Monday, February 1, 2010

Organizing with sustainable goals

Every year between New Years day and Easter Sunday, I clean out my closet.  This is a monumental task for me.  I hate to part with anything useful or costly.  I have an attachment to each item. When sifting through the items, I find myself saying: "I bought this to wear to a play.  This piece was found when shopping with my friend. Oh I was having a great day when I found this blouse." 

You may be wondering, how is this topic related to sustainable solutions?  The closet is a place where we can put our sustainable practices to work with the big four R's - renew, reuse, reduce, and recycle.

How many individual clothing pieces do you own?  It would be unusual for a person to own 1000 ball point pens unless they were collectibles and displayed appropriately.  It would be odd to keep 30 lamps in the living room because one or two is all that is needed to light a room.  It would be strange for a person to have 100 bicycles because its not possible to use more than one at a time, and it would be expensive to maintain them all.  However, most Americans think nothing of owning 30 pairs of shoes and hundreds of individual clothing items, and that number can double if you live in a climate with extreme seasons.

The point I am making is that keeping a wardrobe takes time and money to maintain.  If management has taught me anything it is this: reducing the amount managed will decrease management effort.  We want our clothes to be easy to find, ready to wear, up to date, and in good shape.  Otherwise, what's the point? 

Keeping my closet organized is not an easy achievement for me. I have tried various methods of organization and have failed at many.  Over the last few years I have devised my own system that seems to consistently work, meaning that I can find clothes easily and that I can maintain this system.  First, I have zones in my closet for business casual work items, weekend casual wear, house clothes, outdoor work clothes, and special occassion items.  Each of these types has its own closet zone. 

Here's how my system works.  It is most important to me to keep my business casual items in order so that I can quickly dress for work, so this is where I focus most of my day-to-day organizing.  Each type of clothing is grouped in a section.  Skirts and slacks hang together, blouses and button-downs are grouped together, and I have a small collection of colorful undershirts that are grouped as well.  When items are washed/dry cleaned, they are put back in the same zone with one slight difference - they are arranged to the far left of each section.   So this results in the unused items being pushed further and further to the right.

This helps allows me to quickly assess what items I wear the most. This is helpful because those need the most maintenance/repair.  Seeing the most worn items all at once can show you what you are missing so when you shop you know what you need and don't buy more of what you already own.

This system also allows me to know which clothes I do not wear often.  Even items that are not worn often need to be laundered or dry cleaned regularly so that they are ready to wear at a moment's notice.  If an item is towards the right of the section, I ask myself, is this item worth the time and effort to clean it?  How soon do I expect to wear it again?  (Of course the answer to that one could be complicated based on seasons and fashion trends, but for the sake of keeping this on topic, I'll ignore the fashion aspect.)

Good Things for Organizing (Good Things with Martha Stewart Living)There are many books on organizing.  I own the book below by Martha Stewart, and it is full of good ideas. If you are not a fan of Martha, there are many others to help you get started on a system that you can maintain.

So, here we are in the first quarter of the year and it's time for me to sort and organize my closet.  I don't have to sort through every item in my closet - I only have to go through the right most items in each section. 

I start the process by labeling four boxes: repair (renew), give away (reuse), repurpose (recycle), and throw away (reduce). 

The goal of the game is to put as many items as possible in the give away box (reuse) and as few items as possible in the throw away box (reduce) that will ultimately end in a landfill. However, if the item is still in style, still fits well, and needs only minor repair, then I put it in the repair (renew) box.  If the item can be used for shop towels, then I use a pair of scissors to cut out buttons and neckbands and such and put it in the repurpose (recycle) box. 

Another part of the game is to move items from one closet zone to another.  If a perfectly good long sleeved cotton business wear shirt has a stain on the cuff, I cannot wear it to the office anymore, but I could wear it in the garden on cool mornings.  So then the tough question is: would I actually choose this over something else in my outdoor work clothes section?  If not, get rid of it.

Since I don't sew, my repurpose (recycle) box is limited to shop towels.  If you or someone you know likes to sew, then you could repurpose items into many other useful things like kitchen towels, hat bands, or hair accessories. 

There are many organizations that take clothes and household items and either give them to people that can use them or sell them to raise money for people with needs.  This is a great way to contribute to your local community.

Now, onto the sad news...  Hated as this statement might be (I'm just the messenger), I have to say it.  The less clothes you buy, the less time you will spend on organizing, dry cleaning, mending, and storage.  Just cut to the chase by not buying as much.  Purchase items that are classic in style and made well so that they can be worn and cleaned over and over again.  Only buy new items that will coordinate with your existing items.  If you never buy it, you never have to worry about disposing of it.

Organizing closets may not save the world today, but if you do it with sustainable goals, then you can reduce waste by preventing items from entering the landfill.  Giving away clothes that do not fit is a way to get the most use of them.  If you thoughtfully repurpose items, then you avoid buying new items.  If you use what you have to its fullest potential, then you are wasting less natural resources, and that is green.