Updated: Mar 13
If you’ve been following GreenLifeNH for any length of time, you have probably noticed a theme to my posts. I’m all about buying less, taking care of what you have, and doing things yourself if you can. So, it would be a natural jump to assume I am a minimalist. In fact, minimalism and environmentalism often go hand-in-hand. In order to have a smaller impact on the Earth, many environmentalists choose to live this way and, while it is absolutely tempting and something I have flirted with heavily in the past, I have ultimately decided minimalism does not serve my eco-goals.
Hear me out…
After years of trying to pare down my belongings using books like The Joy of Less and the Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I realized a few very important things.
First, I realized that it is very, very hard to donate or dispose of things properly. In all these shows and books, people throw all the stuff they don’t want or need into a bag or a truck and it magically disappears. But in real life, it is hard to get someone to take your ugly sofa, your mis-matched curtains, or your antique chair with the missing rung. Even Goodwill and Freecycle don’t want your toddler’s stained onesies or your ripped pants. Most things can’t be recycled curbside and some things can’t even be recycled through programs like Terracycle. So, if you’ve accumulated a fair amount of stuff already, then you are going to be throwing a lot of it in the dumpster if you go minimalist.
Am I saying you should keep all your trash so it doesn’t go in the landfill? Of course not. If something is truly trash, trash it. I’m just saying mindlessly tossing things “away” is not an option and if something might have another life, give it the chance.
This chair, which came from my parents’ house, had a lot of cat scratches on the arms. My mom intended to send it to Goodwill, but I assumed that Goodwill would trash it (Who would buy a ripped up chair, even for $10?). I used fabric from an old skirt to patch the arms (this is why I save fabric scraps… you never know what color you’ll need) and now the chair is in our living room.
Second, I realized that making do – a key principle of green living – requires the very supplies minimalists want you to toss away. If I want to patch those ripped pants, I’ll need those stained onesies. If I want to cover those ugly couch cushions, I’ll need those mis-matched curtains. If my kids want to create inventions, do art projects, and make forts, I will need all those random, broken, and generally undesirable bits and pieces. My grandparents – children of the Depression – had all sorts of odds and ends stashed away for just those situations because one never knew what one might need. If the alternative is a dumpster, think long and hard about whether you might someday have a use for those mismatched socks or frumpy linen napkins.
Am I saying you should keep those brand-new sheets you bought and didn’t like in case you need to cover a chair someday? Not at all! Anything you don’t want that can be donated and used by someone else, should be.
Third, I believe in buying wisely. Minimalists often challenge you to get rid of something because “chances are you won’t miss it, and, if you do, you can always buy it again”. They argue that you can use retail stores as your “storage unit”, but buying something twice is just plain wasteful. It’s better to spend extra time researching before you buy and even to borrow something from a friend to try it out first. There was also a minimalist trend (which has probably ended due to Covid) of “using the grocery store as your pantry”. But, if you are going to use 25 pounds of flour, you should buy a 25-pound bag and not 25 one pound bags. It just makes good ecological and economical sense.
Am I saying you should keep your food processor you rarely use because you might need it someday? No, and if you rarely use it, it’s probably in fine shape for donation. But make sure someone you know has one, because you might need to borrow one some day (I use mine ALL the time and I don’t understand why minimalists have such a problem with food processors!).
I use my food processor all the time! Stop trying to make me get rid of it, minimalists! If you want to make these delicious burgers, check out the recipe here.
Fourth, my kids love Legos and I love books. Having things isn’t the problem. How you get them and how you dispose of them is the problem. Once I realized that you can get used Lego sets online and even buy bulk used Legos by the pound, I decided I didn’t want to get between my children and their creativity.
And, once I realized that I can get used books from wonderful booksellers like these (Toadstool in Peterborough is my favorite) and from fun sites like PaperBackSwap, I didn’t feel so bad about my love of owning books (yes, I believe in and use libraries! Please don’t judge me!). But I am also careful to pass things on appropriately once they outlive their use in our house. That requires taking care of what I have so that it can be passed on.
Am I saying that as long as something is used, it’s totally fine to buy whatever you want? No. Shipping is still a consideration and so is ultimate disposal. But I do think, if you really love something and it can be purchased used or sustainably, you should go for it. Denying yourself too much will make you resentful. Want to know my deep, dark secret? Even though I buy almost everything used, I buy my three children new sets of organic matching pajamas every year. Brand new! Even the youngest one, who has hand-me-downs from her two older siblings already. Why? Because I am human and they look SO DAMN CUTE when they all match!
On that note... I hope this helps you rethink the connection between minimalism and environmentalism.
P.S. I’m totally open to disagreement on this point. I’d love to hear your thoughts!