The message was unanimous at the kick off to the 5th Annual "Readings on the 4th Floor" at P.S. 107 in Brooklyn last night: freedom is simplifying and getting rid of stuff we really don't need, to make room for the more important things in life. Sure, you may be thinking, "consuming less is going green, but easier said than done."
Well take heart, because last night's panelists have some simple suggestions to ease your way to greater fulfillment. The ebullient Helen Coronato, mother and author of Eco-Friendly Families, suggested going through your closet and dividing your clothes into three sections: things you never wear, things you can't live without and things you maybe don't wear. Take the "nevers" to a thrift store or donation center immediately, and give the "maybes" a month. If you don't touch them, get rid of those, she said.
"Those maybes are ruining your life," said Coronato. "Freedom is getting rid of stuff, not being attached to things. You'll be amazed at how your life will change by getting rid of things. Get rid of them and make room for the stuff we really want: time."
Coronato suggests donating gently used business attire to a nonprofit organization like Dress for Success, which distributes clothes to low-income women who need to look sharp to pass a job interview. Weighted down by too many stuffed animals that no organizations will accept? No problem! Coronato pointed out that nonprofit Project Smile will get them in the hands of children who have suffered through a house fire, accident or other trauma.
Coronato's suggestions echo the mission of the Center for a New American Dream, which aims to help people live happier, more fulfilling lives while simultaneously reducing unnecessary consumption. The center has recently updated its book Your Money or Your Life, which "helps individuals calculate hours wasted working to pay for unnecessary stuff--stuff that dents both pocketbooks and planet while failing to fulfill."
Brooklyn Panelist Elizabeth Royte, author of Garbage Land and Bottlemania (the book I should have written in 2003 but didn't, not that I'm bitter or anything), suggested that people pick up free placards from local businesses and government offices to display on their homes. The signs alert mail carriers that the home is a "junk mail free zone," and she says the notice on her Park Slope, Brooklyn place has reduced her inflow of unwanted circulars and offers by at least 90% (paper has a huge impact on the environment).
From Water to Fashion, How Refreshing
Royte has also been working with municipalities across the country to bring back public drinking fountains, which she says health studies show are safe, encourage people to stay hydrated, and buck the trend of reaching for a new plastic bottle every time we need a sip. She pointed out that a number of local governments have let their once-robust supply of fountains deteriorate in the name of cost savings, what with everyone buying their own water anyway.
Coronato added that it's important to remember that everything we use has hidden costs, be it underpaid child laborers who made it in other countries, heavy fuel use to transport goods across vast oceans, and toxic by-products we don't see. She said a good place to start is to think about other solutions to needs than just buying what's most convenient. Check out thrift stores and consignment shops, skip dollar bins in discount stores (which are packed with low-quality goods you probably don't need anyway), and to regift stuff you haven't used.
Panelist Starre Vartan, TDG contributor, blogger, Greenopian and author of the Eco-Chick Guide to Life, said to her one of the most important decisions in buying clothes is longevity. She said her goal is to buy only things she'll have to wear for years to come (even after that they can be repurposed for quilts, covers, and so on).
Starre also added that two-thirds of the energy that goes into keeping us clothed is taken up by how we treat the garments we have. She suggested line drying when possible (she said if everyone in the Northeast gave up their dryers we could shutter two nuclear power plants), washing with cold water, reducing detergent, hand washing delicates and only using "green" dry cleaners if you need professional assistance (find a directory of vetted local providers at Greenopia).
The panel's moderator, Treehugger founder Graham Hill, shared some of his successes with saving money by swapping out lighting with CFLs, drying his clothes on furniture in his small apartment, and even composting in a nifty device in his kitchen.
Is All this Worth It Compared to Bigger Problems ?
When an audience member questioned whether it is really worth the time of the environmental movement to harp on and quibble about bottled water, line drying and sippy cups when the planet is facing serious threats from global warming, population explosion and other massive problems, the panelists tried to put things in perspective. "I have leared that everything we do really does matter," answered Coronato. "Every little decision. Ask if you're doing something because that's just what you did before, or if there's a better way you could be doing it. Change begins in each heart."
Royte pointed out that although consumer packaging and cast-offs are only a small portion of our overall solid waste stream, reducing that material can have a big compounding effect. "In the great book Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken talks about how every barrel of waste we prevent from going out to our curbs saves 32 barrels of waste upstream, from all the processes that go into making the stuff we use everyday," said Royte.
Starre added, to nods from the audience, "I feel like we've gone momentarily insane over the last 25 years or so. It used to be standard to reuse things, conserve, and so on. Then everyone started thinking we had to buy all new stuff all the time."
Royte suggested that if we really want to focus on the three big areas of consumption that have the most impact, those would be: how we heat and cool our homes, how we get around and how much meat we eat.
For her part, Coronato says her goal this year is to make sure everything in her house is both beautiful and functional. With the right tips, you too can go greener, and live better.
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