Today, our Nui featured guest is writer and photographer Julia Watkins, owner of the popular Instagram account @simply.living.well, where she shares her tips about living simply, slowly, and sustainably. She is also the author of Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural Low-Waste Home, teaching the wisdoms she learned from her grandparents as a fix for any problem - from food fixes, to home care, to healing your mind, body, and spirit.Julia has become an inspiration and advocate for those seeking to live a more sustainable life, learning more about natural wellness, and incorporating both into their everyday lives.
You can find Julia on her website at simply.living.well, or in her kitchen experimenting with new recipes and remedies,
For people who are new to you and your work, can you give us a little introduction?
Sure! My name is Julia Watkins, and I share about living simply, slowly, and sustainably at home and with children, both on Instagram at @simply.living.well and on my blog at www.simplylivingwell.com. I live in Chicago with my husband Scott, our two children Eloise and Benjamin, and our dog Gus.
What does a sustainable lifestyle mean to you?
A sustainable lifestyle is sort of a nebulous term – there’s no prescription or set of rules to define it. But at the individual or household level, I think it involves making behavioral changes that reduce your impact on the Earth’s resources.
For some, that might look like taking public transportation, shopping second hand, or supporting your local farmers market. For others, it could look like growing a garden, using your own bags at the supermarket, reducing food waste, or buying clothes made from natural, biodegradable materials, etc.
Was there something that made you want to pursue a low impact lifestyle and make it a part of your life’s work?
There have been many moments and experiences that pushed me into or further along a low impact lifestyle. The first one happened when I was in middle school and checked out a book about the environment at the library. I don’t know if it was my age, my sensitivity, or both, but it had a profound impact on my life. Aside from changing my lifestyle, I also got involved in environmental advocacy in my community. I was the kid who walked around the cafeteria at lunch time collecting cans so I could drive them to the recycling center after school. (This was the early 90s before most schools had recycling programs in place.). After high school, I went on to study marine biology in college and conservation science and policy in graduate school. Not surprisingly, I’ve spent most of my professional life working in the fields of environmental education and biodiversity conservation.
Can you share your experience in teaching your kids about sustainable living? Do they understand why it’s important?
There’s a quote by David Sobel that sums up my feelings about teaching children about the environment. It goes, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before asking them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”
When our children were younger (they’re 9 and 12 now), my philosophy mirrored Sorel’s to a T. Now that they’re a little older, my husband and I try to share some of the successes of our work with them. He’s an environmental lawyer and we run a conservation non-profit together, so we have lots of opportunities to share positive stories with them. I also like to think we teach them by modeling what we value. There’s no doubt they see us schlep the compost bucket to the curb and shop for food from bulk containers. I can only hope they’ll grow up appreciating some of our habits and carry forward our values in their own unique way.
What has been your biggest aha moment in your sustainable living journey?
Oh, gosh, I think the most important lesson has been to relax. We tried going completely zero-waste in 2016 and I think it was such an amazing opportunity to learn the difference between being perfect and being good.
Like a lot of early adopters of zero waste, our goal was to eliminate waste completely so that we could try to fit a year’s worth of trash in a tiny pint-size jar. The media made it look more feasible than it actually is – little did I know how misleading those trash jars could be!
The aha moment came when I realized how much energy and effort it took to avoid waste. It felt like a full time job to jump over the hurdles and crawl through the hoops necessary to avoid waste. Some of the changes we made were simple; others left me exhausted.
At some point, I realized that waste isn’t just a behavioral problem; it’s also a design problem. If toothpaste is only available in plastic tubes that are designed to be extracted, used, and discarded, it’s hard to expect consumers to brush their teeth without making trash.
That doesn’t mean individuals shouldn’t try, it just means they can strive to do their best, while putting pressure on businesses, politicians, and governments to design economies and products that make it easier (and even possible) to do better.
As a natural and sustainable clothing brand, we can’t help but ask you about your philosophy on clothes and your favorite materials for your family’s clothing. We would also love to hear your honest thoughts on your experience with Nui!
When it comes to clothes, I gravitate towards minimalism and try to prioritize quality over quantity. I also go for practical pieces that can be layered to work any season of the year. I do my best to avoid synthetics and opt instead for clothes made from natural fibers (i.e. cotton, hemp, linen, and wool). Aside from feeling better on my skin, natural fibers are great because they’re recyclable and biodegradable and they don’t shed microplastics into the water supply when you wash them. I also love shopping secondhand as often as possible.
I discovered Nui Organics this year and have been impressed with your commitment to quality and sustainability. I’m wearing the wool fisherman sweater and wool socks right now and am so warm and comfy February in my drafty midwestern farmhouse!
Your Instagram and website are beautiful and inspiring. When did you start it and what was the inspiration behind them?
Thank you! I started my Instagram account on impulse three years ago when I decided to try going zero-waste. I wanted to track my efforts and progress and thought it would be fun to find other people doing something similar online.
Your book features so many good tips on sustainable living - from food preservation tips to recipes, to cleaning your home. How did you learn such it all and what was your motivation for putting it all into a book?
I share about sustainability from the perspective of someone who is also interested in natural wellness. While I’m always looking for ways to reduce my impact on the environment, I’m also trying to create a healthy home. Luckily, you can do both simultaneously –for example by making my own laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, and herbal remedies.
I learned most of the skills I share in my book and on Instagram slowly, one at a time – sometimes through books, sometimes from our nutritionists, sometimes from our pediatrician, and other times through friends and family. Over the years, I’ve recorded the recipes and remedies that have been shared with me – or that I’ve developed myself - in a little kraft paper journal. A few years ago, I shared a photo of the journal on Instagram and was soon after flooded with messages encouraging me to put it all into a publishable book. A few weeks later, a literary agent contacted me and asked me to do the same thing!
