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  • Writer's pictureMeg Carney

2. 7Rs of Outdoor Minimalism: Reduce, Refuse, Rethink

Hello, and welcome back to the Outdoor Minimalism Podcast. I’m your host, Meg Carney. I’m an outdoor and environmental writer and author of the book “Outdoor Minimalist: Waste Less Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking” set to be released on September 1, 2022.

The Outdoor Minimalist Podcast’s goal is to give listeners actionable ways to waste less hiking, camping, and backpacking during every step of the process. Your impact outdoors starts long before you hit the trail and goes beyond Leave No Trace ethics. You’ll learn how to identify sustainable outdoor brands, how to ask hard questions regarding sustainability and begin to shift and evolve your mindset to integrate minimalism into all outdoor pursuits.

In this episode of The Outdoor Minimalist, we will discuss the framework of Outdoor Minimalism: the seven R’s.

If this is your first time tuning into the show, I recommend going back and listening to the first episode, “What is outdoor minimalism?

In that episode, I preface the definition of outdoor minimalism, which is broken down into two distract parts:

  1. An individual striving to minimize their impact in their relationships with nature.

  2. One who consumes thoughtfully and only what they need and leaves the wilderness better than they found it.

The 7Rs are broken down into easy-to-follow and reference categories within my book and serve as good reminders of pursuing minimalism through the lens of an outdoor enthusiast. These frameworks or pieces allow individuals to enact change through minimalist concepts.

The 7Rs I created for Outdoor Minimalism include:

  1. reduce,

  2. refuse,

  3. rethink,

  4. repair,

  5. rehome/repurpose,

  6. remove, and

  7. restore.

Like the 3Rs we are familiar with, these 7Rs start with “reduce.” Each R plays a distinct role, and I’ll be breaking them down into a few different episodes beginning with the first three: reduce, refuse, and rethink.

Before we jump into exactly what these mean in terms of outdoor minimalism, let’s examine why reduction and a mindset shift around consumption are important in all areas of our lives and how we have been taught to view it.

For most of my life, I’ve been taught the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. While all three of these things have been influential, recycling has always seemed to be at the forefront of society’s sustainability approach. What’s funny is that when these R’s were designed, they put the most important one first. Within the 7Rs, reduce is the only one that is related to the original 3Rs, and I put it first because, like the original, it is the most important.

Now, to understand why recycling has been taught so strategically to us instead of reducing our consumption, we need to know how the 3Rs came about in the first place. There is some debate on this topic, but most sources suggest that the practices within the 3Rs have been around for centuries. The pre-Baby Boomer generation remembers the need to hoard or stockpile goods, avoid using some materials and reduce their consumption, in general, to save resources during WWII.

Then, in the 1950s, we saw an economic boom that led to increased waste, primarily single-use packaging waste. During this time, single-use items, disposable packaging, and convenience were huge selling points. They were being pushed onto the consumer from every angle, and everyone was buying into it. Despite the push, it didn’t take long for more earth-conscious consumers to become concerned with increased consumption and waste.

Here is where the original 3Rs come into play, but it wasn’t until the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, that most people believe spearheaded the 3R education campaign. As many of you may know, the first Earth Day event was a hit, and millions of people organized to raise awareness about various environmental issues. Each year, Earth Day gained popularity, making it a global affair, and around the same time, the US federal government also formed the Environmental Protection Agency.

As the EPA was formed, they also passed the Resource Recovery Act in Congress. This bill was created to shift federal and community focus to practices like recycling, resource recovery, and turning waste into energy. This wasn’t the only influential environmental law enacted during the 70s; there were several at the state and federal levels. Most of them were to promote conservation and raise awareness about environmental issues in general.

During this period, the 3Rs were born to become a profoundly popular framework and mantra for American citizens and environmental education in general.

The idea is to reduce overall consumption; what you can't reduce, you will reuse, and what you can no longer reuse, you recycle as a last resort.

This shouldn’t be a problem, except for one thing-- industry bought into it as well.

One of the reasons “reduce” has been somewhat under the radar in most of our “environmental” education is because it would impact the current economy. If consumers continually reduce their intake, then less money is spent on consumer goods. This wouldn’t be a very effective advertising campaign in the eyes of most companies.

That’s why manufacturers latched onto recycling with the original campaign and began to push the concept onto consumers as the underlying message of the slogan. That way, they could continue to sell their single-use products but convince the consumer it was okay as long as they recycled. And now, recycling has been pushed to the front of the environmental movement as somewhat of a savior.

I’ll likely do an episode about recycling in general and in terms of outdoor goods because there is a lot to be said about this broken system, general misconceptions, and obvious miscommunication or greenwashing of material that can and cannot be recycled effectively. But I don’t want to focus on that right now.

All of that to say, since reducing plays such a significant role in setting the standard of environmentally friendly habits, and it always has, that’s part of the reason why I included it in the 7Rs of outdoor minimalism.

And while most companies do not want you to consume less...

The good news is that some companies are on board for change. Patagonia is one example of a forward-thinking company that puts its workers and the environment before profit.

In the past, Patagonia has run a few campaigns to promote an anti-consumer message by asking customers to do something simple: “Don’t Buy This Jacket” or “Don’t Buy This Shirt.”

It seems strange for Patagonia to promote not purchasing their items, but the advertisement supported their Common Threads Initiative—a campaign to encourage everyone to consume less and provide alternatives to buying new.

