Are Zero Waste and Minimalism Practical Today?




Surplus makes people feel safe. We crave abundance, hoarding Facebook and Instagram followers as if they were junk mail or craft supplies. Some consume to save time, feel agency, or as a form of protection. Yet such precautions may have the opposite effect. Just as spreading social capital too thin results in shallower relationships, buying multiples and stocking up for what if events may waste money and resources, undermining the very security we try to create (as Tom Petty says in Crawling Back to You, "Most things I worry about never happen anyway"). Then some people are just greedy. I think we're programmed to get like this, though, because biologically, the impulse is to choose quality. Research suggests a cognitive limit to the number of relationships people can maintain at one time. Reasonably, we can only care for a fixed number of objects as well. 

Socially, economically, and environmentally speaking, there's never been a better time to show where you stand by what you buy- or don't buy- and wear. It's a way to leverage identity and dismantle systemic oppressors (see the price of tampons, Venus razors, women's hair and skincare products, et al. Buy a safety razor, a bar of soap, and a menstrual cup to save money and subvert the patriarchy). Take clothing, for instance. Thin fabrics, lack of linings, and prolific synthetics are modern marks of disenfranchisement. Many fast fashion consumers chase trends, but others simply don't have alternatives. Sadly, these kinds of clothes are not only manufactured with the blood of abused factory workers, they are often bathed in harsher chemicals, ending up in landfills near consumer homes and polluting water sources near sites of production- all subtler, more pernicious signifiers of social standing. Instead of being complicit in this kind of cultural demarcation, isn't it better to support empowering ethical brands? Or operations that recycle and reclaim existing resources?

Thrifting takes time though, and sourcing ethically produced items can be expensive. Is this a good reason to not shop better? I'm all about minimizing opportunities for human interaction as much as possible, but we can't actually afford to prioritize convenience anymore. Forget Keynes' erroneous prediction of expansive leisure time for a second (I blame smart phones and social networks for this- now people have too many ways to get a hold of you, so you can never get a break from work or school or whatever). Here are some things that are convenient: eating gluten even though you're a celiac, Nazi gassing operations, car companies letting people die because cost benefit analyses revealed that was cheaper than fixing defective fuel systems. Here's what's not convenient: whole islands and ecosystems rapidly disappearing, spelling doom for millions of climate refugees and the biomes they depend on.


People like to talk about zero waste as if it's a throwback to the days when women were shackled to their kitchens, scrubbing, canning, and cooking into the wee hours of the night. But zero waste saves me from shopping a lot, taking out the garbage, fussing over myriad beauty products, or maintaining tons of stuff. I don't spend hours or whole days doing laundry because there's not much to do. Lots of people who've never tried zero waste argue this can't be true. Even if it weren't, that's still a weak argument. If your reason for not changing the way you buy or use resources is it's hard, doing the right thing is never easy. Stopping climate change- that's hard. Don't you think sometimes all I want to do is just eat a matcha Kit Kat? But I don't, because once you know the right way to live, you can't go back. No lifestyle is truly effortless, not even one chock full of storebought hummus and spoonulas. Maybe if those people took time out from analyzing strangers' lives on the internet or presumably micromanaging their families, they would find the time to reduce their environmental impact even slightly.

The level of personal responsibility is different for everyone, depending on circumstances. If you're a struggling single mom with a bunch of kids who works full time (like my mom was), nobody expects you to live like Bea Johnson or Lauren Singer. I certainly don't expect you to not wash your hair or use toilet paper or thrift everything, even if you, too, are a restless soon to be divorcée with an insatiable sweet tooth and the ability to recite any line from Die Hard on cue. The most environmentally conscious people are often those who devote the most thought- which does not imply the most time, and certainly not the most money- to their actions. Every budget can be stretched to cover a few basic reusables, where quality represents a long term investment and often means a saving in the end (obvious examples are safety razors, cloth towels, a plastic free water bottle, or even bamboo toothbrushes). We just need to establish our own scale of values. For years we've been told our role in society is to continually buy and consume "cheap" products, to simply accept what we're offered without questioning where it comes from or how it's made. If we replace, just once in a while, the penchant for quantity with a quest for quality, we might find not only our eco effectiveness maximized, but also the enjoyment and confidence we get from the things we own, however few they may be.

