Self Starters: Swenhome, Being Eco-Conscious at Home

Self starters is a series that feature individuals who promote healthy habits through education, food, gardening, and more. 

Being environmentally friendly is a choice and it doesn't happen overnight. This post focuses on our homes. How do be bring our eco-consciousness into organizing our homes? We fill our home with things we love, things that make us feel comfortable, cozy and happy. Most of all we want our home to be our little haven. Overtime we accumulate a lot of "stuff" that we no longer use or need but somehow never got around to getting rid of it and it can become completely overwhelming when the time comes to get rid of it. 

This is where Payton steps in to make the letting go process a little easier. Payton Swenson is the founder of Swenhome. She is an ecologically oriented home organizer based in the New York area. In this interview we talk about the decluttering process and where and how to give your old loved items a home. 

What is your ecological philosophy when it comes to organizing?

I try to work with clients to get them to be as comfortable as possible with having less. Each client is so different so I take in to consideration how much they have, any transitional period they might be going through or on the precipice of, their emotional state, and how much of an impact they think they have or want to have on society. To circle back to the idea that I have to assess my clients' idea of their impact on society- I try to help them let go of what they can in as closed-loop a system as they have the brain space for.
For example, they might want to give their best clothes to their sister, their next best clothes to their friends or women in their lives who perform services, and their not so nice clothes they don't know what to do with. When appropriate, I will decide for them what will go to donation vs textile recycling because it is often hard for people to understand which goes where (clothing that are stained, ripped, or repaired should go to textile recycling, thrift shops tend to throw them away.)

Organizing for me is very overwhelming and I never know where to start. How do you approach the organization process?

Going in to this business I thought I would be met with clients who were ready to completely overhaul their lifestyle, but that wasn't the case, more people, upon first reaching out, are only beginning to think they might have a lifestyle change on the way... they are more interested in the one-time fix, which doesn't exist for most people, let alone the chronically disorganized. I always start with decluttering (there is a great book called Unclutter Your Life in One Week that I love to refer people to, it is a very specific guide of what to get rid of). For people who plan to work on their own I encourage them to make a short list of priorities, three very specific areas, and then chip away at them 15 minutes a day. Most people will say they can commit to 15 minutes because it seems like a small commitment, I even encourage them to set a timer and ask them to give themselves full permission to stop and clean up when they're done.  If I am doing the organizing for or with my clients I tend to work in 4-6 hour chunks. My clients tend to tire out faster than me because I'm asking them to make a lot of decisions in a relatively short period of time. The upside is that I, with all of my experience, tend to know what people need to hold on to vs what they think they should hold on to, and learn what each client values so I create categories to help batch decision-making.

Have you noticed any patterns while organizing people's homes and offices that we can avoid? 

The most common pattern is old belief systems us or fear-based decision-making. When I ask people why they have something that is broken/ outdated/ anxiety-producing/ expired there is rarely a joyful reason. Another pattern is bulk items taking over, that includes buying the "one with more because it was less expensive"- these things tend to expire or we lose interest in them before turning to the next new thing and we don't throw them away because we spent money on it and didn't use it (we feel bad). Check your Neosporin, no matter the size, it is probably expired. I know this from experience, from throwing away about 50 Neosporin tubes in the last 5 years. I'm hyper-sensitive to it because we think we are saving and we are actually being very wasteful, mine expires this month. I don't have a lot of hard and fast rules because everyone is different, but I've noticed that the one area most people can trim is their bedding and towels- you really don't need more than two sets of towels and two sets of sheets per bed in the house (absolutely include your pull-out couch and your blow-up mattresses, they need sheets too!). One pattern is the argument against that, often a fear of seeming inhospitable or ill prepared in"emergencies" and I ask people to check their definition of "hospitality" and "emergency".

What simple changes we can make in our homes to make it more environmentally friendly? 

The simple answer is to practice mindfulness and practicing taking "the next right action". Have a spending plan and a shopping list you don't deviate from. Add "Refuse" to your Recycle, Reduce, Reuse practice. Don't take the free t-shirt, the branded luggage tag you'll never use, the "reusable shopping tote" just because it is free unless you yourself really need it. If you take it for someone else you better have a plan to deliver it to them quickly. If you have the money to not shop at fast fashion outlets that would make a huge impact. We are generating clothing waste much faster than ever before and while other materials are being diverted to relatively closed-loop systems (like paper and aluminum recycling), clothing often ends up in a landfill. If we spend our money on things that last with a little less concern for the next hot trend, we can reduce our impact on landfills and the resources needed to fill them.

What do you do with the items that you remove from people's homes? 

I donate and recycle as much as possible. It is much easier for most to throw things in the trash than do the research to figure out where to take things, but I have become very efficient with how I distribute the "waste," my clients are often impressed with how much I know about trash haha. I let the textile recycling build up in my car before dropping it at one of those clothing/shoe drop boxes in my town. I have the phone number of the guy who owns it and will occasionally call to see if he will take certain materials (I recently wasn't sure about a load of carpet samples culled from an Interior Design firm, he couldn't take them, but the manufacturer actually sent us a UPS label and had it picked up). Although most of the drop boxes are for-profit, I know the organization my drop box supports. Many people are upset that they are for-profit, but there is just too much clothing waste now, it is better that it is getting re-used (often for insulation) so I care less that someone is making money. We all have to make money to live.

In our modern times, we go through a lot of electronics as they get replaced every 3-5 years and sometimes in less time than that. What do you do with electronics?  

Ask your local electronics dealer! I take lots of stuff to Best Buy, they have an electronics recycling program and it is free to drop off.

Are there any organizations you donate to? 

If it is easy, I will donate to the organization of my clients' choice. Some organizations like church thrift stores have very limited hours and some are a little more discerning (and if they are, things may end up in a landfill anyway). I donate mostly to Housing Works in NYC, Grace's Thrift Shop in Nyack, NY, and The Episcopal Church in Warwick, NY.

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