We can reduce our consumption by only buying new things we need and by buying secondhand when possible. And I say this in those terms because, as human beings, we acknowledge that we have an impact. This is part of why I disagree with the terminology of “zero waste.” I love the movement and everything it stands for, but the wording “zero waste” is confusing and misleading. As humans, we are the primary source, if not the only source, of major pollution on Earth, and every one of us creates waste. The only thing we can do is reduce or minimize the amount of waste or the general impact we have throughout our lifetime.

This concept of reducing within the terms of outdoor minimalism expands beyond consumerism and material goods alone and also looks at reducing your impact when recreating. We often look to the Leave No Trace principles when reducing our environmental impact. If you’re unfamiliar with Leave No Trace, I’ll link to their website in the description. I recommend anyone spending time outside understands these and follows them.

Anyway, reducing your impact on the environment expands beyond Leave No Trace and the immediate damage you have on the environment as well as expanding beyond the afterlife of a product of its packaging. And what I mean by the afterlife is where it goes once consumed. This could be the landfill, ocean, recycling center, composting, etc.

Reducing is an attempt at a consumer level to stop a product from ever reaching its afterlife and to prevent more materials from entering the landfill or from being extracted in the first place. Now, the concept of reduction doesn’t need to fall solely on the consumer either. Companies and manufacturers can also implement waste reduction systems into their product manufacturing, transport of products, product packaging, and lifecycle assessments.

The idea of reducing consumption has never been more important. Today, we are starting to see the implications of our hyper-consumerism with climate change, a never-ending cycle of pollution, and endless environmental exploitation of our linear production model. Because of this, reducing waste can be the main thing we focus on when we turn to environmental movements like zero-waste. Then, in our attempt to reduce waste, we can easily become overwhelmed with the sheer amount that is out of our control, leaving us feeling hopeless or as if our individual changes don’t matter.

Some experts will agree that individual change doesn’t matter, but if this is your concern, I encourage you to listen to the Podcast How to Save a Planet and their episode comparing the impact of large-scale change and individual change. That episode is titled “Is Your Carbon Footprint BS?

How you choose to reduce your impact on the environment will look much different than anyone else. There are general things that we all can be doing, especially as outdoor enthusiasts, such as only buying what you need and prioritizing the gear you already own. That’s why within the 7Rs, I also included refuse and rethink.

Refusing is an easy way for consumers to boycott products they don’t agree with or believe have a detrimental effect on the environment for whatever reason. Two very common examples of this are refusing to use plastic in any form and refusing to consume animal products. In both cases, we see at the consumer level a complete refusal to participate in the economy that contributes to the assigned detriment. So in the case of plastic, many environmentalists will refuse to use plastic bags or buy products in plastic containers, or they won’t wear clothing like polyester that sheds microfibers. How they go about the level of refusal is somewhat up to them and their accessibility.

And since we can’t necessarily refuse to have an impact on the environment because we are living beings, then refusal is a way to further build on reducing our impact.

We get to reduction and refusal through the third R, which is rethink. This R can be the most challenging but also one of the most influential because it requires the enacting of the behavior change we are striving to achieve. For instance, if you are working on reducing your impact by refusing to eat, say, beef because it is one of the most environmentally damaging animal products, but you love to pack beef jerky when hiking and backpacking.

Now, if you genuinely want to reduce your impact on the environment through the refusal to consume beef, then begin the process of rethinking. In this specific instance, it will likely take some research and finding a replacement you like, and it probably won’t happen immediately. It can take some time as you find new trail snacks that you enjoy just as much. Another example of rethinking that is more immediate is when you’re on social media and your favorite outdoor brand is releasing a new item, or you come across a rad gear review for the best rain jackets of 2021. Here it is tempting to venture down the rabbit hole that is the gear on the internet, but that can often lead to impulse buys of things you don’t necessarily need.

So, here we have to implement the ability to rethink our needs to redirect our attention and understand the full implications of our consumption. ​​I’m not a perfect environmentalist, and I am not yet fully zero-waste. But rethinking consumption alone is an effective way to make positive changes because I started to think about every step of the production process of everything I buy, not just what happens after I buy it.

This sounds exhausting to do, but the less you buy and the more time you devote to product research, the less exhausting it becomes. It can give a new appreciation for products when you know everything that went into getting them to your door. It can make you reconsider an item in your shopping cart online when you discover it was made and sourced unethically. Rethinking gives a better understanding of how you use money and what you choose to invest it in through the products you buy.

Researching the items I invest my money into was the fastest way to cut back on consumption and find higher-quality products that would last longer.

Rethinking your purchasing habits is one thing. Rethinking the implications of your purchase and every step it takes to get to your door is another. Getting to a spot where you feel confident in every purchase takes time. I'm not quite there yet. As I shift my mindset and train my brain to reconsider and reevaluate purchases, I gain a deeper respect and understanding of the process as a whole.

You are becoming part of the solution by reducing your consumption and only buying what you need. You are part of the solution by refusing to consume products that foster exploitation, pollution, and environmental destruction. You are part of the solution by rethinking your daily habits and purchases.

Reduce, refuse, and rethink are just the first three parts of the 7Rs of outdoor minimalism, but they are the primary Rs that focus on mindset. In future episodes, I’ll discuss the last 7Rs and how they relate to outdoor minimalism and consumerism. The remainin

g Rs include repair, rehome/repurpose, remove, and restore. I’ll likely be breaking these into individual episodes so I can interview industry experts regarding how to do this on a larger scale while also encouraging consumers to take accountability for their impact.

Thanks for listening, and if you like what you hear, let me know! Leave a review and subscribe so you never miss an episode. You can now find me on Instagram Follow there for daily updates and other educational resources and to help build an outdoor community with the shared goal of creating a better outdoor space as they recreate.

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