The Environmentalist’s Old Clothes: Reduce, Reuse, Do Not Replace the Things We Own

In my striving for sustainability, I often have been guilty of going a bit replacement crazy. If something or other should come to be less natural, efficient, or eco-friendly than I think it should be, then I am quick to get it gone and get something more satisfying to my environmental ideals. For example, I got rid of all my incandescent light bulbs, though they worked perfectly well, so that compact fluorescents could enlighten me. Or, in another case, I closeted all my old T-shirts and got hemp/organic cotton blend shirts, since they were more “natural” and pesticide-free.

This last replacement indulgence in particular brings to mind something that Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes.”1

Thoreau’s point is a very useful one for folks like me. Our hearts are in the right place in wanting to do good for the Earth, of course, and we can reap some benefits from the changes (i.e., replacements) we make. But in the end, we may end up doing more harm than good by adding to the current flood of human material waste and wasting our own money unnecessarily. And it is even harder nowadays to resist the replacement urge, since technological developments and the growing trendiness of sustainability have produced a bevy of new, better, greener products for us to drool over. So yes, we want to do good…but, as Buddhist teaching puts it, we also may well be greedy to do “good.”

Sometimes it might be much better–and much more sustainable for me and the planet–if I could find some way to use my “old clothes” more wisely rather than simply hide them away in the closet, give them away, or throw them away. Rather than running out to the store and forking out more money, a terribly scarce personal resource, can I do some real good by making due with what I already have? For example:

  • Rather than dumping all the old incandescent bulbs, I might use the ones I have more carefully until they go dark. I could be sure to cut off lights in rooms or other places where I am not and to use natural light as much as possible. Once the old bulbs blink out, then I could buy CFLs to replace them.
  • Rather than ripping out my toilet to install a low-flush model, I could put a plastic bottle filled with water in the tank. That would “trick” the works inside and reduce the amount of water required to fill it up. I could also flush only when necessary, not every time the toilet gets used; a helpful rhyme to remember this is “If it’s mellow it’s yellow, if it’s brown flush it down.”
  • Rather than popping off my shower head and putting up a low-flow head, I could be a better bather. I could cut off the water while soaping up and use it only to get wet and rinse off–a method known as “the military shower.” I could also take “bird baths” in my sink several days during the week, washing those places that need them most rather than standing under a body-drenching stream. I could even go further and only bathe out of necessity, not out of simple habit; after all, body “odor” is just our natural human scent, whatever social mores and fragrance makers would have us believe!

When I look closely, I find lots of ways that I can get creative and reuse or adapt items I already own in order to be more environmentally friendly. From small to large, my existing goods can be made to do real good if I put some effort into it instead of just forking out my money. Yes, I might not be on the cutting edge of sustainability, but maybe in some cases being practical can be the most sustainable decision in the long run.

Not everyone has the resources to perform a wardrobe overhaul every season, when the ever-shifty winds of taste and lucre blow priorities into a frenzy. And those new threads will eventually wear out, too, no matter how wonderful they might seem hanging on the rack.

So maybe, sometimes, the most sustainable thing I can do is to wear those old clothes as carefully as I can, even if they are ratty and full of holes and stink to high heaven.

Related Posts:
Turning Trash Into Treasure: How Diverting Waste is the Ultimate Act of Sustainability
Sustainable by Necessity: Traditional Lifestyles in the Modern Environmental Crisis
Disposable Planet: Saving Resources with Reusable Products

Image credit: Stannered at Wikimedia Commons.
1. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Ed. Owen Thomas. Norton Critical Editions. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1966. 15. I have to chuckle at Thoreau here. Yes, he went into the woods and roughed it in his old clothes. But no matter what he professes about thriftiness and self-reliance, he still made sure to take those clothes into town so as to get them laundered! Oh, my good Mr. Thoreau! So much for idealism.

  1. Aurelia

    This is a really good point. With the rush to be sustainable, a lot of people aren’t realizing that replacing everything they already have with eco-friendly products immediately does more harm than good. The other day I thought that I would replace all the bulbs in my house and then I thought, why right now? I can just wait until they burn out and then get CFLs. It’s much more economically and environmentally logical. Why waste what we already have? That’s contradictory to the point.

  2. Maria Shere

    Thank you for this article. I have a small section of synthetic clothes in my closet including a classic skirt that I wear often. When people ask me how I can wear such a thing while being environmentally sensitive this is what I tell them:

    This skirt is over 10 years old and still looks new. It was manufactured once, transported once and is still alive and well in my wardrobe after all these years. It does not fade, wrinkle or require the ironing that cotton does and needs to be washed less often, as it airs out well. I expect to get another 10 years out of my skirt, so it is sustainable in a less likely way.

    I, too, am replacing only the bulbs that need replacing and am very conservative when using lights. Reading can even be done with a book light that runs on rechargeable batteries. The bulb is small in wattage and lights the page just fine.

    Common sense can go a long way toward sustainability!!!

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