Are You an Eco-minimalist or an Eco-maximalist?

I find myself thinking more about living a minimalist lifestyle and recently my eyes were opened to the concept of eco-minimalism.

I have a friend and admire her classic style. Upon speaking with her recently, she said she has gradually eliminated every item of clothing that isn’t made with natural fibers from her wardrobe. She buys second-hand cashmere sweaters, wool jackets, and silk pajamas. She informed me that every time I wash an item of clothing that is made with plastic, microparticles of plastic go into the water supply. The result is that we end up polluting not only the fish’s habitat but also our own drinking water.

Viscose is the only non-natural fabric she’d consider wearing as it is made with wood pulp. It doesn’t add plastic to the water supply with every washing. I’m glad to learn something new and am now checking labels to see what the clothes are made of before I buy them. Which brings up the question of being a better consumer.

We all know that overconsuming adds unnecessary stress to our bodies, lives and the planet. We know that clutter increases mess and stress, making you less productive and frustrated as you waste precious time trying to find things. 

Too much stuff leads to less happiness, not more. And yet, the typical American home has over 300,000 items. The typical British woman buys 59 new articles of clothing a year, even though she has an average of 22 items unworn in her closet. American kids have an average of 200 toys (90% of them plastic) and only play with 12. And to top things off, the US home has tripled in size since 1980 while the household size has shrunk. This is probably so we have space to put all the stuff!

Decluttering is a proper profession thanks to all the overconsumption and I’ve written about how to cut the excess here.

I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that we donate our used clothing to charity shops and that takes the sting out of any excess consumption. If you buy it and don’t need it, then donate it and problem solved, right?

That sounded good, until I read this article explaining just what happens to our castoff attire. Nearly 85% ends up in a literal mountain of unwanted clothes. I’m vowing to be very careful in the future to make sure only truly good clothes go to charity and the rest goes into textile recycling. It turns out, nobody wants clothing with missing buttons, tears, stains or damage. The world is awash in hand-me-downs and junk is not needed anywhere. 

A minimalist identifies what is truly essential in life and eliminates the rest. Their motto is less is better. Their practice is quality over quantity. 

A maximalist likes to have more than enough with a few spares. Their motto is “More is more and less is a bore.” — Iris Apfel. 

An environmentalist tries to live with the lightest possible environmental footprint on the planet. They are aware of the impact their actions and decisions have on the planet, recognizing the fact that sustainable living may be less convenient – repairing, borrowing and mending rather than buying new. 

Both minimalism and environmentalism are lifestyle choices. The combination is an eco-minimalist—someone who makes conscious and careful buying decisions with the intention of minimizing the harm they do to the environment. An eco-minimalist donates and discards responsibly, taking time to rehome their unwanted items. An eco-minimalist takes time before deciding to buy and researches the impact their purchase makes, considering how an item was made, is it long lasting? Can it be repaired? Is it something a friend or neighbor would let me borrow? 

The practice of minimalism frees up time and money as you streamline your life to reflect only the most essential, letting go of both things and obligations. 

While some part of me aspires to be a minimalist, my default wiring is set to maximalist. I naturally tend to overcommit to projects and people and parties and occasionally have to rein myself in. I feel more comfortable with lots of cushions on the sofa, with a surplus of books to read on my shelves, and a pantry full of dried goods just in case I need to entertain a party of 12 at a moment’s notice. And as much as I admire the design aesthetic of minimalism, I can’t resist adding in a few objects for visual interest and color. Thus while pulled to the serenity of minimalism, I find myself, like most people, somewhere in a very comfortable middle.

At the same time, I don’t want to do any more damage to the planet simply by being a typical consumer. My compromise is to be an eco-maximalist. 

What is an eco-maximalist you ask? Someone who cares about the planet, hates waste and loves things! (It’s also a clever way to get some shopping in without wreaking undo havoc on the planet in the process). True the ultimate goal for me is one of eco-minimalism, but this seems a good place to start. Plus, it feels more attainable with a house filled with a dog, a cat and two teenagers. Basically, I want to have my cake and eat it, too.

The solution is to buy as much as possible second-hand. Before buying new, first scout and ask around. Can you find it at a charity shop, e-bay, freecycle.org, local auction, an estate sale or even the dump? (We found bikes for the girls at the dump that needed a minor tune-up and they were good to go.) 

When we experience a desire for something, our kneejerk reaction is to think of where to buy it or to search online.

In contrast, here is how the eco-maximalist shops:

1. Put desired item on a 30-Day Wish List and intend to attract it for free or very little money. You can cut out an image of the item and stick it on the Wish List

2. Ask friends and neighbors if anyone has such an item they no longer want or need. 

3. Look for item on freecycle or e-bay, garage sales, estate sales, charity shops or auction houses.

4. If all else fails, try TJ Maxx next. 

5. If that fails, you can buy it new.

Most of the time you’ll either discover you don’t really want the item or you’ll attract it for free or very little money simply by not rushing out and buying new.

Every time you buy something used, that is one less item going into a landfill. Shopping at and donating to charity shops has a double bonus:

1. You are contributing to a worthy charity that is doing some good in the world.

2. You are extending the life on an item that otherwise might end up in landfill adding to the world’s waste pollution. And you are saving a nice chunk of money.

The fashion industry is second only to the oil industry in terms of environmental impact due to the high water usage, chemicals, plastics, pollution, and often unfair wages and poor working conditions. If you can change your fashion habits, you can change the world, one piece of clothing at time whether a minimalist or a maximalist. 

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