Tips for maintaining an organized small space when you are prone to clutter
Written by Alice Robertson, a professional organizer and tidying consultant, for StyleWise
A note from Leah: In today's fast paced consumer economy, where items are purchased and discarded without a second thought, it's important to remember that "tidying up" can function merely as a release valve for overconsumption, personal guilt, and overwhelm. We should be careful to cultivate a type of consumption that releases us from this cycle, but in the meantime, it's good to know how to start the process of paring down for good.
It wasn’t too long ago that decluttering one’s home meant stuffing garbage cans and dragging oversized items out to the curb. Diminishing landfill space — today, 2,000 landfills hold more than 200 million tons of municipal waste — and a growing environmental consciousness have altered the way Americans dispose of waste and objects that create clutter. Eco-friendly decluttering is a deliberate, purposeful process that emphasizes recycling and finding ways to dispose of objects that can’t be simply thrown out. Protecting our environment requires everyone’s participation, so consider the following ideas for reducing, recycling and reusing.
Textiles account for a massive amount of the total material that’s sent to landfills. In 2014, more than 16 million tons of textile waste was produced, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The majority of that bulk — over 10 million tons of clothing, bedclothes, and mattresses — wound up in landfills. Old mattresses make up a considerable amount of textile wastage, despite the fact that much of the material inside a mattress is recyclable. So, contact a local recycling center to see if they have a mattress reclamation and recycling program. The American Textile Recycling Service has collection bins in communities across the US where you can leave old clothing, bedding, and other textile items instead of throwing them away. Find a drop-off location near you by calling 866-900-9308 24 hours a day.
Instead of tossing old clothing into the trash, make a trip to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or a local thrift shop with a mission that aligns with your values every month to keep textile waste from overwhelming your living space (call ahead to make sure that the shop has the infrastructure to send unsaleable items to textiles recycling facilities).
Or, take advantage of the second-hand economy by taking your unwanted clothing to consignment stores, holding a garage sale, or by selling them online on Ebay, Poshmark, or Etsy. It’s a great way to make decluttering pay off (literally) and recycle items that could benefit someone else. It’s certainly better than sending more waste to the local landfill; you can learn more by clicking here.
Appliances and Electronics
Decluttering can become a hassle when it comes to disposing of oversized items such as appliances and electronics. Check with appliance retailers who sometimes offer buyback programs to encourage consumers to recycle. If that old refrigerator in the basement still works, consider donating it to a homeless shelter or an orphanage. If, like many people, your drawers are jammed full of old computer keyboards, cast-off cell phones, cracked tablets, chargers, and other debris from outmoded electronic items, be aware that most communities have recycling facilities that make it easy to declutter all that drawer space in an environmentally responsible manner (many electronics retailers also have buyback programs).
Not only has technology made our lives easier, but it can also be put to work to help Mother Nature. What you need to declutter all those old documents and photos are a computer, an internet connection, and a scanner. Once you’ve scanned everything you want to keep, simply upload it to the cloud, where it can live forever at your fingertips and readily accessible.
Digital decluttering also lets you clear out computer downloads, unsubscribe from newsletters and email lists, clear out browser extensions, and better organize your images.
Clean and Green
Another not-to-be-overlooked benefit of eco-friendly decluttering is the opportunity to give your home a thorough cleaning. In keeping with the environmentally responsible theme, use natural and non-toxic cleaning substances that won’t threaten your family or the environment. Supermarkets and hardware stores offer many green cleaning options these days so you don’t have to default to the same bleach-based products you’ve always used.
If you prefer a more homespun approach, use common household substances like baking soda, lemon juice, or vinegar to clean the bathroom, get stains out of carpeting and upholstery, and deodorize your indoor air. Some of the safer cleaning products on the market are instantly recognizable (such as Bon Ami), while others, such as Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap, are made from natural substances and can be used to clean everything from floors and dishes to your body.
Decluttering frees you from the stress and strain of agonizing over what to do about unwanted and unneeded possessions. It’s a way of preserving the natural environment and making resources last longer. The next time you look around your house in despair, try thinking of decluttering as a freeing and self-empowering initiative and an opportunity to recycle and reuse.
Does it spark joy?
Sigh...So I've mentioned in pretty strong terms that I didn't like The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It struck me as a dangerously short sighted trend meant to replace a sense of meaning in our lives with some superficial platitudes and an even more concentrated obsession with the things we consume.
