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Sustainable living for beginners

If your grandmother was anything like mine, she was scrappy and thrifty. She didn’t waste a thing. She repaired holes, knew the guy at the local shoe repair shop, and sold whatever she didn’t need.

My grandmother Elsa taught me how to grow potatoes, cook a whole fish, and hem the drapes. She didn’t mean to teach me about sustainable living or circular economy. She wasn’t familiar with those words. But she knew how to live well within her means. I learned the fundamentals of sustainable living from her, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. So if your grandmother was anything like mine, this is just a refresher in sustainable living.

Repair it

This one sounds overly simplistic. Repair that tear in your jacket rather than buy a new one? Can this be what sustainable living is all about? Simply repairing your things? Well, yes and no.

Yes, repairing our things so they don’t end up in the landfill is a simplistic way of looking at sustainable living. Sometimes this is easy. I had an old pair of knock-off Uggs with worn out soles, so I slapped on some no-slip stickers I found on Amazon and fixed those suckers myself. Good as new. But not every repair is so easy.

Find a repair shop

This is why local repair shops are essential. Shops that repair broken phones, shoes, and appliances. In Europe, DIY repair shops are popping up. You can go to the repair shop, buy supplies, use machines and talk to repair experts. No internet connection needed. Just a few handy people and the right tools. 

Resell it

Repair is great. But truth be told, I’ve had some impulse buys that I regretted. I’m sure my grandmother did too. That black skirt from Banana Republic that seemed like a great idea on a Friday night after a few drinks has been taking up space in my closet for at least half a decade. Tags still on. I can’t bear to donate it. This is why we need marketplaces like thredUP and Poshmark for all our regrettable purchases. And for those of us who need a little help creating the listing, there’s the SellHound App.  

Sellhound listing assistant app photos
SellHound listing.

Return it (recommerce it)

But not everyone wants to resell it themselves. Sometimes it’s easier to send it back to the brand you bought it from in exchange for a store credit or coupon.

Big brands like Patagonia now take back their old clothes and re-sell them on their website through their Worn Wear program. This is called recommerce. Brands take back their products after consumers are done with them. Then those same brands repair and refurbish those products, and resell them again. The company makes money off the products again. The customer gets a coupon. One more product is kept out of the landfill. 

Refurbish, remanufacture and upcycle

Sometimes the products that come back are good as new. But often they’re not. Holes, rips, stains, and parts that don’t function are the norm. Enter upcycling. Companies like Upcycle it Now take the things that can’t be re-sold and turn them into new products. For example, old Patagonia rain jackets get turned into new Patagonia fanny packs. 

Car and equipment manufacturers have historically taken back their products to be remanufactured. Now, in an effort to keep products out of the landfill and to make money off used products, companies are figuring out how to refurbish other consumer products like clothes as well. Keeping products inside a constant loop of material flows is the foundation of a circular economy.

Read Circular fashion brands to live in to learn more.

Patagonia fanny pack made from upcycled rain jackets
Patagonia fanny pack made from upcycled materials.

Look for circular design products

Now you understand the importance of repairing reselling and recommerce. But what about the original design? Most products are designed for planned obsolescence. In other words, most products are designed to be thrown away. But what if products were designed to last and be used again and again and then go back to the brand that made it? SodaStream, for example, is a circular design product. Instead of buying individual cans of sparkling water, you buy one SodaStream machine. When the cartridge is done, you send it back to be refilled.

Then comes all the materials (and money) wasted on products that contain 90% water and packaging and only about 10% of the product you’re actually buying. Clean supplies for example. You’re probably used to buying a plastic bottle full of cleaning product that’s probably mostly water. When you’re done with it, you throw it away. Maybe you recycle it, but nonetheless, it doesn’t get reused.

Enter cleaning pouches. Cleaning pouches simply contain the cleaning concentrate. You use a reusable container, and fill it with water. You get clean counters, and 90% less waste. 

Read Green cleaning products that work to learn more about Grove cleaning pouches.

Grove collaborative cleaning pouches
Grove Collaborative cleaning pouches.

Regenerative agriculture

We’re used to taking from nature, not repairing nature. But it’s not enough to just repair, reused, and recycle. We also need to regenerate nature. My grandmother wasn’t a farmer, she was a nurse. But she fundamentally understood that in order to grow vegetables in her little home garden, the soil needed to be healthy. Today, leaders of the regenerative agriculture movement are discovering how to make soil healthier on a large scale.

Read How regenerative farming can help solve climate change

Recycling for a circular economy

Circular economy is about more than just recycling, and recycling certainly is important. But recycling is in peril in the United States. We can do better. How Sweden recycles shows how it can be done. Not perfectly, but significantly better.

When recycling is done right, we get new products like sustainable swimwear and shoes made from recycled materials.

Clean and renewable energy 

Finally, we need clean and renewable energy and transportation. This means transportation and even homes will go all-electric. Read Home electrification: Why cities are phasing out natural gas to learn more about sustainable living. Whether you’re already familiar with circular economy thinking or you’re only interested in sustainability for beginners, repairing, reselling, and upcycling are easy places to start.

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