What is minimalism, and what is the difference between minimalism itself and minimalism with an awareness of the environmental impact, sometimes referred to as “eco-minimalism”? Simply put, minimalism is a rejection of hyperconsumerism. This lifestyle preaches less attachment to possessions and strict avoidance of clutter, which is an act of rebellion in a society where hyperconsumption is the goal, and for many, the norm. Minimalists refuse to collect items simply for the sake of collecting them. Instead, they prioritize purchasing new items only when they serve a necessary purpose. In this sense, there is little difference between “minimalism” and “eco-minimalism.” Minimalists reduce their negative impact on the environment just by shopping less, whether they realize it or not. However, the emphasis of the minimalist movement for the environmentally-conscious person is not just to reduce clutter and save money (although that’s important, too), but to reduce environmental damage in every step of owning material goods: from purchase, to use, to disposal.
But why is there a need for minimalism? How did we end up in a culture of hyperconsumerism anyway? When you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense that we would be eager to throw away money for items that are seemingly useless and sacrifice space in our homes for them. However, we are prone to doing this because the items we purchase aren’t always used for their literal function, but to signal our social status to other people and provide us with an artificial solution to our problems. There is an epidemic of insecurity that is fueling hyperconsumerism, which, although not entirely caused by incessant advertising, is definitely exacerbated by it. We fear that we don’t seem rich enough, pretty enough, or trendy enough, which is why we consistently consume material goods and dispose of them when they no longer suppress our insecurities. Planned obsolescence and poor quality products that are made to last only a short amount of time are also to blame. These products usually cost much less than higher quality products that may last longer, which traps us in a cycle of purchasing and repurchasing items that will become useless over and over again. Our culture has also turned shopping into a hobby instead of a process by which we acquire things we actually need. This is fueled by a glorification of materialism, which we often see on social media such as Instagram trends where people post pictures of the hoards of products they own in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Hyperconsumption and so-called “retail therapy” are also glorified in popular songs and music videos. When these songs get stuck in our heads, we repeat the message over and over again to ourselves, and slowly (or maybe not so slowly) we become convinced that shopping for anything and everything is the solution to our problems. Excessive shopping, however, is the problem itself.
According to the University of Southern Indiana, one-third of the trash that ends up in a landfill is just packaging material. Therefore, no matter how long you use the items you purchased, you are likely contributing to one of the largest sources of waste just by shopping. In addition, most of the waste occurs in the production of a product, not in its disposal (Roach et al. 24). This means that as consumerism increases, companies are bound to produce more products, which produces more waste. The Environmental Protection Agency also notes that industrialized nations such as the United States, which have high levels of consumerist activity, produce some of the largest amounts of waste. This waste ends up in landfills and produces air contamination and gas emissions that contribute to climate change, creating an environmental disaster that we are literally paying for.
If you are ready to apply eco-minimalism to your own life, here are some things you can start with.
It’s important to note that an eco-minimalist lifestyle should not focus on disposing of items you already own, although the picturesque “clutter-free” home is often the focal point of the movement. Rather, it is best to avoid owning unnecessary items in the first place and to reuse the items you already own as much as possible. Therefore, the eco-minimalist movement begins with being mindful of your shopping habits. Minimalism does not mean living with the absolute bare minimum you need to survive, spending on nothing more than shelter, food, and water. Minimalists still have the technology, cosmetics, and other consumer goods that are not absolutely necessary for survival. The point of minimalism is to substantially decrease unnecessary spending and to be wise about such purchases, ensuring that they are increasing your quality of life without having a drastic impact on the planet.
Green consumerism, which is environmentally-conscious consumption, can be practiced by substituting less sustainable purchases with more environmentally friendly ones or by reducing overall consumption (Roach et al. 26). The type of green consumerism you engage in may vary based on the product and your needs, but be aware that using eco-friendly purchases as an excuse to purchase more than you normally would is not encouraged in eco-minimalism. Some tips for practicing green consumerism include thrifting when possible and giving gifts that focus on experiences (maybe a yoga class membership or museum tickets) instead of purchasing material goods that the recipient of the gift might seldom use.
Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what items are worth purchasing. A minimalist lifestyle will look slightly different for every person. As long as you are being mindful of every purchase and taking steps to reduce your environmental impact, you are challenging the norm of hyperconsumption, and that takes courage.
Roach, Brian, et al. Consumption and the Consumer Society. Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute, 2019, pp. 24-26.
“Solid Waste & Landfill Facts.” University of Southern Indiana, www.usi.edu/recycle/solid-waste-landfill-facts/.
“Wastes.” Report on the Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, 19 Nov. 2018, www.epa.gov/report-environment/wastes.