Earthwatch – The Green Approach to Organizing and Decluttering

Once in a while, even socially conscious granola types can have problems managing clutter. We may be avid recyclers and conscious shoppers with personal spaces that most times at least are warm and welcoming. But sometimes a major life change – whether a pudgy, squealing infant, new home-based business, a death in the family, or illness – can mess things up.

“I know what it’s like,” says Helen Melbourne of Toronto’s Green Owl Organizing and Downsizing, “Especially when you’ve had a lot of really heavy life changes going on, it’s really easy to get into that cycle.”

If you need help with your personal space, you might wonder where to turn. It’s a good bet you don’t want to run to the nearest big box store and throw more stuff – plastic bins, faux leather boxes, monster shelving units – at the problem. You’re in search of creative, sustainable solutions. This dilemma is driving one of the freshest trends in home organization: green organizing. A small but growing number of professional organizers are seeking out and adopting green practices. And more consumers are on the hunt for greener products too.

Tidying up the house. It may not seem like a big deal, but in fact it’s become big business. Each week across North America, millions of TV viewers watch shows such as Clean Sweep, Mission: Organization and the Canadian hit, Neat. Since 1985, the U.S.-based National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) has exploded from 16 to 4,000 members, and Professional Organizers of Canada (POC) now has 500 members. Alongside, chains dedicated to home storage products have flourished. In 2004, Newsweek reported that home storage products had become a $4.36 billion industry in the U.S. Ultimately, retaining a professional organizer has a gained a certain glamour, “It’s not such a dirty little secret anymore,” says Nada Thomson of Toronto’s Artful Organizers. “Now clients are proud of it. ‘I have a professional organizer!’”

But the clutter-buster movement also has detractors who say it’s gone too far. “People tend to worry about home mess too much, and often for no good reason,” write Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman in A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefit of Disorder. Their book proposes that the rising obsession with neatness robs us of valuable time and energy, and can be counterproductive to creativity.

More serious is the charge that the home organization movement encourages hapless shopaholics. Probably no one puts this better than Alison Gillmor in her October, 2005 article “Closet Obsessions” in The Walrus: “The current mania for organization is not necessarily clutter’s opposite: sometimes it’s a complement, an enabler, a sneaky, evil twin. Taken together, the drive to accumulate and the drive to eliminate make up the binge-and-purge, all-or-nothing dynamic that characterizes North American consumption, whether it’s of food, shoes, sex or stuff.”

But maybe you really can’t find your keys, and do need to get organized. Is there an earth-friendly way? A growing number of professional organizers are passionate about all things green. They want to educate themselves, fellow organizers, and their clients on green practices and conscious consumerism. “The green trend is picking up momentum,” concurs Colleen Warmingham, a professional organizer based in Allentown, PA. She says there is an Yahoo special interest group for green organizers with over 140 subscribers started by Claire Josefine, organizer and author of The Spiritual Art of Being Organized.

The biggest barrier right now, says Melbourne “is lack of knowledge, and not being able to get the resources, which is incredibly frustrating.” Thomson agrees, but says more education is becoming available to professional organizers. This October, NAPO’s regional San Francisco Bay Area conference will include a session on “Simple, Sustainable Organizing,” which was created and is moderated by Josefine. POC’s national conference in Vancouver in November is also slated to include green themes. “The difference between green and conventional organizing,” adds Warmingham, “is narrowing.”

When you think of it, professional organizers are really on the front lines. They’ve quite literally been wrestling with our junk for a couple of decades, so it’s hardly surprising they’ve gained some insight. Here are some green tips from the experts:

RE-USE

For green organizers, this is the first “R.” And the biggest message is this: most homes already contain all the products needed to make up a good organizing system. When asked about this, Thomson laughs, “Oh yeah! It’s incredible, the organizing stuff and the organizing books. They’ve tried it on their own and they have every organizational product and book out there.” She suggests starting with a walkthrough of your space to determine what tools you already own. “That’s what we do – try to use what’s already there. So many of my organizing colleagues, we’re not big into shopping for our clients. We don’t want them to have more stuff. There are times when it’s a necessity. You need to have the proper tools but it’s sort of like a last resort.”

