Wearing out clothes > buying new and donating old

Much of what is written on clutter and organisation blogs focusses on how to ‘declutter’, i.e. how to decide which things to get rid of. Plenty of these blogs also suggest responsible ways in which to get rid of your excess stuff, either through recycling or donation to charity.

I believe that these efforts to keep your stuff out of landfill are laudable. However, there are still issues with even donating your things to charity, that make me think that the better option is to not buy new stuff, and to wear what you have until the point at which it falls apart. And then cut it into rags for cleaning. Buying new and then donating is a cycle, which is not necessarily a helpful one! There are two thoughts which drive my reasoning behind this:

Thought #1: the urge to consume
If you want the physical and mental space that an uncluttered closet gives you, and you buy new clothes, you will need to donate some old clothes to maintain the space. Often a ‘one-in, one-out’ rule works well for this, and has plenty of benefits, including financial ones. However, to my mind, this can create a cycle in which you still buy new things, safe in the knowledge that your minimalist lifestyle won’t be disrupted, as you can just move some other stuff along by donating, feeling warm and fuzzy about giving to charity in the process. This approach doesn’t necessarily lead us to think critically about consumption, capitalism, disposable/’upgrade’ culture, moreover, we still spend time and energy on shopping – researching and choosing what it is we want to buy, going out to get it, getting the instant-yet-temporary high from the purchase etc. Many of the benefits of minimalism are lost in the buy/donate cycle.

Thought #2: the global impact of continued consumption
This line of thought is (for me, development studies graduate and generally concerned global citizen) the more compelling reasoning to stop buying and donating.

First, of course, buying new stuff means a higher environmental impact. This short article on the environmental impact of denim gives but a tiny snapshot of the resources used and damaged created by the manufacture of new jeans. Then we have the issues of the living and working conditions of the people who make the clothes to consider.

But there is also an issue with the donation side of the cycle, not just the buying new aspect. Goodwill in the US, and charities over here often receive far more clothes and other donations than they can realistically resell, or the donations are unsellable – think about the free company logo t shirt that you got from that teambuilding conference in 2003 – who would buy that from a charity shop? Often what happens to these excess items is that they are made into clothing bales and shipped to the developing world to be sold there. This is still re-use for the clothes, so better than just chucking them in landfill, but the massive influx of Western cast-offs is not an unequivocal good, as it often undermines the local economy and local manufacturer’s efforts to make and sell clothes. Kind of similar to the issues with TOMS shoes Buy-One-Give-One model. Dumping our cast-offs on the ‘less fortunate’ is not always helpful, and in fact can often be quite the opposite.

Of course, there are plenty of ways in which donating your old clothes can be constructive – if your stuff does get sold in the local charity shop and raises money, or if your clothes go directly to the backs of local homeless people in need, that’s all well and good! However, it’s hard to know exactly where your clothes may end up when you donate, so justifying a buy-and-donate cycle on the grounds that your donations are ‘doing good’ is not always easy. When this issue is added to the others of buying into consumerist culture, time spent on shopping and donating, and the environmental and human impact, this points towards opting out of the cycle.

The Alternative
It seems to me that the better option is to not upgrade/update your wardrobe, and instead to wear your clothes out completely. That doesn’t necessarily mean looking a mess – it can work to downgrade things that are looking particularly scruffy to ‘around the house only’, then ‘doing the gardening’, then to shred really decrepit clothes into cleaning rags, or stuffing for a cushion.

If you buy a lot fewer clothes, it will be quicker to wear them out than if you have a wardrobe stuffed full of clothes that would take years to wear out. This aspect helps me with one of the struggles I have with this whole concept, which is keeping up with fashion. Now, I’m hardly a fashionista (far from it), but even I am not going to be wearing 1999’s bootleg cut jeans in 2014! It is nice to look and feel good in what you are wearing, to be dressed appropriately for your job and so on. Having a few clothes that you wear until they wear out means that you can replace them with something nice and up to date relatively regularly, and use those bootleg jeans for painting the kitchen.

Lessons From My ‘Tiny House’ Taster Week

Recently, I spent a week with my husband in a tiny holiday cottage in the Lake District. The cottage was a dovecot in its previous incarnation, so not really built with human-size living in mind! We had the downstairs, which consisted of a kitchenette and seating area, and upstairs had a bedroom and bathroom. It was furnished simply, but with character (hard not to have character in a stone cottage of that age and providence, but the awesome rocket-ship shaped wood burning stove definitely helped!) and certainly had everything that we needed to live for the week. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the people who choose to live in ‘Tiny Houses’, as it seems to me to be a very uncompromising way of minimising clutter – you simply can’t have excess stuff if your home won’t accommodate it – so staying in this little cottage felt like a taster session of that life for me. 

