What is "Waste"?

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"I can't get rid of that! It's in perfectly good shape—I don't want to waste it."

I couldn't begin to count the number of times a lovely client has said some version of the line above. Kyle or I will be holding up an object and encouraging the client the consider donating it, but the powerful urge to "not be wasteful" prevents them from letting go.  

Mind you that most of the items in question are unused, often never-used. Sometimes the items  are still in their original boxes or still have their tags on. Frequently they're covered with dust, so far in the back of the pantry or the bottom of the closet that the very same client did not realize they still owned that item until we excavated it for them.  

These unneeded belongings take up precious physical and psychic space in our clients homes and yet they seem to hold some power over otherwise very astute and self-aware people.

Why would we rather keep items we never have and almost certainly never will use—things that are only in our way, clogging our homes and weighing on our minds—than let them go?  

Why is it viewed as wasteful to donate something that you don't need, but it's not wasteful to let that same item expire in the pantry, dry up in the cupboard, or go out of style in the closet?

The most thoughtful and comprehensive answer I've ever heard to that question was shared with me by a ZenDesk employee when Kyle and I spoke at their headquarters last month. 

This gentleman grew up in rural seaside Scandinavia where there simply wasn't opportunity to acquire many possessions. Items were hard to come by and expensive, therefore objects that were purchased were done so very mindfully and items owned were taken care of and mended exquisitely. 

Even as greater wealth and connection to commercial centers rose throughout his childhood and early adulthood, his culture's way of relating to objects did not change: things were to be acquired only with great intention and taken care of with great thought. There was no mindless online shopping, no shopping as hobby or habit, no President's Day Sales binges. He was taken aback when he moved to America; shocked by the constant high level of acquisition we seem to be in, even as our homes already overflow with stuff. 

Through his observations of his friends and co-workers he arrived at the following conclusion: in America it's viewed as wasteful to give up "perfectly good" items that you've already acquired, while in Scandinavia it's viewed as wasteful to acquire things beyond your needs to begin with.

In America it’s viewed as wasteful to give up “perfectly good” items that you’ve already acquired, while in Scandinavia it’s viewed as wasteful to acquire things beyond your needs to begin with.

We need to redefine "waste" and our relationship to it.

At New Minimalism we fully support our clients' noble desire not to waste. In fact, we want to strengthen and emphasize that no-waste muscle—we also want to apply it earlier in the consumption lifecycle as the Scandinavians do. 

By the time an item enters your home, most of the wastefulness has already occurred: money has been spent, resources have been used up, and an object we never needed gets added to the pile of underutilized items. 

Typical donations haul from a single day session with a client. 

So let's all go Scandinavian.

Americans are already in love with Scandinavian design and the cozy, candlelit hygge trend. What if the quickest way to live this lifestyle is not by buying more flannel blankets or wishbone chairs but by embracing the root cause of this elegant, refined way of life: greatly reduced, intentional, kind consumption?

Maybe is was embrace that Scandinavian definition of waste—instead of acquiring, storing, tending to, paying off so much stuff—we too will have time to light a dozen candles and have a relaxing weeknight meal with friends!