But recently I sat down and watched a few episodes of the new Tidying Up with Marie Kondo series on Netflix, and two things stuck out:
Marie Kondo is an absolute delight.
The KonMari method is surprisingly subjective and forgiving.
Because the basis of Kondo's method is the questions, "does it spark joy?" there's actually quite a bit of room to keep things that aren't practical, to remain in your cozy and eccentric home instead of going full on The Minimalists. That is very comforting to me.
That being said, the KonMari method can still be dangerous from a sustainability and even mental health perspective. I worry that this second wave of tidying up will result in essentially the same outcome as the last one: lots of junk in thrift stores and seemingly no reduction in long term consumption of new goods. As a thrift shop manager, I have been carefully tracking the trend and asking customers and donors if they're watching the show. Many of them are, but the influx at my tiny local shop is nowhere near what's being reported in elsewhere.
All that to say, this system isn't perfect but, if you have some clarity of mind and are ready to downsize, it can be an effective way to frame your decisions. After I got back from living out of a backpack for ten days, I felt ready to finally clear out my overstuffed closet. Scroll down for some Before and During the #konmari process photos.
I went through the items in my fall/winter wardrobe by themselves before moving onto spring/summer, partially because it's harder to judge an out-of-season item by the joy standard when it's not currently serving a meaningful function in my closet.
Rather than adopt Kondo's vertical folded storage, I opted to keep my hanging shelves, folding my t-shirts, non-wrinkle prone blouses, and sweaters. This works just as well and makes better use my of space. In addition to clearing out five bags of clothing, I also condensed shoes, bags, and accessories. Using the joy method helped me clear out things that I like but that made me itchy, fit me poorly, or made me feel sad when I wore them. I will be donating things to a local charity shop and also selling niche items on Poshmark.
What's in my closet?
My Closet Staples
Affiliate links below
My basic fall/winter wardrobe consists of thermal long sleeve tops, cashmere and wool sweaters (I recommend thrifting these), and mid and high rise denim.
Thrifted Striped Tees
Secondhand LL Bean Cashmere
I also have a few statement pieces in my wardrobe. They don't get as much wear from day to day, but they keep me feeling excited about my clothes.
My Statement Pieces:
A secondhand nubby blazer
Tonle Zero Waste Crop Top (for layering)
It's only been three weeks since my closet clean-out, but I can say that it's made me more appreciative of the things that are true workhorses in my closet. Whereas before I was keeping things around "just in case" I needed them, now the things in my closet more accurately reflect my lifestyle and my sense of fashion. It's important for me to constantly remind myself of that and ask the "does it spark joy?" question when considering anything else I add into my closet. Otherwise, the experiment will fail.
Ethical Blogger Closet Tours:
I hadn't realized this until recently, but over the last few years, I've become very methodical in the way I follow trends.
Sustainable and ethical fashion bloggers will tell you to think of your purchases in terms of timelessness - and this is great advice - but most of us are still impacted by what's in now and purchase accordingly, even if we lean more minimalist than conventional bloggers.
And of course, minimalism as an aesthetic is a trend, which means there's no telling when this fashion movement that thinks of itself as existing outside of time will fizzle out. In fact, there are ripples of movement toward its polar opposite, maximalism, already apparent on the runways and in stores.
So I think it's worthwhile to admit that we are going to want to dress like others, whether we're influenced by runway shows, regional scenes, or global trends, and that the best way to do this responsibly is to set some ground rules.
3 Questions I Ask Myself Before Buying into Trends
This is the most important question to ask, because there are plenty of of-the-moment items that I might enjoy for the season when other people are wearing the same thing, but as soon as they all move on, will I still feel comfortable wearing them?
Do I like the style well enough to wear it even when it inevitably goes out of fashion?
Case in point: Mules. The mules comeback is undeniably cool and surprisingly fashion forward, but realistically, I can't see myself wearing them years from now. They'll feel dated quickly, at least in the context of my wardrobe and personal preferences, so they're not a good buy.
Is it constructed well and made with high quality materials?There's no sense asking the first question if the item I end up buying will fall apart after a couple seasons. If I'm going to make a purchase of any kind, I need to check fabric quality, breathability, care instructions, and seam construction. This is the key to making a responsible purchase, whether the item is trendy or timeless, because poor quality excuses us from having to really live with our purchases.
