Minimalism and Sustainability: How having less gives our planet a chance.

19/08/2020

Awareness around environmental sustainability is growing, with many of us adopting lifestyle changes in order to address these concerns. What if there was a super-simple way to protect the Earth which is being completely overlooked? This blog explains how we can significantly improve the sustainability of our lives, simply by buying less.

More and more of us are gaining an awareness of environmental issues and sustainability. It seems like every day there's another news story about climate change, pollution or the evils of plastic. Documentary series such as 'Our Planet' have also played their part, helping us to consider the effects of human choices on the Earth. This new consciousness can be depressing, (who didn't shed a tear when David Attenborough introduced the last two white rhinos?) and it's tempting to put on your blinkers and accept there's nothing you can do. However, awareness can also bring motivation to act, and this is a very positive thing.

The Green Lifestyle

With the increased concern for sustainability, we've tried out lifestyle changes to be kinder to the environment. It's so encouraging to see initiatives like Veganuary have promoted a plant-based diet, there has never been more vegan-options in restaurants. We are seeing people choose cycling instead of that great petrol-powered-pollution machine, the car (a silver lining of the giant coronavirus cloud). Not to mention, it's become almost sinful to accept a plastic straw with a drink! Maybe you have cut down on eating meat, looked for plastic free cosmetics or started cycle commuting? If you have tried any of these, massive kudos from me. It's so amazing to see so many small changes taking place to protect our world.

What if there was a super-simple way to live green which is being completely overlooked? Something that does not receive much attention from the media but, once pointed out, becomes obvious. Simply through buying less of everything, you can significantly reduce your personal impact on the earth.There is so much potential to decrease environmental impact by popularising the idea of living with less.

As a minimalist and de-cluttering advocate, my aim is to promote the many benefits to be gained by recognising that there are few material things any of us really need. This idea of happy living with less possessions is what I'll refer to as a minimalist lifestyle. In this blog I'll make the case for a minimalist lifestyle as the most sustainable way to live. First, I'll describe how consumer goods harm the environment - so get your goggles on and prepare for some science! Then, I'll bring in some practical advice on how to reduce the amount of stuff we all buy.

Can't compete with carbon feet

It's likely familiar with the concept of a 'carbon footprint'. Briefly, a carbon footprint is the annual amount of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide, produced by an individual or group. For example, the average carbon footprint of someone living in the UK is equivalent to 14.6 tonnes carbon dioxide. But wait, why am I giving you this science lesson and how on earth does this relate to de-cluttering? I'm so glad you asked! Stay with me, and all will be revealed.

Carbon emissions come from food production, home energy use and fossil-fuel powered cars. That much is widely made obvious by the mainstream media. What's always disregarded is that emissions also originate from to the things we buy. Take a look at this illustration showing the average UK carbon footprint. The largest part of our carbon footprint comes from goods and services - the things we buy. Every item of clothing, every mobile phone, every bar of soap you buy contributes to your carbon footprint. It's entirely logical we should address this area if we are serious about living sustainably.

The largest part of our carbon footprint comes from goods and services - the things we buy.

How do consumer goods add so much to our carbon footprint? The unimaginably complex process of manufacturing and shipping, which lies behind all types of products, results in carbon emissions. To illustrate, let's consider a hairdryer.

The Carbon Footprint of a Hairdryer

  • Our hairdryer is made of steel, an iron alloy, and plastic, from oil. Methods for extracting these raw materials use energy from fossil fuels (and are damaging in other ways).
  • Raw materials are transported to a factory using fossil-fuel powered trucks, of course giving off carbon emissions.
  • Finished products travel long distances to reach our shores and our stores, again under the power of fossil fuel.
  • Even the energy used to run the shop which our hairdryer sits in before it's purchased likely comes from yet more fossil-fuels

The Footprint of Everything

It's not only carbon emissions that we need consider when thinking about the sustainability of the things we buy. Extraction of metals degrades natural landscapes, disrupts ecosystems and affects local air quality. Manufacturing processes often use harmful chemicals which are released into the environment. Plastic production and disposal carries an abundance of serious problems, which I won't go into here but which you no doubt have heard about. Textile production requires massive amounts of water, a crucial and finite resource. Taking too much water from natural sources can and does result in natural disaster (just google 'Aral Sea').

The Environmental Impact of a T-Shirt

But wait, what about recycling?

I'd love to put on my rose-tinted spectacles and imagine that when my clothes reach the end of their usable life they will be recycled back into thread and used to make new things - what's called a 'closed loop'. Unfortunately, the existing recycling infrastructure just isn't there yet. Yes, it is possible to recycle textiles into new fibres. However, it's more likely textile items are 'downcycled' into low-grade blankets or insulation materials.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

Ah recycling, that crutch we all lean on to feel better about the extreme wastefulness which our lifestyles demand. "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is an oft-touted policy on waste and a tagline you've probably seen written on the side of a bin lorry. In 'Down to Earth', Zac Efron's Netflix show with something of an environmental agenda, Zac explains "reduce, reuse, recycle" as "reducing, through the reuse of things like straws, bags and bottles". I was quite peeved to hear this. It's really easy to think of 'reduce, reuse, recycle' as a snappy alliterative phrase which is basically three words with the same meaning - however this is incorrect. "No Zac, you are wrong!", I lamented at the telly.