Warmingham agrees. “I can only think of one client in almost three years that I’ve been doing this that I’ve had to do a major purchase for. Everything else has just been a matter of getting a couple of boxes or file folders or a small desktop organizer. Usually I can find everything I need already in the space.” For example, Warmingham says she has repurposed a client’s drop-leaf table into a great sewing table. Another client had a flower planter given to her when her child was born, which was now cracked. “Another person might have thought it was trash, but I used it as a desk organizer. Now, she gets to see it everyday.”

Repurposing is the big thing, says Melbourne. “Just because something is made for a specific purpose, doesn’t mean it can’t be used for something quite different.” She also has great examples. “Shoe boxes are fabulous. First off, most people don’t take shoe boxes home from shoe stores anymore. They get broken down and sent for paper recycling instead of reuse. I use shoe boxes in so many different ways with clients. If you go into a higher end store, very often if you ask them, they will actually collect them for you. They may even all be matching. I managed to get a bunch for one client that are all blue and green stripes.”

And if your existing items aren’t perfect for your needs, Melbourne says you can often customize them to suit. “With business clients, sometimes things are as simple as getting wood and putting extra shelves in an existing unit.”

REDUCE

Organizers say being green means sharing the message to “reduce.” Says Warmingham, “I truly believe that the condition of our lives is a direct result of how you choose to spend your time. So if you choose to spend your time shopping, the condition of your life is going to be cluttered. A lot of what I do with my clients involves helping them understand that cause and effect relationship – and that includes shopping. It includes a variety of other things, but it absolutely includes shopping.”

Thomson also sees shopping as a huge factor in clutter. “I say this to a lot of my clients, ‘Just stop shopping! You’re cut off.’ I have people who have an entire closet of full of paper napkins and plates but there’s a party and so they get another set to go with it. And I say, ‘Just use what you’ve got. You know, use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.’ This is how people used to live and everybody was fine. We could have families of five kids and two parents living in a bungalow and it was OK. Now you’ve got a three-person family living in 2,000 square feet and it’s not big enough.”

Part of the message, says Warmingham, includes teaching “conscious consumption, which is not just slowing down the purchasing, but when you do make purchases, bringing awareness, the upstream and downstream effects of purchases, understanding how things travel to us, packaging” and materials.

You might not be a big shopper, but still find your home filled with gifts and donations from friends and family. More and more people are looking to the voluntary simplicity movement for ideas – managing household bills by email, birthday parties with requests for “no gifts,” at holidays scaling down gift exchanges and making donations to charity instead – these are all ways you can reduce the volume of material entering your home.

RECYCLE

“I find a lot of people, when you’re called in, they’re just so eager to purge the stuff from their life, they don’t care where it’s going,” says Thomson. Green organizers help clients resist the urge to toss everything to the curb. Here are a few recommended recycling options:

– your local recycling program

– take toxic items such as batteries and solvents to your local waste depot

– websites like Freecycle and Craigslist let you share your stuff in your community

– Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore locations accept building and renovation materials

– many charities accept clothes and household items.

“I will collect things that I know artists and other people I know can use, where most people will just toss it in the trash,” says Melbourne. She took bits of embroidery floss and colourful thread from a client’s old sewing baskets (with permission) and they now grace several quilts and collages. Melbourne says green organizing can be incredibly creative and fun. You can give surprising new life to old belongings and your space will never end up looking like all the rest.

But the best thing a good organization job can do is keep people content with their space. “One of the big things I do,” says Melbourne “is help people utilize their space well enough that they’re not thinking anymore of having to move into a bigger space.” A happy family with no plans to move to a bigger, more energy-hungry home: how much greener can you get?

References

Professional organizers

Helen Melbourne, Green Owl Organizing and Downsizing, 416-453-9628

Nada Thomson, Artful Organizers, www.artfulorganizers.com, 905-815-5502

Colleen Warmingham, Space Inventors, www.ColleenW.com and www.Artalendar.com

Recycling resources

City of Toronto, www.toronto.ca/garbage/index.htm

Craigslist in Toronto, toronto.craigslist.org

Freecycle, www.freecycle.org/groups/canada

Goodwill, www.goodwill.on.ca

Habitat for Humanity (under “ReStores”), www.habitat.ca

Resources for eco-friendly home organization products

Ecoholic: Your Guide to the Most Environmentally Friendly Information, Products and Services in Canada, by Adria Vasil, Vintage Canada, 2007.

Fair trade baskets, www.tenthousandvillages.ca

Home organization and cleaning products, www.grassrootsstore.com

Office products, www.frogfile.com

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