Welcome to our series of posts on the A-Z of zero waste!
An overview of everything that has been shared so far can be found here.
When trying to live a zero waste life we start to become more aware of the things we are bringing into our lives, and start to prioritise items that are made ethically and sustainably and can last a long time, maybe even helping us create less waste. But when we talk about "ethical" or "sustainable" items it can be confusing as to what is the best option. Is wood better than metal? Is organic cotton better than viscose, or is recycled PET best? It can be tricky to work out what is the best option for you, and sometimes it can be impossible to truly say which is best. But what I can firmly say, is that the most ethical and most sustainable items are the ones you already own. The things you already own do not require any more water to be used, any more resources to be created or anyone to be treated unfairly for that product to exist. Even washing and caring for your items uses less resources that buying new. However it was made, even if it was unsustainably and unethically, that product already exists and it will create less waste to continue using it than to buy a new "ethical" and "sustainable" piece. Everything has a carbon footprint, and the more we buy, the greater the demand, the more carbon emissions we produce. The less we buy, the more carbon we prevent from entering the atmosphere by reducing demand, so reducing climate change.
With that in mind, today we will be talking all about making do and mending things we already own to avoid waste. As with many of these topics, the possibilities are endless and so I can't possibly hope to cover everything here today, so I hope instead that I can provide you with general principles to help you "Make do and Mend".
The phrase "Make do and mend", although a common and definitely not new principle, often refers back to a piece of literature released during World War Two in Britain.
"Make Do and Mend was a pamphlet issued by the British Ministry of Information in the midst of WWII. It was intended to provide housewives with useful tips on how to be both frugal and stylish in times of harsh rationing. With its thrifty design ideas and advice on reusing old clothing, the pamphlet was an indispensable guide for households. Readers were advised to create pretty ‘decorative patches’ to cover holes in warn garments; unpick old jumpers to re-knit chic alternatives; turn men’s clothes into women’s; as well as darn, alter and protect against the ‘moth menace’. An updated version of the book was recently released to coincide with the economic recession, offering similar frugal advice for 21st century families."
Although this pamphlet was not released to provide information about how to be more environmentally friendly, it was released at a time when resources were scarce and people were encouraged to be as sustainable as possible. It basically encompasses a lot of the zero waste lifestyle with a different name, and we can learn a lot from it.
The make do and mend phrase is quite circular in that as you mend items, you're able to "make do" for longer, meaning items then need further mending. Whilst we talk about making do we are also mindful that making do can include up cycling and refashioning which we will talk about in a little bit.
Generally the "make do and mend" mindset was due to the scarcity of resources in the war, when people couldn't go out and buy new things. Although most of us in the global North are not still living through a war, we are living in a time of crisis and emergency when we shouldn't just keep living our lives as we did before. Generally we should be buying less and making do with what we have already. We need to critically analyse whether we actually "need" what we think we need. Our currently society is set up to convince us through advertising that we can fix our problems through shopping, so often what we think we need is because companies and culture has convinced us that we do as opposed to needing it for our safety and survival. Generally we need a lot less than we think we do.
If you do find you're in need of something, consider borrowing it from a friend or neighbour so that you don't need to buy it new. If we think about the attitudes and behaviour of people during the World Wars, then that is something they would have been very likely to do.
If we are buying less, then we are expecting our items to stand up against wear and tear for longer. To help our things last as long as possible then we need to make sure we are caring for them correctly.
Clothes: The UK throws away 300,000 tonnes of clothing, and clothing contributes over 5% of the UK's carbon and water footprints. But if clothes stayed in active use for nine months longer (extending their average life to around three years), this would reduce their carbon, water and waste footprints by 20-30% (1). For clothes care, I love the website Love Your Clothes, which has sections on clothing care, repair and up-cycling. In general:
- Wash clothes as little as possible, and let air between uses
- Wash clothes inside out, on a full load (but not over stuffed)
- Know your washing labels
- Spot clean clothes to remove stains
- Close zips and buttons before washing and use a laundry bag so they don't snag other items
- Air dry instead of tumble drying if your climate and housing allows
- Store clothes in a dark dry place
- Know whether you should be hanging or folding the items.