Above: Handknit alpaca sweater, hat, and mittens. Madewell t-shirt, American Apparel ribbed dress, Levi's wedgie jeans and shorts, all thrifted. Thrifted H&M lace up shirt, American Apparel ponte foil tank dress, American Apparel crop top and high waist skirt. Thrifted Longchamp bag. Thrifted Louis Vuitton and Brooks Brothers coats, American Apparel Ryder dress. Navy, grey, and black dresses, secondhand Dior. Secondhand Louis Vuitton wool skirt, pants, and v-neck merino sweater. Thrifted Reformation Edison, Piper, and Axel tops. Thrifted cotton moto jacket, Etoile Isabel Marant Tom shirt, and merino turtleneck (all pieces but one are at least 96% natural fibers- I handwash the ones with small synthetic percentages and water indoor plants with the water). Thrifted Stuart Weitzman patent leather ankle boots, Ferragamo shoes, Louboutin Simples, Nike Dunk Sky Hi'sFlyknit Air Force 1's

Paris to Go

39 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post, Ariana. I love the first line because I was thinking the other day that really, humans have hoarded a surplus of food to get through winters and everything up until only a hundred years ago. So not hoarding a surplus is really a new concept in terms of human evolution. Or maybe I was just trying to justify why it was so hard for me to step away from storing a surplus of food mentality?
    I think zero waste is not only practical but essential and should be a part of public education. I mean, I just honestly didn't realize synthetics were petroleum based until I started reading about it. I also didn't know that plastic put in a recyclable container doesn't necessarily get recycled and that plastic basically stays around forever. This stuff should be taught in schools (along with relationship skills, finances and basic nutrition/cooking skills but that's another story for another day).
    And yes to establishing our own set of values individually. That's why I love reading blogs, to get an idea of what other's are up to, perhaps try it out and see if it works for my lifestyle. Hopefully, as more individuals make zero waste choices, as you suggest, it becomes impossible for retailers to ignore and we see more grand sweeping changes in that direction. Or maybe I'm just a Pollyanna.

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    1. Yes, I agree. Holistic education was one of the key factors in successful environmental justice movements (such as Dudley Street). I didn't know any of that stuff either until I was in college! How is this happening? That's why I think it's so important for consumers who have the economic and social freedoms to make choices about the way they interact with the environment to demand that biodegradable and unpackaged alternatives be normalized (aka made widespread, and affordable) so those are the ONLY options out there for those who have less of them. People shouldn't even have to think about whether or not their packaging will be downcycled or not, or whether they should shell out a few extra bucks for glass- they should just be able to purchase environmentally friendly necessities without breaking they bank.

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  2. I am sitting here lol'ing and reveling in the references in your previous linked posts, though this one is particularly timely. Tons of great information here. Especially loved the Suge Knight shoutout.

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    1. Haha I forget where that is but I reference him often in daily conversation

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  3. Yes to all of this. Intersectionality in sustainability CANNOT wait any longer. People with less economic freedom need better choices about what they can buy (healthier unpackaged or biodegradably packaged options) and wear. Women and people of color should not be excluded from the climate change conversation anymore. This affects all of us, and we all need to stand together to bring about progress.

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    1. Exactly! Even though I'm not quite sure I understand what intersectionality is but I should have read your comment before I wrote the one above, you expressed everything I think so beautifully!