The phrase "reduce, reuse, recycle" is called the waste hierarchy. The words are put in order of importance. The most important thing is to REDUCE the amount of stuff we make and buy. So, only buy what you really need and look to buy things which don't come in too much packaging. The next step towards sustainable consumerism is to RE-USE. So, look to buy second hand rather than new. And of course, if you need to discard something usable, sell it on - this way we can create a thriving secondhand market. That leaves RECYCLE as the last resort, if something can't be reused, hopefully there's a way to salvage and recycle it's components.

What does this mean for anyone who's trying to live sustainably? Simply that the best habit to adopt is to buy less.

Own Less, Need Less, Shop Less

Any nit-pickers reading this might at this point ask; "If living green means buying less, surely we should hold onto the things we have? Throwing them away would be extremely wasteful!" So why advocate de-cluttering? In reply, I'd reason that the adjustment in mindset which inevitably follows a thorough clear out results in a dramatic reduction in shopping drive.

After de-cluttering your home, you'll realise that you can live comfortably with very few material possessions, the minimalist lifestyle. This fosters an attitude shift where you no longer seek to buy new things so often. You'll be more resistant to the wills of advertisers and less tempted by impulse buys. It's like I said in a previous blog; "having less means I never want more. I've acknowledged what is truly necessary for me, so I already have everything I want". Following a minimalist lifestyle means letting go of the desire to acquire.

How to Buy Less

Before going shopping, first consider if you really need the thing, whatever it is. Personally, I find it helpful to ask myself "will this add value to my life?", before making any purchase. Of course, the definition of 'need' varies from person to person. Do you need a new dress for every party? Do you need individually wrapped sachets of porridge oats? Do you need more than 6 teaspoons? My answer would be 'no'. If your answer is 'yes'; I have clearly failed to reach you with the intended message of this post! However, we can't all be spoon-counters like myself and I'd encourage you to assess what is necessary for you. I hope that the information given in the first part of this post helps you to weigh up the benefits of things vs their environmental impact.

How many spoons is necessary for you?
How many spoons is necessary for you?

Next, you can reduce the amount of stuff you need to buy through selecting things which will last, both in terms of their appearance and functionality. Avoid items with trend-led or gimmicky design which will date quickly, or you will simply get bored of. I'd recommend choosing homewares in neutral colours with a simple design. Not only will these stay in style, but will help create a relaxing home environment.

Another wise tip is to keep in mind the mantra 'buy cheap, buy twice'. What this means is, cheaper items will likely break or wear out quickly. If you buy the cheapest item, you will be forced to purchase the same thing again sooner or later. Instead, you can choose to spend slightly more on something which will last for a long time. When you've decided to live with less and only buy what you need, it's easier to spend a little more on those few useful things.

Let's not forget that when we buy things, we usually have to buy packaging and/or accessories along with them. We can reduce the amount of waste in this area by choosing things with minimum packaging.

The Power of Second Hand

Buying and selling second-hand is an extremely effective way of improving sustainability where consumer goods are concerned. Firstly, second-hand goods are an obvious example of reuse, the second pillar in the waste hierarchy. If something can be passed on to a new owner, it is saved from being wasted. Furthermore, the carbon footprint of a second-hand thing is much less than something brand new.

A second-hand market also addresses the first pillar of the waste hierarchy, to reduce. This is because when more second-hand goods are available, the demand for new things is reduced. Business will keep making things so long as there is customer demand, pumping out carbon emissions as they go. So, if people are buying less things, maybe these businesses will start making fewer, better quality things, which are a little more expensive? That's the dream.

How to Buy Less and Reduce Waste

  • Avoid trends or design gimmicks
  • Prioritise good quality
  • Choose neutral colours for clothes and homewares
  • Buy only what you need
  • Choose items with less packaging
  • Shop Second Hand
  • Don't go shopping!

Sustainable Brands and Ethical Shopping

Some businesses specialise in offering products which are better for the environment. When you do need to buy things, it's great that brands like this exist. I'll not go into the array of ethical fashion brands and green-leaning stores right now, because this post is about how to shop less. Providing a shopping guide would be most counter-intuitive. However, I'd recommend taking a look at Ethical Consumer's website to inform your future purchasing decisions.

To shop is to vote. When you buy something, you tell the company that makes it to keep up their good work. In this way, buying second-hand or from companies with a sustainable ethos makes sense. Don't forget though, the most sustainable choice is to not buy anything. Buying less is a vote for a more sustainable type of consumerism. Buying less promotes a move away from churning out masses of cheap product, into a system which values quality and longevity.

Patagonia knows the deal.
Patagonia knows the deal.

The most sustainable choice is not to buy it

By adopting a minimalist lifestyle where we buy less, we can take our fair share of resources and live sustainably.

All things have an environmental impact, that's a fact which will never change. And that's okay, because we live on this planet and are entitled to share its resources. To create things, we need to take resources from the Earth. We can't forgo all food and things in order to keep the Earth pristine! It's only because we are taking too much that problems arise, as is the case right now. It's our culture of mass consumption which harms the Earth. By adopting a minimalist lifestyle where we buy less, we can take our fair share of resources and live sustainably.