Do you have a favorite recipe from the book (please share!)
I have so many, really! but I imagine your followers would love my laundry soap recipe. It’s super simple and healthy, and it works in both standard and high-efficiency machines. Here it is!
1 5 ounce bar of castile soap
1 cup washing soda
1 cup baking soda
1 cup coarse salt
To make it
Chop the soap into small cubes, put them in the bowl of a food processor, and blitz until finely ground. If you don’t own a food processor, you can also use a hand grater – it’ll take a little longer but works just fine). Add the washing soda, baking soda, and salt to the food processor and blend into a fine powder. Store in a glass container with an airtight lid.
Use 2 tablespoons per load for standard machines and 1 tablespoon per load for high-efficiency machines.
You talk about sustainable and low impact laundry on your blog. Can you share a few tips for our #nuiworld?
Oh gosh, yes. There are so many ways to create a simpler, healthier, more sustainable laundry routine. Here are just a few ways to do it.
- Buy clothes made of natural fibers. One of the least obvious, but most impactful, ways to create a sustainable laundry routine is to switch from wearing synthetic fibers to natural fibers, like cotton, linen, and flax. Synthetics are cheap and versatile to make but, when washed, shed hundreds and thousands of plastic fibers called microplastics into the water supply. Those microplastics eventually make their way into marine animals and become part of the food chain.
- Choose an energy star rated washer. While I wouldn’t recommend discarding your current machine for a new one, especially if it’s still in good, working condition, I would encourage you to upgrade to an Energy Star appliance when the time is right. Energy Star washers use about 25% less energy and 33% less water than standard machines. They also save you about $350 on utility bills over the lifetime of the machine and 2,000 gallons of water per year.
- Hand dry clothes, when possible. If you haven’t discovered the art of hang drying your clothes, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Aside from being meditative, it’s a great way to save energy and cut down on fossil fuel consumption. While washing machines have become fairly efficient, dryers still have a long way to go in terms of efficiency. I give lots of tips for hand drying clothes in my book.
- Use natural soap. When selecting a laundry detergent, choose natural, if possible. Most commercial laundry detergents leave a chemical residue on your clothing, which can be absorbed by your skin and lungs. The residues have been linked to all sorts of health problems, including skin and eye irritation, eczema, rashes, and endocrine disruption.
- Ditch the fabric softener. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding fabric softeners since they’re packed with harmful chemicals. Instead, I add ½ cup of distilled white vinegar to the rinse cycle. The vinegar softens linens and fabrics and removes musky, stinky odors. If you’re worried about the smell of vinegar, you’ll be pleased to know the smell dissipates in the wash.
- Steer clear of disposable dryer sheets. If you do use the dryer, avoid using dryer sheets, which are not only single-use and disposable but also covered in harsh chemicals (including phthalates) and synthetic fragrances. As an alternative, you can use wool dryer balls like these with each load. Not only do they help prevent static, but they also soften fabrics and speed up the drying time by promoting air circulation.
You also have another business – the Lookfar Conservation that you co-founded with your husband Scott. Can you tell us a little about it and why it is important to you?
Lookfar Conservation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that, for the most part, works with small, local NGOs in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. These small NGOs are often on the front lines of conservation. They face huge challenges and significant risks. They’re brilliant at many aspects of their work, but sometimes struggle with, for example, developing proposals for U.S. or European foundations or fundraising strategies or communications. Lookfar partners with these groups and helps them in protecting biodiversity and combatting climate change. Sometimes Lookfar has funding for this, sometimes it doesn’t – and so far it’s mostly been something for which we volunteer significant amounts of time and energy.
When it comes to conservation, Scott and I are motivated by the science and inspired by the beauty of the world’s wild and wondrous places. By science, I mean there are a number of very good reasons to conserve and restore ecosystems – they help clean the air and water, enhance resilience against extreme weather, serve as carbon sinks to help draw down atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and provide habitat for multitudes of plants, animals, and fungi, some of which contain compounds that are the backbone of modern medicines (and, often, traditional medicines, too).
But Lookfar’s work also is inspired by the natural beauty of the earth – wild places where, once you see them in person, you’re never quite the same. You feel filled with light and, more than anything, want to share some of that light with the world.
So Lookfar is very special to us, even if a lot of the work is really quite practical and nitty gritty.
If someone were just getting started on their sustainable living journey, can you share a few tips to help them start?
Sure! I would encourage anyone starting out to make simple changes and to have fun doing it! I’d also recommend asking yourself why you want to do it. If you know what motivates you to live sustainably, it’s a lot easier to stick with it. For me, it’s been a slow, gradual process, rather than an event, and it’s been essential that It come from an earnest and authentic place inside me.
If you’re looking for an easy place to start, I’d recommend replacing your commercial cleaning supplies with homemade formulas. For inspiration, look no further than your great grandmother’s routine – their generation was notorious for keeping immaculate homes and they had little more than baking soda, vinegar, salt, and lemons to do it. I share a lot of recipes on my feed, my blog, and in my book.
We imagine you spend a lot of time in nature. Do you have a favorite place?
We’re lucky to live right between Lake Michigan, The Green Bay trail, The Chicago Botanic Gardens, and a local forest preserve. As a family, our favorite thing to do is to hop on our bikes and take a long ride through one, if not all, of those places. If I could choose any place in the world, I’d choose the Colorado Rockies. I worked at a ranch outside of Boulder in college and fell in love with the mountains there. We try to go back every year to ski or snowboard as a family.
If you could leave the world sharing a few words of wisdom that would help them live better, more sustainable lives, what would you tell them?
I would tell them to spend as much time in nature as possible. Once you build a connection with a piece of land or a body of water, you’ll naturally want to protect it. You’ll have your why and the how will naturally fall into place.