Can I justify the price point within my current budget?When it comes to fashion, there are everyday things and then there are things that just speak to us. In my book, it's ok to occasionally buy something that isn't inherently practical as long as it meets the first two qualifications and it fits within my budget. If I really needed a sturdy pair of jeans but I splurge on something whimsical, I haven't really made a responsible choice.
I've found that making these questions a habitual part of my shopping process helps me avoid impulse buys and keeps me far far away from the temptations of fast fashion stores. And, it helps me solidify my personal style, which is much more gratifying than mindlessly following trends.
Do you have any advice on trend buying? Is there a current trend you love but know you shouldn't embrace?
If you got sucked into watching the Minimalism movie like I did, you might be thinking about casting off your worldly possessions in an attempt to live a life of renewed meaning.
You wouldn't be alone in this. In fact, minimalism has been practiced within world religions for centuries, just under a different name.
What is Minimalism?
Minimalism is the practice of thoughtfully and intentionally reducing our attachment to things, which includes both reducing our current material possessions and committing to consume less overall, in an effort to reorient ourselves to more meaningful actions, thoughts, and relationships. We clear the clutter to make room for what matters.
Minimalism has been a buzzword in lifestyle blogging circles for a few years now, but it's finally reached the mainstream. Everybody and their neighbor is clutching their household items to their chest, Marie Kondo-style, and determining whether they feel a sacred and mysterious attachment before throwing old scissors, socks, sweaters, scrapbooks and more into the "Donate" pile.
Undoubtedly, a yearning to pare down and focus on the the things that matter - namely relationships, self improvement, and community causes - is a good thing. As founder of Factory45 (a sustainable fashion incubator) Shannon Whitehead points out in Minimalism, trend cycles have accelerated from something like 4 a year to as many as 52. The high ecological, human, and psychological cost of this bombardment of stuff is unsustainable. We're burning out fast, literally and figurately.
And in light of the climate change crisis, it's an important time to take a long, hard look at our priorities and commit to sobering up. Our economic and agricultural systems are on the cusp of imploding. It's not a question of whether we want to do anything about it, it's a question of whether or not we'll turn things around before it's too late.
Minimalism, the film
The Minimalism film, which follows Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, the writers behind the popular The Minimalists blog, puts forth the idea that minimalism is the key to finding purpose in the frantic, purposeless modern world we find ourselves in. Featuring industry experts, practitioners of minimalism, and a scientist (who, outside of the film, also happens to be openly antagonistic toward religious types) speaking over a hopeful musical score, the film's consistent message is that the American Dream as we know it - high paying job, houses, cars, and picket fences - has led us astray and that the antidote to this, the true American Dream, is letting it all go to pursue minimalism.
Now, I'm somewhat on board with this. I've railed against the American Dream before, and think that buying into it (pun intended) tends to make us hyper-focused on accumulation of stuff as status symbol, as proof that we matter.
It should be noted, however, that both Millburn and Nicodemus climbed the corporate ladder and were in cushy, well paying jobs by their early 20s. The bulk of the practitioners of minimalism profiled are similarly well-to-do: NBC anchors, former Wall Street bankers, independently wealthy 20-somethings, entrepreneurs; and many of them are white men.
I mention this because, while the film insists that minimalism is a universal solution to filling the void, the evidence is not representative of a real cross section of Americans, so the jury's still out on whether marginalized groups and people standing on the poverty line can benefit in the same way. On a related note, the secular humanist spiritual overtones of the quest are likely to resonate much more deeply with people in Silicon Valley than the Shenandoah Valley. The context is not universally accessible, and that concerns me.
The other interesting twist, which needs more analysis by someone smarter than me, is that both Millburn and Nicodemus grew up in unstable households with drug addicted mothers. If I were a psychologist, I think I would want to draw a connection between the extreme instability of their childhoods and the extreme order of their minimalist lives. Perhaps not coincidentally, Marie Kondo had a similarly unstable and frenetic childhood. Minimalism in these contexts looks like a direct response to trauma, a (relatively healthy, all things considered) coping mechanism to combat the sadness and regret of unhappy family lives.
I have no doubt that these guys really want the best for people. You could see by their interactions with event attendees that they're true believers, that they've found an authentic joy in practicing minimalism that they want to share with others. But the conclusions drawn were not representative of a broader reality. The Minimalists believe that minimalism is an end in itself, that the pursuit of such a lifestyle will fill the hole in all of our hearts. But within the context of the film's narrative this didn't ring true, not even for the main characters.
