also the concern of spoilage in a tropical climate). But what it amounts to is that people end up using less and certainly wasting less of whatever it is – mayo, olive oil, turkey flavored potato chips (yes, they exist). And the end result being, they tend to look better in those tiny bikinis.

7. Eating local
Yes, I went ahead and pulled out the buzz word of the second half of the decade. In Brazil it’s largely inevitable. A quick perusal of my kitchen, came up with less than 6 items that had been produced out of state. Now one big factor in this may be that I live at the crossroads of the agricultural and industrial part of the country. But even so, there are still far more local brands throughout the country than there are national ones. It just costs too much and the roads and railways are too undeveloped to go shipping lettuce from one end of the country to the other. (The last time I visited my father in Panama, we bought lettuce shipped in from Salinas California. Talk about a carbon heavy salad! Can tropical Panama not grow its own lettuce?)

Local eating is not limited to just fresh fruits and veggies, but goes for a lot of packaged food too. In my kitchen I find corn meal, rice, beans, hot sauce, loaf of bread, frozen lasagna, pão de queijo and so on – all relatively local, produced in the state of Minas. I realize however that this may not hold true everywhere in Brazil, especially the Northeast where agriculture has long been based around a single crop economy of sugar cane. But there instead of importing what they don’t have, people historically gone hungry. That’s changed to a certain degree now, but there are probably still far more local products on the shelves than ones brought in from other places in the country.

Those are just a few of the thing I could think of. I’m sure I and my fellow ex-pat bloggers could come up with more. But while life and consumption habits are scaled back and simpler in Brazil, that doesn’t mean that Brazilians aren’t chomping at the bit to live large. Everybody wants the bigger car, the flat screen tv, the new house – even if it means that it has to be bought in installments at unreasonable interest rates. But those desires continue to be tempered by economic forces and at least for now, living the average day-today existence in Brazil feels more sustainable and a bit greener – without having to try at all.


Betty said...

What a great post!!
I too am so sick of the "Crisis"mania! And I think the media is making it worse.
Your list of ways to save is great.
Nr. 1 and 5 are done very much here too. My husband is a mechanic and has to "invent" the parts that are too expensive to buy for some people. He´s a genius at making his customers happy, that way. :)

Amilcar said...

Great post, but...this is not a crisis. At least, not for people who went through the hyperinflation years. Prices going up 40-80% in a month? Prices higher in the PM than in AM? Ah, those were the days! After that, nothing can shake me.

Rachel said...

Funny you should mention the size issue because I have a draft post just about that (entitled: Size matters), that I haven't finished yet. Brazilians have been forced to be more economical (and inadvertently, environmentally friendly conscious) because of an unstable economy. But judging by recent consumer habits (as you mentioned), it makes me wonder if some of that may change (for example, Rio now has a Sam's Club and a Walmart).

Rachel said...

*environmentally friendly. can't think straight today

markuza said...

Wow I wish we had an umbrella repair shop here in Salvador... at least, I wish I knew where there was one. Ironically, I am in some ways more frugal than my wife- if I have old, worn-out clothes, I want to save them for painting or doing dirty jobs- my wife tends to throw them away. And she hates it when I squirrel 'potentially' useful items... did anyone say 'packrat?' I know nobody said packrat.

One thing you didn't mention that I became acutely aware of when I was in Minas is the lack of heating in the houses. Whoa try to get a New Englander to not light a fire or turn on the furnace when it gets below 65 degrees! Some of my coldest nights ever were in Ouro Preto. Or how about doing without hot water? Those evil electric shower heads aside, most houses I've been in don't have hot water in the kitchen. And my washing machine has no 'entrada' for hot water.

lovelydharma said...

I know Betty, Crisis Mania has become a marketing tool. I'm sick of it too.

Amilcar - that was my sense, exactly. Like I said that for Brazilians this is less a crisis and more just another day, business as usual. Everyone's been through so much financially here that their tougher and more resilient.

Can't wait to read that post Rachel!

Kuza, you crack me up! Carlos does the same thing with his clothes, except the ones that are supposedly being saved for dirty work always somehow seem to make it back into the rotation of everyday where.

You're right about the water! I forgot about that. Yes... no heat or hot water is a big energy saver. Even if it is a total bummer at the same time..

GingerV said...

very good, I don't have any real problem with the smaller portions and packages - I have been eating from the appitizer menu forever - when over 50you just can't eat as much - the only problem I have is that I can't find shoes or shirts that fit me - I still have to buy cloths in the states.

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