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  4. Thank you for this! One of my friends recently looked at the journey of a plastic spoon, from earth into a long manufacturing process, into a plastic packet and then thrown away after a single use...and all because it is 'too much effort' to wash up a metal spoon. But it goes into so much of our lives. I like the links you made to social inequalities as well. I feel as though the ways we were separated, from each other, and from ecological awareness, is what allows the feeling of unhappiness or dis-ease to be so pervasive. And with consumerism, the answer always seems to be to buy something else to make it go away. Such an awful and self perpetuating cycle. But I agree, living in a way which allows us really connect to ourselves and to the world helps us to see how differently to deal with our lives. And hopefully, to focus on connectedness rather than 'stuff'. You express it so beautifully though!

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    1. Yes the process and resources needed to extract the resources for a one time use product should make it a nobrainer but people are so concerned with immediate time investments... it's crazy really! Environmental inequity is just another way we're all divided and the more insular society becomes thanks to convenience, the worse the problems will be. Strong sense of community is one of the key factors in environmental change but how will that develop if we're ordering in all the time and never need to leave the house?

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  5. Are you going to let go of the things that you left in Paris or do you think eventually you will get them back? Something in me would not feel whole if i left things!

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    1. I don't really have a choice... I do not feel whole without my cats but it's not up to me at this point

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  6. "The most environmentally conscious people are often those who devote the most thought- which does not imply the most time, and certainly not the most money- to their actions." True, true, true. Zero waste simplifies everything and allows the time for thought. I can think/obsess about new ways to lessen my impact, because I'm not stressing about the day to day or worrying about not being good enough. Zero waste takes out the work of environmentalism and leaves the fun. Though my idea of a fun time is trying out a homemade face mask and analyzing my car usage, so maybe not the same for everyone. By the way, I think storebought hummus and spoonulas might be the name of my future band. Great read, as always.

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    1. I can't wait for the Storebought Hummus and Spoonulas EP. Love that- "zero waste takes out the work of environmentalism and leaves the fun" and yes I looooove analyzing environmental impact, I think you and I could have a fun weekend together just crunching carbon data numbers

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  7. I always enjoy your posts. Please know I'm one of the people affected positively by your blog! My closet is one-tenth of the size it was 2 years ago, thanks to your posts, and I only buy secondhand. I relate to you as a 20-something midwestern woman! I'll be thinking of you during this "discombobulated state." Chin up! ❤

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  8. I'm curious whether we also tend to hoard up when general times feel uncertain. Like right now with climate change and global warming being poo-poohed, will we unconsciously react by hoarding items 'just in case' the sky ends up falling on our heads, and events out of our control take a turn for the worst? It's kind of like fight or flight but we are flighting to our bunkers that will store everything we need to see out a zombie apocalypse!

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    1. Oh wait, you expressed this exact sentiment in the very first sentence. Duh!

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    2. Yes I think people are definitely doing this in light of the climate change uncertainty but in doing so they are exacerbating the problem they're trying to fight (or not fight, whatever, it's 60 degrees outside and the sun is shining what a beautiful day to deny climate change)

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  9. you are hilarious, thank you!!! <3

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  10. This is such a thoughtful and concise post. Thank you!

    After leaving most of my belongings stateside to travel for research, I returned home this winter an unfortunate moth problem. I had already cut down on my wardrobe, or so I thought, but after living out of a suitcase for nearly two years, I know that I don't need more than four wool/cashmere sweaters, one pashmina scarf, and a quality Loden coat when it comes to moth-attracting animal fiber clothing.

    I spent a good amount over the holidays meticulously cleaning and examining my closet, but I am still keeping more wardrobe items than I technically "need" at the moment. After repair, the moth-eaten cashmere sweaters will be wearable for years to come, and I will probably wear them through my lifetime. One of my favorite dresses handed down from my mother, which was quite damaged, strengthened my resolve to take better care of clothing in general, and affirmed what I like to wear.

