Minimalism for the Environment

When I first came across the concept of minimalism, around the year 2009, I wasn’t too impressed. It seemed to me that minimalism was all about getting rid of stuff. Sometimes perfectly good stuff and where that stuff went after leaving the home wasn’t touched on much, so minimalism seemed to me to be supporting a heavier use of landfills. After reading the first book on minimalism that I found, the idea that minimalism was all about housekeeping and de-cluttering was cemented in my mind. I moved on to other things.

You see, back in 2009, my environmentalism was more a field of study and a rallying call behind my activism. I didn’t yet understand that each of us in our daily living creates our legacy. So home upkeep seemed irrelevant to me back then, especially as an unmarried college student.

This year, I began my minimalist journey in earnest and I don’t think I’ll ever see the world the same way again. I was initially lured back into the realm of minimalism by stumbling upon the concept of capsule wardrobing. The idea that I could finally look decent without breaking the bank, filling the laundry basket, and ravaging the Earth held great appeal. I saw a minimalist practice as both personally and environmentally beneficial for the first time. I began to see that less really was more and that there was more to less.

Rather than simply ditching things, minimalism has become a call to rethink my consumptive habits. I am in a process of considering what I really need or love to have in my life. It is a lens that I’ve begun looking through that puts a damper on my desire to collect things for that false sense of security or to keep up with the Jones’. In simplifying my everyday habits, I am content with less and so I buy less.

The things I have around me I have because they help me to be the person I want to be. I know better who I want to be by exploring what is meaningful to me and this exploration is at the heart of minimalism. It is an ongoing and personal process. There is no end point and there is no contest between me and other minimalists.

How Minimalism Has Shaped My New Environmentalism

As I mentioned above, I didn’t see the environmental benefits of minimalism at first. Like many new to the concept of minimalism, I focused on the most visible attributes of the philosophy. It wasn’t until I began exploring another movement, called Zero Waste, that I understood that the practice of sustainable living benefited from a framework, or a hierarchy of decisions. At the peak of the Zero Waste hierarchy, created by Bea Johnson in her Zero Waste Home book and blog, is the first “R”, which stands for “refuse what you do not need”. The second “R” is “reduce what you do need”.

What would have been painfully obvious to a practicing minimalist but took me some time to grasp was that these first two “R”s, are a call to minimalism, because waste is naturally reduced when consumption is reduced.

In fact, whatever the impact you have on the environment, whether your choices are considered wildly harmful to the environment or only mildly so, choices both big and small, that impact is made automatically less harmful be curbing the consumptive level. For example, say you have a Hummer as your family vehicle. You’re not in a position to replace the vehicle right now, but you have become more environmentally conscious. To make the least impact, you decide to combine errands, to carpool, and to simply drive less when activities could be walked or biked to instead. This is clearly not the ideal scenario, but it is a realistic one that improves the situation just by making the decision to consume less.

I now consider minimalism at the top of my environmental hierarchy of decision making. I first look to refuse and reduce the things coming into my home before I look at other issues such as buying second-hand, limiting plastic, avoiding animal products and testing, and so on. The decisions I could make might be endless, but if I am already refusing an object that I decided I don’t need, I no longer have to worry about how ethically it was produced (I’m protesting an unethical or unnecessary product by not handing over my money in the first place).

And, by the way, when I do de-clutter, I’ve learned that I can think minimally and responsibly at the same time. I always think about alternatives to the landfill first.

Learning about minimalism has been a life-altering journey, but by placing my minimalism in the framework of my environmentalism, I have also found that the impact has even broader repercussions than I had thought possible.

Amending My Approach

We’re nearing the end of my 30 day challenge (only 5 days left!) and I’ve come to the conclusion that in many ways, I’m doing it “wrong”. It isn’t that there aren’t as many ways to go zero waste as there are people, because it is just this fact that escaped me!

What do I mean? I sort of acted as though zero waste living were a checklist. While the actions I took were largely valuable, they weren’t tailored to my lifestyle, mentality, and interests. The main problem with this approach is that I would be forever comparing myself to others and “keeping up with the Johnson’s” (See what I did there? Shout out to Béa Johnson!). I actually found myself buying more stuff to accommodate a whole new lifestyle instead of tweaking my own.

So, now it’s time to do something a little different. For today’s action, I will clarify my own zero waste approach.

Zero Waste According to Me

Technique for the stuff I own already:

(1) Wait until something runs out or is broken before thinking about replacing it. For instance, if I throw out my plastic Tupperware in a hurry to switch to glass to be more “zero waste”, I’ve actually created waste. I need to be more comfortable with transition.

(I could see making exceptions in the case that continued use poses more environmental impact than replacing an object. A possible example would be switching from a battery-operated MP3 player to one that could be wall-charged.)

(2) When something runs out or breaks, consider whether it needs to be replaced. Is it integral to my life? Or just one more thing?

(3) Consider how to replace those things I value in a more sustainable fashion (maybe a bamboo cutting board over a plastic one or bulk rice over bagged).

When out and about:

Refuse what I do not need: yeah, it took me this long to get here. Refuse receipts, freebies, business cards, plastic straws, etc.

While I’m refusing what I do NOT need, I get clearer on what I DO need. Which I think will naturally lead to reduction. This process has the added benefit of helping me with my minimalist goals.

When I find those things I do need, I find a way to meet the need through re-use options. For instance, clothes are a necessity so buying used is a neat re-use method. Also, borrowing is a viable re-use strategy that doesn’t get enough attention. Go for the library card over buying even used books. I can always buy a book (used) if I decide I would really like to have it.


This comes down to the three “R’s”. You know, Re-use, Recycle, and Rot.

* More than anything else, zero waste is a philosophy of conscious consumption. Being aware of all the acts of “use” is an ongoing process, not a destination one can reach, check off, and be done with. 

How About You? 

Have you unconsciously found yourself wanting to collect zero waste trinkets or remove stuff prematurely to up your zero waste credentials? Or is this just me? Let me know how you keep your head while pouring your heart into the idea of cutting down waste in the comments below.

A Year Later…

When I first wrote about zero waste, I had not yet read Bea Johnson’s book Zero Waste Home. I had begun reading it about the time I had written this particular post and was just beginning to digest her more revolutionary approach. I definitely recommend this book, if you have not read it already. It is on my “if the house burnt down repurchase this list”.

The thing is, it had not yet occurred to me how central simplifying and minimalism really was to the whole zero waste package. You can’t really know what you’re buying out of habit and what you’re buying from true need without examining the areas of your life and making decisions regarding what is really important to you. This is the work of minimalism.

I am currently in the beginning steps of minimalism, picking topic after topic to re-examine and to revamp. I’ve begun the process with my clothes, hygiene, books, and kitchen, but I don’t feel that I’m “done” with these categories – I’ve simply brought more awareness to my choices and in the process made them more zero waste.

zero waste home

Until next time, keep that talk walking!