A popular reaction to our overconsumption and environmental challenges is to own fewer things. For example the 100 thing challenge says that we should only own 100 personal items. There are many similar initiatives telling us to declutter and streamline our homes and wardrobes. It is a way to opt out of consumerism they say. Some even claim owning less is good for society and the environment.
Is it true though? Is owning less more sustainable?
Let’s look at the sustainability side of it i.e. the impact on people, environment and future generations.
Items going into your home. From a sustainability aspect, you want to keep new items going into your home to a minimum. Producing new items is resource intensive. The majority of items sold in stores are not produced in an environmentally friendly way. On the people side, a lot of manufacturing exploits workers by not paying a living wage.
When you reduce the number of items you own, many throw out two items and then buy a new one to replace these two. In addition, when you own fewer things (because you threw out a lot) the items get worn a lot more and need to be replaced more frequently. As a result, more new things go into your homes than if you had simply kept what you had before the challenge.
Items you get rid of. Most of these initiatives start by getting rid of a lot of stuff. Now what happens to the things you throw out? A lot of the products we buy today cannot be recycled. In large parts of Europe, they end up in a landfill where they release CO2 and other substances trying to decompose. In Sweden, textile waste is burnt . Clearly, this is a waste of resources.
What about giving it to second hand so someone else can use it? The majority of items donated to second hand are shipped abroad, often to countries with worse waste handling than Scandinavia. So unless you give it to a friend that will cherish it for life, giving things away is not a solution.
To summarise, in terms of sustainability, we should acquire as few things a possible and use the items for as long as possible. Patagonia estimates that keeping an item for nine more months in your wardrobe reduces related carbon, waste and water footprint an estimated 20 to 30 per cent. Keep it for 15 years and it is a lot more.
So if the 100 items challenge means mostly keeping what you’ve got and giving a few items to friends so they don’t have to buy new, then go ahead. On the other hand, if you, like most of us, own a lot more than 100 items that you would have to get rid of then, no, it is not very sustainable.