    I'm still struggling to do better with plastic packaging when it comes to food. I am currently living in Japan, the land of meticulous packaging and small portions, which makes it near impossible to avoid packaging of any kind. We can call it refined and elegant, but the tradition of nested wooden boxes with washi-paper covers combined with wrapping cloths carried over into the age of plastic and styrofoam: the end result is copious amounts of trash. This general waste is syncopated with quaint displays of eco-friendly innovation such as All Nippon Airways napkins made of recycled paper and used green tea leaves, but in the midst of plastic wrapped waffle-texture wet wipes, plastic-wrapped cutlery with bleached white dining napkins, that one verdant napkin sinks into the abyss of wasteful consumption to cater to some ideal of modern civility.

    Anyways, rant over. I look forward to your upcoming posts, and hope that you are finding some solace in spending more time with your family.

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    1. I hear you re: packaging in Japan. I lived and worked there for 2 years after graduating university. At that stage I wasnt aware of minimal and zero waste living; armed with the knowledge now I keep wishing I could repeat those years to try my hand at living that lifestyle over there again. Every consumable over there is packaged so meticulous though, I can see how difficult it would be. Where to begin!

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    2. Ok Japan boggles my mind because my relatives tell me that in the fairly recent past (like the 90s) they saved and reused every scrap of everything and you could buy anything unpackaged and now it's all shrinkwrapped a million times and many things are made in China. Even one of my friends who lived there in the early 00s has noticed a change. Korea went through the same phase and now they are back on the unpackaged train though, so there's hope

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    3. C Bryan and Ariana - yes, Japan is peculiar. I grew up in Japan, and I remember what a big deal it was to recycle plastic bottles, styrofoam trays (used for almost everything), and especially paper milk cartons (there are no plastic jugs over here - its paper carton for most milks or heavy-duty glass for "luxury" milk), which had to be cut in a very specific way before dropping them off at the supermarket recycling program. I think these practices are still encouraged at public elementary schools.

      Yesterday when I was shopping, I noticed that the local supermarket gives you some points when you decline the use of plastic shopping bags, but on the shelves are individually wrapped persimmons and "one-time-use" portions of greens. This is the reality of Tokyo: an enormous metropolis (NYC, London, Paris, do not compare), with tiny apartments, and an increasing number of singletons (both young and old, unmarried, divorced, or widowed), for whom bulk purchases are a burden in a compact kitchen. It seems that this translates into shrink-wrapping the individual portions, to where even Savon Alep comes wrapped in plastic! The even more depressing reality is that many young people live without refrigerators (to save on their electric bill post-Fukushima), who use the local 7/11 as their refrigerator via a buy-as-you-go style of consuming pre-packaged and processed foods.

      In the Japanese suburbs and the countryside, it's a different story - you get large supermarkets with inexpensive, fresh, local produce, which you can package as you please. I think this is the model you tend to get in Korea in the produce section of their Walmarts, whether you're in Seoul or the countryside. You can use the plastic bags they provide, or you can bring your own bags. Sometimes the supermarket will provide the boxes from bulk instant-ramen shipments for customers to use.

      One peculiar characteristic that both Korea and Japan share is the how the organic produce section utterly fails to be eco-friendly. Apparently higher quality/price equates to meticulous packaging, even at stores where they warn customers to bring their own bags. I suppose this makes the dirt on the carrots and turnips more palatable? Also, there are no bulk bins. People consume a lot of rice in both countries, but perhaps because it's such a staple, people purchase 10kg plastic/paper bags of the stuff, so I can see how bulk bins wouldn't make sense. You would need a bulk tank at the store and require that people bring their own re-usuable plastic/metal/wood buckets. However, for the accessory grains like millet, amaranth, pearl barley, etc., which come in small plastic bags, it would be nice to see bulk bins. If the zero-waste movement takes off the way konmari/nordic interiors/minimalist wardrobe trends have in Japan, I'm sure we'll see changes.

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    4. Have you been following the accounts zerowastejapan and packagefreeproject on instagram? I hope the Biocoop that just opened in Japan is successful and this model is applied throughout the country so that bulk becomes more widely available.