In my viewing, it seemed more likely that meaning was gleaned not from minimalism itself, but from the opportunity to commune with other like-minded people and try to make the world a little bit better together. This is something everyone can benefit from, but we need to frame it well.
And that's why I want to talk about historical minimalism, more commonly called asceticism.
What is Asceticism?
Asceticism if a lifestyle characterized by fasting and self-denial, abstaining from worldly and material pleasures in order to reflect on spiritual matters. We clear the clutter to make room for what matters.
Asceticism is minimalism, with one key difference. Ascetics are almost if not always religious adherents who deny themselves worldly pleasures with the specific intent of becoming "better" or more present practitioners of their faith, whatever that may mean in context.
Asceticism has been and continues to be practiced within many prominent world religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Monks, nuns, and priests within a variety of religions abide by some form of asceticism, practicing celibacy, modesty, vegetarianism, fasting, and meditation, and keeping rigid personal and communal schedules in order to more fully commit themselves to lives in service of God and people. Well known adherents to asceticism include St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa.
The ultimate purpose of asceticism is to totally reorient the practitioner's perceptions of what constitutes "the good life." Adherents are meant to find joy in simplicity and fulfillment in frugality. Being able to live more meaningfully with less frees the person to share the bounty, because it turns out that we don't need as much as we think to live well.
If you are taken by modern minimalism's purposeful ideal, you are following in a rich, transformative tradition.
But you must ask the question: what am I making room for?
Minimalism makes room for meaning, but asceticism - through its rich tradition and history - is inherently intertwined with and fixated on a particular meaningful goal. I do not buy the view set forth in the Minimalism film that merely pursuing a life of less will fill whatever emptiness we feel in our hearts and our homes at the end of the day. Minimalism may be a yellow brick road leading us to a place that feels more like home, but ultimately we're still directing our own lives.
What if I get rid of the books and the art and the past-season clothes and all I see are empty shelves, empty walls, and empty closets?
I can put in the work, but if it's not for something, it won't really matter.
Like the ascetics of old, we must become minimalists for a distinct reason. My Christian tradition gives me rich examples of ascetics who lived with little in order to contemplate God's will, and God's mercy. They were able to accomplish more than most because they weren't distracted by stuff.
You don't have to be a Christian to pursue a life of meaning, but I think you do need to know what your end goal is. Is it based in self-fulfillment or service to humanity? Is it based in a frantic need to start over or a quiet calling to embrace imperfection and settle in to the gifts of your life as it is now?
We in the conscious consumer community are fortunate to know what we're working toward: justice for people and planet.
If the pursuit of minimalism can make us better suited to accomplish that goal, then let's go for it. If it's just another way tamp down anxiety, then I think we can do without.
Whatever we choose, I think it's important we don't max out on minimalism. That's missing the point entirely.
Update 3/10/17, Additional Reading: Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy
To be honest with you, I hadn't really considered where the world's precious metals were sourced from until a few weeks ago. When I got married 5 years ago, ethical consumption was just a glimmer in my eye - I was really into etsy, but I hadn't overhauled my thinking yet - so I haven't had the opportunity to look much into fair trade or recycled options (in case you haven't noticed, I don't own a lot of fine jewelry).
Philadelphia based jewelry designers,
, contacted me a few weeks ago to introduce me to their Fairmined gold jewelry line. The brand specializes in eco friendly and sustainable jewelry pieces and, as such, already made all of their jewelry with recycled metals and gemstones. But, as they explained to some of my fellow
Ethical Writers Co.
members, demand for gold is greater than gold available on the secondhand market, so there's a "need" (that world is relative, isn't it?) for Fairmined options. You can read more about the process and requirements on the
As Bario Neal explains in their press release:
"the fairmined gold certification ensures that the gold has been ethically extracted by artisanal and small-scale miners who are certified under the Fairmined standard."
Bario Neal believes in promoting good business practices all around, so they seek out ways to reduce their environmental impact, collaborate with local artisans, offer traceable gemstones and metals, and promote marriage equality.
Top - secondhand;
- c/o Bario Neal
As it happens, the earrings I'm wearing here are actually made from recycled gold, and that's my preference anyway. They're the
and they add the perfect touch to anything. I love that they're small enough that I can leave them in when I go to bed and wake up accessorized, but the light hits them in such a way that they still make an impact. Another plus: I have very sensitive skin and these don't bother me at all.
