Hello again lovely people! This blog post is the second of a series on sustainable consumerism, focusing mainly on the environmental benefits and limitations of different purchasing patterns. Today I will introduce minimalism as a concept, why people do it, and what these environmental impacts might be. This topic is very broad and covers a variety of aspects including waste reduction, fast fashion, the sharing economy and diet – so future posts will cover these aspects in more detail. I hope you enjoy and learn something new!
What is minimalism?
Voluntary minimalism is typically seen as a means to minimise possessions, to reduce life’s distractions and allow more time to be dedicated to personal growth. Some see minimalist behaviour as a “spring clean”, with all the emphasis being placed on the number of things you own. Others see it as a lifestyle, with a philosophy of living with less followed as part of an anti-consumption approach (Dopierała, 2017), or as a way to simplify your entire life, not just your belongings. For many, minimalism is not a choice, but a cost-saving necessity: having the freedom to choose what you are consuming is a privilege predominantly associated with wealthiest in global society. As such, this essay will focus on the recent trend of voluntary minimalism observed across the Western world. In this case, minimalism is about reshuffling your priorities, particularly around the consumption of material goods.
“Voluntary simplicity is ultimately based on the premise of having less (material objects) but having more (in non-material terms)” – Martin-Woodhead, 2017
Voluntary minimalism has gained huge popularity over the last 20 years, alongside a growing interest in conscientious living, evident through the expansion of veganism, the growth of the tiny house movement and the sharing economy. In fact, minimalism links to the sharing economy quite nicely: the focus of both, instead of being the possession of material goods, is on establishing networks to increase access to such goods (read more here: https://searchfor.science.blog/2020/03/30/sustainable-consumerism-i-the-sharing-economy/) (Dopierała, 2017). So, what’s all the fuss about?
Why do people practice voluntary minimalism?
Several studies consider the motivations behind minimalist behaviour. From these studies, three main groups of reason are outlined: a dissatisfaction with the capitalist system, the need to re-balance personal priorities, and for the benefit of the environment and wider society. These will be discussed in the following section.
- Against overconsumption
Despite advertisements and large companies promising happiness, fulfilment and joy through the acquisition of their newest, fastest, biggest thing, many people are starting to realise that, actually, the stuff you own does not equate to the happiness you feel (Lee & Ahn, 2016). Instead, there is a spread of dissatisfaction with the current system: the possession of items (of which the average American household owns 300,000) causes fatigue, nervous tension and a growing addiction to the instant gratification which a spur-of-the-moment purchase can provide (Ledder, 2019; Błoński & Witek, 2019). These factors, as well as the disappointment of an item not living up to its expectations, combine to lead to low consumer well-being, especially in more materialistic individuals (Lee & Ahn, 2016).
A frequent element of minimalist behaviour is also associated with the fight against overproduction, and rejection of overconsumption being the driving force of the capitalist economy (Błoński & Witek, 2019). As a result, minimalists might intentionally consume less, to detach themselves from the vicious cycle of constant (often uncontrollable) buying, or instead change their thoughts around what they buy. For example, a minimalist will likely prefer a high quality, durable item with a long lifespan over its trendiness or price (Ledder, 2019; Dopierała, 2017) Again, having this choice is a luxury, which is the main reason why minimalism is associated with the wealthy.
“minimalism is not a full retreat from consumerism or an anti-consumption behaviour, but rather a form of a conscious choice, which helps the individual to achieve balance and better quality in the everyday life” – Dopierała, R., 2017
2. Re-prioritising time and money
Reducing physical possessions is believed to be the first step to reshuffling your time and priorities, often with the aim of focusing on intrinsic values such as personal growth rather than extrinsic values, such as financial success or status (Lee & Ahn, 2016). Today, people use their possessions to define themselves, rather than their own personal attributes, skills or personality traits (Błoński & Witek, 2019), which gives items an unnecessary hold on your life. To combat this, focusing on only what you need, rather than whims and impulse buys is believed to reduce distractions, allowing you to spend more time doing the things really add value to your life (Dopierała, 2017).