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    5. Thank you for the Instagram recommendations. Also, I had no idea that a Biocoop opened up over here. I'm having trouble finding any info online, but I'll keep digging...

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  11. Thank you so much for your post, I feel as if you have reached inside my head and pulled out all the things I want to say to people who think zero waste is an unachievable whimsical fantasy and therefore don't even bother. Im sick and tired of it and I thank you for putting into words what I could never out! <3

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  12. Love this. I'm a lawyer with two, soon to be three, kids and my own business. We started living zero waste almost a year ago. At first, it was hard. I had to devote a lot of time into learning what I needed to make the lifestyle work for me. But now, it's easy. It's super easy. And we have saved SO MUCH MONEY. I can't even tell you. For the first time since we had kids, we actually have expendable income. Living greener has meant saving money, not costing more money, and that is even though we feed our family of four on organic, locally grown food.

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    1. Congratulations on the third and that is so awesome that you are tackling zero waste with so much on your plate! Yes but once the learning curve is tackled it becomes effortless. I'm so happy to hear about the savings... if you ever want to do a guest post let me know :)

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    2. Yes please I would love to know how! I'm determined to go zero waste but it's hard to foresee everything, you need to be so organised, and what I now make, my husband was doing it before or shopping, so it's more work for me as hés willing to help but not always in a zero waste manner. I should probably be happy to have cut our non recyclable by 5 or 6 though, but I still feel I have to control each detail and my life, as healthier it is, is more complicated...

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  13. Hi Ariana, I wanted to mention that your blog has inspired me to become more environmentally conscious. More home cooking, more thoughtful purchases towards sustainability. I'm not zero-waste at this time, but the amount of trash I'm generating on a week-to-week basis is a fraction of what it used to be :)

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    1. Oh, thank you so much for telling me this! It makes me so happy! That is wonderful :)

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  14. I live about an hour south of Cleveland and this week it has been 50-60F. I was born in Columbus and don't ever remember a January as warm as this. Today it was snowing and icy; as much as I hate to be cold, I was glad to see it! The past 2 years I have not seen ONE Monarch butterfly (I know it's because of disruption of their habitat). And it seems every day another species disappears. We need to wake up and stop destroying this planet.

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    1. You are right about the monarch butterflies, I was just talking about that! And bat habitats have been totally disrupted and often destroyed so now their population is threatened... so sad. Also yea it was 60 degrees a few days ago... the sun was shining... people were laying out in the grass... it was such a beautiful day to deny climate change

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  15. Buy a safety razor, a bar of soap, and a menstrual cup to save money and subvert the patriarchy.

    Love this! Subverting the patriarchy is definitely one of my top reasons for going zero waste, that and consuming is exhausting. Driving from store to store, looking for what you need, waiting for sales, writing lists, couponing, arguing when the price listed isn't the actual price, waiting in lines. Once we we got over the zero waste learning curve we got so much time back. I actually have time to nap and read books again.

    This year, I tried to take this to a new level. I wrote down a list of our necessities and started calculating how much time it would take to go through a certain amount (toilet paper 0.45 days per roll lol). Things like soap, vinegar, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide etc. and at the end of the year I bought enough to last us the year. It's so nice to not have to even think about it and it wasn't even that expensive because we've scaled back to almost nothing and buying in bulk is cheaper. It's working out so well, I'm planning on doing this with the pantry on a quarterly basis next. But I think this kind of hoarding only works well if you truly understand what is actually necessary. If I was buying up nail polish or 10 tubes of mascara so I could wear it everyday, then this probably wouldn't work out the same.

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  16. thank you for sharing your journey. i'm glad to have been able to knit socks & mittens for you :)

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  17. This may be my favorite thing you've ever written. Definitely one of my favorite things on the internet.

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  18. Love this!
    Thank you for being so awesome Ariana!

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