I wore this outfit on the Fourth of July, gallivanting around wine country with out-of-town guests and enjoying the fireworks at a local park. I also wore the earrings the following day, when my former boss at the coffee shop told me she liked my earrings. And she's quite picky, so that's a real compliment. (And then I proceeded to never take them off.)
Shop Bario Neal
. Read more about their ethical and sustainable business practices
Featured Items (clockwise from left): Nomads Summer Halter Dress, Mata Traders Primrose Dress, Reformation Peony Dress, Ethica Elysees Dress, Ash & Rose Cherry Blossom Dress
Oh, and by the way, I'm using the Style Wise facebook page to post interesting articles and fair trade sales. There's a lot of interesting stuff happening in the world of retail right now.
Minimalism is in.
Capsule wardrobes; intentional living; clean lines; sustainable, closet-sized homes. But I hope you realize that the list I just spouted off represents two very different approaches to minimalism and that doing one doesn't necessarily indicate anything about the other.
Officially, the term minimalism applies to an aesthetic that favors spareness and simplicity. But more broadly, it has come to represent a pared down lifestyle that advertises itself as the answer to the breakneck pace and over-indulgence of American culture. We're stressed out, always working, constantly comparing ourselves to others, and we think that if we unclutter our living spaces, we may be able to make some room for stillness and reflection.
Aesthetic minimalism places no barriers on consumption. But simple living minimalism is almost entirely about living with less. Though the two are at odds, they share enough in common superficially to conveniently allow us to feel like we're improving ourselves while consuming and curating just as much as usual.
Case in point: A very prominent blogger I follow is doing a series on simplifying life. In a recent post, she indicated that she got rid of everything in her closet to buy a whole new closet of more classic items like - wait for it - leopard print sneakers and jeans with holes in them. The only intentional living I'm seeing here is intentionally finding excuses to stock up on trendy items.
The reason this matters - the reason I'm freaking out about it - is that confusing a look with an ethic is really dangerous. It's destructive to the fair trade movement, too, because it distracts people on this really exciting, really hard path to long-term ethical living. It's like a snake oil advertisement: Ease your first world guilt by literally not changing anything! The only problem is that you're actually just swallowing a bunch of poison (or maybe corn starch, if you're lucky).
Look, it's fine if you like the minimalism trend. I agree, it's pretty groovy. But don't confuse simple silhouettes with moral living. Your capsule wardrobe is not for a good cause.
And please, for the love of God (this isn't me swearing; I really mean it), please don't pretend that donating your whole wardrobe to the local thrift store is a great philanthropic deed.
sandals by fracturedradiance featuring black velvet shoes
This season's turn toward "minimalist" style is an interesting development because, for the most part, it doesn't really embrace minimalism. The blogging world is saturated with posts endorsing minimalist dressing by getting rid of a whole bunch of stuff you already own and replacing it with simpler garments, which in the end really just endorses over-consumption as usual.
That being said, I do like the classic shapes and understated styles, and there's something to be said for buying a pair of sandals that look like the ones featured above instead of knee high gladiators or bedazzled flip flops certain to be out of style in a couple of years. So, hooray for minimalism embraced responsibly. If you're hankering for a pair of sandals, maybe go with a classic silhouette you can wear for years, but don't go crazy and buy a different pair of "minimalist" sandals for every day of the week.
All sandals shown above are domestically produced, handmade, fair trade, responsibly manufactured, or vintage. Click on the styleboard to be redirected to product sources.
Read more about the t-shirt and the cause here.
*Photo links to original source.
The founder of Seamly.co, Kristen Glenn, reached out to me last fall to participate in her newly launched affiliate program. WordPress doesn't allow sidebar ads or affiliate links, however, so a full blog post seemed like the best way to promote her shop.
Seamly.co was launched with funds from a kickstarter campaign to produce an item called "the versalette," a seemingly simple piece of material designed to be worn up to 30 ways. I've never had much success with that type of garment since I prefer my clothing to have a set purpose, so I really love that the line has since broadened to include dresses, skirts, leggings, and basic tees.
Every item is made from surplus fabric in the USA, so it's guaranteed sustainable and ethically produced. Designs are minimalist and therefore versatile. They're perfect for this season's aesthetic and classic enough to wear for several seasons.
I'm saving up for the Wrapped Cardigan and the Seasonless Skirt. I'll make sure to let you know what I think once I get a chance to see and wear the garments.