In the United States, people are always encouraged to buy more things. Television advertisements, fashion magazines and towering billboards all offer what only the best, newest products can — happiness.
But can material possessions really provide happiness? And, what’s more, even if they could, should a culture of consumerism be something countries aspire to cultivate? One popular movement addresses these and other questions about human relationships to stuff. It’s called “minimalism,” and ironically, it’s everywhere.
A plethora of self-help books and blogs exist on the topic, and the people who practice minimalism suggest it can make you happier, less stressed and more grounded. But one of the most significant benefits of minimalism is its relation to sustainability.
To understand the best parts of the minimalism trend, let’s consider the environmental impacts of consumerism and the ways minimalism attempts to counter them.
Consumer culture and the environment
It takes an enormous amount of energy and resources to produce the products that many people buy on a whim. According to one study, the products we consume are responsible for 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Since developed countries consume disproportionately to the rest of the world, those numbers will only continue to rise as consumption accelerates at home and worldwide.
Once consumer products exist, they must be transported — sometimes overseas — which requires more energy and produces more greenhouse gases. When products reach store shelves and individual consumers purchase them, they are often used for only a fraction of their lifespans before being thrown away, as in the “fast fashion” industry. When you factor in packaging and tags, that’s a lot of waste even for the smallest items.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with buying and owning things. Objects are useful to humans, and they will continue to be even as we progress into the digital age. Possessions have practical uses, aesthetic purpose and personal significance. Our stuff only becomes a problem when we cycle through it at an unsustainable rate.
A consumer culture that prioritizes GDP over all other measures of progress does not encourage sustainability. Even if such cultures claim to value the wise use of resources and protecting the environment, these values are often incompatible with an economic philosophy that requires people to buy more and more.
When people purchase many lower quality products instead of a few higher quality ones, they consume and throw away more, producing more pollution and waste. At its core, this is the environmental issue a minimalist lifestyle aims to address.
The minimalist lifestyle doesn’t necessarily involve shunning worldly possessions altogether. Instead, it means only buying the things that have a lasting ability to provide real value. Minimalists approach all aspects of their lives with this perspective, choosing carefully to curate a life that makes them as happy as possible.
Multiple philosophies of minimalism exist, including spiritual and non-spiritual forms. The Japanese and Scandinavian minimalist approaches, for example, are both gaining popularity despite their differences.
When minimalists are selective about what they buy, they end up buying less. They opt for objects that will last longer, that will fill their needs more efficiently and that they won’t get tired of. It’s essentially the opposite of impulse buying.
Buying less of higher quality goods can help protect the environment by reducing demand for “fast” consumer products and lowering the amount of trash in landfills. So, it can be a useful tool to help limit your environmental impact.
Though minimalism has the potential to contribute to sustainability, there has been some controversy about whether modern minimalism is the best approach.
Though most people would agree reducing consumption and waste is good for the environment, some fear that the popular minimalist trend may not productively address the root of the issue with consumerism. Though it makes many people happy, popular minimalism tends to focus on the stylishness of the lifestyle. The aesthetic of minimalism is typically high-tech, expensive and caught up in status, which doesn’t entirely throw off consumerism.
Because a minimalist lifestyle requires a certain level of financial security — as in, “I won’t keep this because I can always buy it if I need it later” — it’s unrealistic as a goal for many people. Furthermore, contemporary minimalism doesn’t always consider sustainable purchasing, even if buying is more limited. The best version of minimalism would prioritize eco-friendly products, recycling, re-purposing, sharing and other sustainable practices. In short, it’s about buying better.
Though minimalism isn’t the solution to all the world’s environmental problems, it is a step in the right direction. Combined with other efforts, it may be one way for people today and in the future to live more sustainably.
This is a guest post written by Megan Ray Nichols.
Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer and the editor of Schooled By Science. She enjoys discussing scientific discoveries and exploring the world around her. Follow her on twitter @nicholsrmegan.