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When environmentalism and minimalism converge


Thursday 16 November was Use Less Stuff Day, an attempt to target the highest consumer period in the US. A big part of what we do at WWF is helping people to reduce their consumption because of the devastating effect unsustainable consumption is having on our natural world. We’re all becoming more aware of how our love of disposable fast fashion, single-use plastics, and the latest devices is contributing to damage and pollution in the environment.

Plastic debris washed ashore.Plastic debris washed ashore

Over the last year, I’ve been working on finding out more about minimalism: a growing movement of people who start off by decluttering their homes, but then take it further by seeking to reduce and eliminate all unnecessary things from their lives so that they can focus on what’s really important to them. Minimalism could be anything from creating a reduced capsule wardrobe, to streamlining your finances, to reducing how much time you spend watching television or consuming social media. And a minimalist lifestyle has benefits for the environment too, as it reduces consumption.

People driving a motor truck with plastic bags for recycling near Xian city, northern China.People driving a motor truck with plastic bags for recycling near Xian city, northern China

I started small when I was trying to find quiet ways to spend my newborn’s nap times at home. It began when I was trying to file my husband’s pension paperwork, then realising our paperwork was all over the place, so tackling one file, then some drawers, then looking in all our cupboards and different areas of the house. I gradually went through what was there, sorting out what I wanted to keep, then donating and recycling stuff that was out of date, we weren’t using, or just simply had no value to us anymore.

A household cupboard containg typical cleaning products, many of which contain palm oil.A household cupboard with typical cleaning products, many of which contain palm oil; one of the world’s biggest causes of deforestation

My top tips for anyone who wants to give minimalism a go…

  • Start with the benefits! How will your life be better with less stuff? Do you want a more peaceful home, more money, more time? A major goal of mine was to spend less time tidying and cleaning, so I could then spend more time with my family. And I achieved it. I’ll say that again – I now spend significantly less time cleaning. Believe me, that particular benefit has been worth any initial effort required!
  • Decide how to approach your declutter. Marie Kondo advises doing it all in one go if you can. The Minimalists advocate boxing up absolutely everything and only taking out what you need, as you need it. My approach was to do little and often until I’d looked through all areas of the house, and to focus on what I wanted to keep rather than what I wanted to get rid of. This can be an overwhelming process as you uncover items that cause you emotion – guilt at spending so much on things you forgot you had, frustration at clothes that no longer fit, sadness at items that remind you of a loved one. So do it at a pace and in a way that suits you.
  • Start with the easy stuff. Don’t start with that box of love letters or that bag of old photos. I started with paperwork, as it carries little emotional attachment for me, and it meant I could flex those decluttering muscles on something I actually enjoyed getting rid of. You might like to try starting in the bathroom, or with a category of clothing such as sleepwear or underwear. Doing this will mean when you get to the really sentimental stuff, you’ll already be in the swing of making decisions about what you can happily live without.
  • Think about how you will dispose of your unwanted items. You may feel that you want to sell items to try and recoup what you spent on it, but one thing that the process has taught me is this: your stuff is not worth very much. We live in a consumer-focused culture where you can buy or have delivered just about anything, making your second hand goods, no matter how great a condition they’re in, not worth very much at all. This can be pretty devastating. But it’s still better to give something away than to feel that guilt every time you look at it. So maybe sell a few things you can receive a decent return on, but then just donate or recycle as much as you can. I chose a few charity shops and gave my good quality books, clothes and kitchenware to them, reconciling my sunk cost into a charitable donation.

If you’re thinking of trying out some decluttering, post a comment below, and look out for more blogs on this subject in the coming months. In the meantime, why not try our footprint calculator to see where you could start to change your habits to help the environment.

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