“in today’s world, it is consumption that takes over the functions of the basic instrument for creating and expressing human personality” – Błoński, K. and Witek, J., 2019
3. The Environmental impacts
The third reason why many adopt minimalist lifestyles is to reduce their environmental impact. There is a definite lack of scientific research on this topic, however, a lot of impacts can be estimated. Let’s take the example of clothing. We are buying 400% more clothes than we did 20 years ago, with 2 billion pairs of jeans being produced each year (Karunungan, 2017). This has a huge impact: a single pair of jeans requires 7,000 litres of water to produce (Karunungan, 2017), and 85% of man-made materials on shorelines are microfibres from clothing (Karunungan, 2017). As well as this, minimalism might be said to reduce waste. Waste is often seen through a reactionary lens – what can I do with all the stuff I own which I no longer want or need? Minimalism, through encouraging decision-making which factors in the lifecycle, durability and built-in obsolescence of a product, can reduce waste by preventing the problem before it has begun (Ledder, 2019). Environmental scientists increasingly promote de-growth and sustainable consumption in industrialised societies as a solution to a variety of environmental problems (Meissner, 2019), which highlights voluntary minimalism as an obvious route to reduce consumption and production.
So, when minimalism seems to offer so much, what could possibly be wrong with it? Again, there isn’t much science behind this, so I have taken to browsing google for a response. One thing which stood out to me was that often, minimalism is seen as extreme – characterised by a strict set of rules and regulations to follow, as well as a hugely competitive drive to own as little as possible. This is very restrictive and does not represent minimalism as a concept. Just because someone is doing their interpretation of it, does not make their interpretation the only interpretation – a single male minimalist will own different things to a minimalist family of 5, for example (Fields-Milburn & Nicodemus). As well as this, minimalism, at least in the early stages, still seems to focus on the possessions you own. How is that any different to being a materialist? It is almost as easy to get swept up in new ways of doing things and do it for the wrong reasons, than it is to get stuck in your own ways. For example, what is the point of replacing your TV with a Netflix subscription, when the whole purpose of removing the tv was to remove the distractions? There is also a nice post by bemorewithless.com, which highlights all the practical reasons why getting rid of stuff can be short-sighted (read here: https://bemorewithless.com/the-downside-of-minimalism/).
Voluntary minimalism is pursued by many to declutter your life and mind, and to make room for intrinsic values which mean something to you. The main motivations for doing this are centred around a dissatisfaction with the current system, a willingness to be a more conscientious consumer to reduce environmental impacts, or to simplify your own life. Although there is a lack of scientific research on the topic, I can’t really think of a strong reason why consuming less is worse for the environment than overconsumption – but it is not for everyone. To end, the Minimalists summarise the movement much better than I could:
“Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.” Joshua Fields Milburn & Ryan Nicodemus (The Minimalists), from their blog post “Minimalism: An Elevator Pitch”.
Thank you for reading!
Błoński, K. & Witek, J. (2019) Minimalism in consumption. Annales Universitatis Mariae Curie-Skłodowska, sectio H–Oeconomia, 53(2), pp.7-15
Dopierała, R. (2017) Minimalism–a new mode of consumption?. Przegląd Socjologiczny, 66(4), pp.67-83.
Fields-Milburn, J., Nicodemus, R. (n.d.) Minimalism: An elevator pitch. [online] Available at: https://www.theminimalists.com/pitch/ (Accessed: 06/04/2020)
Karunungan, R.J. (2017) Minimalism trend: will it save the planet? [online] Available at: http://climatetracker.org/minimalism-trend-will-it-save-the-planet/ (Accessed: 06/04/2020)
Ledder, L. (2019) Minimalism. [pdf] Available at: https://mosaic.messiah.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1209&context=honors (Accessed: 06/04/2020)
Lee, M.S. & Ahn, C.S.Y. (2016) Anti‐consumption, materialism, and consumer well‐being. Journal of Consumer Affairs, 50(1), pp.18-47
Martin-Woodhead, A. (2017) Minimalism as sustainable fashion. The circular economy: transitioning to sustainability?
Meissner, M. (2019) Against accumulation: lifestyle minimalism, de-growth and the present post-ecological condition. Journal of Cultural Economy, 12(3), pp.185-200