The bread which you store up is the bread of the hungry;
the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked;
the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot;
the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.
St. Basil the Great
When people think about being more environmentally responsible, the first topics that come to mind usually involve transportation habits, utilities usage and food consumption. These are all very important. However, there is another area that we often overlook: Clothing. Almost every decision we make about clothing can have an impact on other people as well as on the earth we all share.
In honor of the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, I offer the following. These are all very practical suggestions, but they can also be a gateway to a deeper spiritual exploration. See in these tips a nudge to focus, simplify, contemplate and rest. They can help us tune in better to our relationship with the earth and with our fellow humans.
1. Buy Fewer Clothes. This is a hard one for Americans. We have become accustomed to accumulate--let's get more and more. But ask yourself--do you really enjoy all of the outfits you own? Like most American men, I use the same half dozen shirts and pants while many other items hang in my closest and rarely see the light of day. I spend more time just managing all this extra stuff in storage than I do actually using it. Clothing is very resource intensive. The cotton grown is sprayed with more pesticides than most food crops and synthetic materials are petroleum based. Most clothing is also made by people exploited for barely subsistence wages. We can do better.
2. Donate Clothing. It is easy for me to hoard. Sometimes it is the quote from St. Basil above that helps me let go. I have possessions taking up space when there are poor people who could benefit from them. I keep some mementoes for nostalgia, and I try to purge the rest. It helps to think of it as just sharing it with someone else rather than truly letting it go.
3. Buy Second Hand Clothing. It's not just ecological; it's not just economical . . . it's also fashionable! Why spend $30-60 on a pair of pants when you can get virtually the same item for $5? You may end up with a stylish retro wardrobe. It may take some hunting and pecking in order to find the right items, but you have to do that at retail stores, too. I know people who dress themselves almost entirely from thrift stores and they look every bit as sharp and stylish as people spending more money for the same items at retail prices. We can live smarter.
4. Consider Organic/Fairly Traded Clothes. This one is hard, as the availability of these items is still pretty low and the cost is often high. However, we must ask ourselves not why these items are so expensive, but rather why is most clothing so cheap? Chances are, that cost is being paid for in damage to the earth and abusive labor practices.
5. Wash Clothes Less Often. I enjoy being clean as much as anybody, but let's face it--a day at the office does not require a thorough wash with heavy duty laundry detergent. Wash socks and undergarments each time but pants, sweaters and shirts can often get multiple uses between washes. This saves water, reduces the environmental pollution from detergents and saves on your carbon footprint. Most importantly, it frees up time that you could spend with your family and on other nobler pursuits, such as allowing time for rest and for honoring God. We have been conditioned to think we have to 'keep up with the Joneses' and spend virtually all of our energy in this never-ending treadmill of consumption and busy-ness. Most of it is not necessary--all that extra work depletes us, depletes the environment, and gets in the way of our relationships and spirituality. We can re-learn how to be people who honor the Sabbath--rest and contemplation of God are so important. In fact, Pope Francis recently recognized "contemplation of creation" as a Spiritual Work of Mercy!
5. Let Nature Do The Drying. This has become controversial. In fact, there are many neighborhoods where it is prohibited to dry your clothes outdoors! Some of those neighborhoods are starting to change and allow this once again. In the meantime, you can get an indoor drying rack. Why spend money and pollution-producing energy spinning clothes in a clothes dryer when God has given us the sun and the wind for that very purpose? Maybe the climate in your area is not conducive to drying clothes this way year-round, but all of us can take advantage of it from time to time. I have a collapsible wooden drying rack from a local Amish builder, similar to the picture. I use it to hang clothes as well as house plants.
6. Use Ecologically Friendly Detergents. We are all downstream from some people and upstream from others. The earth is a fully integrated system. What goes down the drain goes to our neighbors, and we get what others have put down the drain previously. It goes into the topsoil, rivers and oceans. Animals and plants can be harmed.
8. Use Energy Efficient Machines. When possible, find an Energy Star model. A good rule of thumb is to keep the machines you have and use them until they break down. Getting rid of working appliances in order to swap them out with more efficient models sounds great at first, but all the energy required to manufacture and transport a new appliance, plus all of the landfill waste that accumulates when it is thrown away, means that it is better to use what you have until it cannot be used any more.
9. Keep It Retro! I often find myself perusing the home fixer upper channels. All too often, I see a family on House Hunters walk into a perfectly functional house and declare that they would have to "upgrade" all of the appliances for something more stylish. I have to admit it is hard to watch that. I like style as much as anybody, but to throw away something that works perfectly fine just because it does not have a contemporary look seems wasteful. We ought to at least consider whether there are ethical implications of that decision. Can those used appliances be given to low-income families or will they just be thrown out? That is money we could use for other purposes, such as sharing with the poor. The time spent selecting, purchasing and installing new items could be time spent with our families, walking in nature or volunteering to help the needy.
10. Repair. How many times have we all thrown out a shirt just because it was missing a button? We should ask ourselves--is it really more convenient to get in your car, drive to the nearest retail outlet, select and purchase a new shirt, remove tags and drive back to your home than it is to simply sew on a new button? Some effective marketing has conditioned us to believe that buying something new is easier and more convenient--often, it is not.
As Pope Francis describes so well, being environmentally minded is not an isolated practice. How we treat our common home is also directly related to how we treat ourselves and our fellow human beings, especially the poor. It shows how we honor and regard God, too. In just these few examples, we can see that when we are wasteful with clothing choices, not only do we potentially harm God's creation, but we can also waste our time, talent and treasure doing things that are very unnecessary. We can squander what God has given us running this never-ending treadmill of consumption. As St. Basil reminds us, that is all time, talent and treasure that could be mobilized to benefit the poor.