4 decluttering mistakes to avoid (if you want to declutter sustainably)

Decluttering is an important tool for minimalism. It is necessary to reduce the number of items you own, and it can be very useful to find out what you really value in life – resulting in being more mindful of what you buy and making less unnecessary purchases in the future. This in turn can be a great tool to combat overconsumption and live a more sustainable lifestyle.

However, decluttering can also often be at odds with living more sustainably. You shouldn’t just not buy things mindlessly, it can also be incredibly wasteful to get rid of things mindlessly. So here are 4 things not to do if you want to declutter in a sustainable way.

1. Immediately replacing items

A lot of people only declutter items to immediately fill up their empty spaces with new stuff. Especially when it comes to clothes, this is a common mistake. I’ve been there as well: even when I already tried to practice minimalism, I remember once buying a new t-shirt immediately after an old one got an unrepairable hole – even though without that t-shirt, I still would have had enough.

Sometimes the things we declutter do need a replacement, for instance when something we actually use and need is broken. However, if you immediately replace everything you get rid of, you also still contribute to overconsumption. So instead of treating decluttering as a chance to buy something new, ask yourself first whether you really need to replace this item or if you can do without it.

Clothes hanging in a closet on black velvet hangers.

2. Decluttering all items you haven’t used lately

Often, I see people decluttering everything they haven’t used in a certain amount of time, for instance a year or in the last season. Although this can be a very good method for decluttering, I think it is also good to look at why you haven’t used or worn these items. Maybe you haven’t been wearing your nicer clothes because of the pandemic, or you haven’t worn your shorts a lot in a colder summer. But if you get rid of these items just because you didn’t wear them this year, you probably will need to buy them again in the future – which is not exactly sustainable. Or great for your bank account, for all that matter. Being able to buy things again when you need them is a privilege that not everyone has.

Instead, it can be a good idea to store things away for a while. If there are any items you have loved for years, but haven’t worn at all in the past year, put them in a storage bin in your closet instead. Every once in a while, re-evaluate the items that are in season and see how you feel about them. If you still don’t wear them, or don’t like them anymore, you can declutter them. But you might just fall in love with these items all over again.

This also applies to items other than clothing, for instance kitchen appliances that you used a lot for a while but not anymore, such as a blender or a bread baking machine. If you don’t use these enough to justify taking up space in the kitchen, but also aren’t 100% sure you are never going to use them again, you could try storing them away in another closet, the garage, or a storage unit and see if you will use them again in the future. If you don’t, you can always declutter it then.

3. Decluttering all ‘what if’ items

I have regularly seen minimalists advice others to get rid of all ‘what if’ items, because you are probably not going to need them and if you do, you can just buy them again. While this is good advice if you just want to own as little items as possible, it is not good advice from a sustainable point of view. And again – it’s not something everyone can afford, either.

While sometimes we need to admit that the situation we are keeping an item for is never going to come, sometimes it makes sense to keep one or two items for situations that might arise rarely, but still could happen in the future. For instance, if you rarely get invited to fancy events, it might still be useful to keep one fancy dress or suit for the occasion that it might happen, rather than getting rid of all your fancy clothes.

That being said, if your house is already full of clutter and ‘just in case’ items, it can still be a good choice to declutter them anyway. I don’t think guilt about not being sustainable should hold you back from living a more minimalist lifestyle. If you do end up needing these items in the future, it can also be a sustainable choice to buy them secondhand, or to borrow or rent them.

4. Dumping everything at the thrift store

When you have decluttered your stuff, it is also important to get rid of it in sustainable way. Most of us probably know that just putting everything in the trash is not sustainable. But just dumping everything at a thrift store is usually not the most sustainable way to declutter either. In many countries, thrift stores get huge amounts of decluttered stuff daily, and a lot of it is just plain trash. Many thrift stores lack the capacity to sort through all of it, which means they still have to throw away a lot.

Instead of mindlessly donating everything you declutter to a thrift store, try to sell things that are still in good condition, see if any of your friends or family want them, or organize a clothing swap. This way, you know something actually ends up being used – because you are giving it directly to the new owner. There are also charities that you can donate your stuff to, such as women’s shelters or charities that donate job interview clothing to homeless people. And if things are in such bad condition that you wouldn’t use them yourself anymore, recycle or upcycle them instead.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t donate to thrift stores at all anymore. They will still need new items every now and then. Just try to check with your local thrift store first what items they actually need more of and what they already have enough of.

Four pairs of folded pants laying on a white sheet.

So those were 4 things to avoid if you want to practice minimalism in a more sustainable way. Minimalism can be a great way to live a more eco-friendly life, because one of the best things we can do for the environment as an individual is to reduce what we consume. But I believe that practicing eco-minimalism means we have to declutter in a mindful and responsible way as well. I don’t think we should keep stuff out of guilt, but I do believe it is important to be honest with yourself about why you are decluttering something and then find the most sustainable way possible to donate or otherwise get rid of it.


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