What struck me within about 24 hours of being in the cottage is how little stuff we really need to be happy and at ease. Now, my own home is not exactly overflowing, and I think most of my friends would consider it uncluttered, even if we don’t quite reach Pinterest-esque levels of minimalist beauty (I love looking at those pictures for inspiration, by the way, but can ‘real’ functionable homes exist in such a state of white simplicity and beauty? I suspect not! Perhaps that is another blog post… ). However, my own home does have a lot more physical space than our holiday cottage: we have 2 living rooms, a kitchen diner, home office, garage, spare bedrooms, bathrooms, storage closets and so on. With that space comes a certain amount of stuff, which I thought I had got down to a fairly minimal level. However, spending a week in a tiny cottage gave me a kind of mental reset when I realised that actually two living areas equals two large sofas, plus chairs, footrest, side tables, shelves, lighting, and so on. The tiny cottage had a two-person love seat and a small armchair. Did having smaller seating and less seating choices make me any less happy than I would be at home? Of course not. In fact, it was really nice reading my books snuggled up to my husband! In truth, I did miss my padded footrest, but when I really wanted to put my feet up, I lay on the bed instead. I don’t need all the furniture we have at home to be happy.

In some senses, the smaller dimensions of the cottage made it easier to have less stuff: at home, we have several rooms in which we have a radio, whereas the tiny cottage was so small that one would suffice for the whole house as you could hear it everywhere. There was a tiny TV in the living area – which we didn’t actually watch as reading and going hiking is much more relaxing – but had we watched it, the small screen would have been perfectly adequate as the small space meant the seating was much closer. A smaller space meant much less heating and lighting was required to make it cosy and comfortable – definite financial benefits! 

The only area that we struggled with was space to store our clothes. There wasn’t much floor space for our cases upstairs, and the wardrobe space was very small. We ended up using the stairway bannister to drape our things, which is neither ideal storage nor pleasing to the eye! It wasn’t that we had bought a particularly large amount of stuff, the space was simply too small and too fiddly. The bannister-storage-solution also meant that our clothes smelt of cooking and woodsmoke from the fire due to the open plan nature of the cottage. This is something I’ve often wondered about people living in tiny houses, as they are usually open plan-ish – how do they prevent cooking smells permeating everything? I wouldn’t enjoy a duvet cover which smells like frying onions. 

Overall, however, the mental reset button that I pressed by spending time in a tiny home has remotivated me to continue minimising at home, and to question the difference between needing something and wanting something, and how much is really needed to be comfortable and happy. 

Stuff and Clutter

Many people, myself included, are frustrated with physical clutter in their homes and workspaces. Clutter in this sense – probably the most commonly used definition – is collections of disorderly ‘stuff’ that take up space and get in the way. Or it can just mean a lot of stuff in a small area. It doesn’t really matter what the ‘stuff’ is that creates clutter – it can be papers, clothes, ornaments, camping gear (my current clutter!), or just miscellaneous junk. Regardless of form, clutter begs to be dealt with, either through organising and sorting through it all – there is a whole industry of professional organisers who aim to help you get on top of your clutter – or through the more minimalist route of disposing of the clutter, one way or another so that it is simply out of your life.

Personally, I favour the latter route. The problem with ‘organising’, it seems to me, is that you will almost inevitably end up having to reorganise the same objects at some point. For example, if your wardrobe and chest of drawers are tightly packed with clothes and it is a pain in the arse to put stuff away in them, you probably end up plonking clothes on a chair or maybe the floor. So one day you get so frustrated with the clothing mountain that you decide to sort out the pile of clothes, and fold and put them all away neatly, perfectly aligned, stacked and organised. Lovely. But your wardrobe and drawers are still really full with all these tightly packed, neatly organised clothes, and getting out one t shirt from under some others upsets the whole lovely pile you made, requiring a re-folding exercise, and putting clothes away after laundry becomes a real chore again as you are still trying to squeeze things in to their allocated place, so they go on the nearby chair… The whole cycle just starts over again!

The fundamental problem is not solved by organising, in this case, as there is still too much ‘stuff’, which morphs into ‘clutter’ once it hits the floor and starts getting in your way. If the wardrobe had a lot more free space in it, there would be less of a hurdle to putting things away easily, so the stuff (clothes) would remain stuff in their wardrobe, rather than becoming clutter on the floor. Essentially, stuff becomes clutter when it isn’t in its home, and chances are, your storage space (i.e. homes for stuff) is limited, therefore to cut clutter, you need to minimise your stuff until it fits comfortably in its allocated home, and stops trying to break free onto the floor/kitchen table/sideboard.

I suppose you could just keep increasing your storage capacity – buy a new wardrobe, refit the kitchen with customised storage – to accommodate your stuff, but then, how many clothes/saucepans/camping mugs do you actually need? There are only seven days in a week, when would you wear all those clothes, and use all that stuff? Furthermore, the more storage you have for stuff, the more time you have to spend putting stuff away (even if you have made it easy for yourself by having it uncramped), cleaning you stuff, performing maintenance tasks on your stuff, and the less space you have to move around in your home due to all the storage ‘solutions’.