- Protect your clothing by wearing aprons when cooking
- Protect shoes with sealants or waterproofing sprays.
Fran from Ethical Unicorn has devoted a whole article to making your clothes last longer. More specific care instructions for different materials can be found on Love your clothes, for items like leather, faux leather, lace, sequins etc.
Furniture: Homewares are something we are now seeing being sold in a similar way to fashion, but by caring for our furniture we can keep it in working order for longer. Care for soft furnishings in a similar way to how you would treat clothing, blotting clean to keep fresh for longer. Oil and protect wooden furniture and flooring to keep it in good condition and use cleaners suitable for wood on it, also avoiding putting hot or wet items directly onto wood.
Electronic items: very varied but consider care appropriate for the item, like removing limescale from a kettle, coffee machine or washing machine, and vacuuming vents or the refrigerator coils of a fridge to keep them working their best.
Homes: Treat house mould as soon as you see it to prevent it spreading onto furnishings which could leave staining. Remove limescale from taps and showers before it builds up and stops water flow. Care for hardwood floors or carpets to allow them to keep going for years. Tackle problems like damp or leaks as soon as you can to prevent the problem progressing further and causing more damage and waste. For more ideas on a zero waste home, click here.
There are so many things that can be repaired but a relatively simple place to start is clothing. Learning to repair our clothes is a skill that has sadly been forgotten in many communities in the global North. Gone are they days where everyone knew basic sewing skills, and now clothes are often being thrown away before they get to the point where they need to be repaired. Knowing some basic sewing skills is valuable as we try to reduce the amount we consume when going zero waste meaning our clothes are going to be used for longer. We are lucky enough to now live in a time where we have access to a wealth of information on the internet so you can likely find information and tutorials on how to repair anything, but things like learning to sew on a button and repair a small hole in clothing will serve you well, and can be done by hand easily. Obviously learning to full repair, tailor or even make clothes can be even more valuable if you're interested and you can often find second hand sewing machines for sale online, or borrow one from the many people that probably have one sitting about collecting dust.
If your clothes need more than you are able to do, consider paying someone to do the work for you instead of throwing away the item. I have had zips replaced on my jeans many times by local tailors and my shoes are reheeled often by a local cobbler. This not only saves me money from buying new items and avoids waste, but it also supports the local community economy and keeps valuable skills like this within our communities. You don't even need to go to a "professional" to get an item fixed - have a crafty friend? Ask them if they would be able to have a go at fixing it and repay them by sharing some of your skills with them (or pay them if they prefer).
For other items, consider how you can repair them. A tube of superglue is often less wasteful than buying a brand new product and getting a replacement part is likely to be better than the whole.
If you do ever need to buy new items, the "repair-ability" of something is good to consider. Brands that offer free repairs, or replacement parts are good things to invest in as they allow you to keep using that item for a long time.
Refashion & Upcycle
Upcycling and refashioning goes full circle back to Making Do. It's a way of furthering the life of your items without throwing them away or selling them. Selling items that are in good condition is obviously a great idea but if you have an item which is not in a great state then there is often many ways you can improve it to continue using it.
Clothes can be altered or turned into new clothes, as can any other items of fabric. Old jumpers can be made into cosy cushion covers. T-shirts can always become pyjamas, or even cloth bags. Furniture can be put to another use - like a small dining table being up cycled into a desk. Old jars can become containers for food, pens or other small items. Broken mugs can become plant pots (or if really smashed can become drainage in plant pots). Sock with holes too big to be mended can become cleaning cloths. Shoeboxes can become storage, as can old and a little broken suitcases. Old sheets and pillow cases can be made into cloth bags for food shopping or as gift bags for presents. The possibilities are endless!
So there we have it, how a saying from the War is perfectly applicable to our zero waste lives and can help protect our planet and climate. This list of course is not exhaustive and is a demonstration of how we can be more content with what we already own and look after our belongings so we can own them for longer to avoid the waste that comes with our current throw away culture. What other ways do you "Make do and Mend"? Tell me in the comments below or join us over on instagram for a discussion.