A clean, clear space. A stark, pared-back interior. A capsule wardrobe filled with only high-quality, beautifully made essentials. A kitchen stocked with a few carefully selected essentials, and a pantry full of glass jars rather than throwaway plastic containers. A bathroom cabinet carrying a couple of well-targeted products in beautiful, environmentally conscious packaging.
Sounds appealing, right? Minimalism – or more specifically the aesthetic of minimalism – has become a hot topic and a well-practiced trend in the last few years. The minimalist movement, which began as an art genre in the 1960s, has gained ground with trendsetters thanks to the idea that owning strictly what you need will streamline your life and clear your mind. The documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things set off a worldwide conversation on mindful decluttering, with its creators, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus aka The Minimalists, speaking out about how cutting back on consumerism has improved their lives. “By clearing the excess from our lives, we free up time to focus on our values – and of course our values are the cornerstone of living a meaningful life”, they have told The Good Trade. Decluttering your life, it seems, equals to decluttering your mind.
Minimalism is also celebrated as a lifestyle with a positive impact on the planet – with good reason. A 2015 study from Yale School of the Environment has shown that our consumption is responsible for up to 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Limiting the endless, out-of-control cycle of production and consumption is key to treading lightly on an already exhausted Earth. Buying less – and as a consequence, owning less – might bring a much-needed slow-down of our systems.
Wardrobe clear-outs have risen to the top of eco-fashionistas’ to-do lists thanks to decluttering guru Marie Kondo, author of the New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and star of the Netflix show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. Inspiring legions of people worldwide to clear out their clutter, Kondo has now launched an online store of durable goods that “spark joy” – her criterion for objects that are worthy of remaining in your life.
And that is where the issues begin to arise. Understandably, Kondo has faced criticism for using minimalism to promote what many believe to be just another form of consumerism. Aside from the eye-watering prices of Kondo’s chic organising essentials, there is the issue of waste: Kondo’s decluttering method, alongside many methods praised by those promoting minimalism, encourages getting rid of things, without always specifying where these things are destined to end up.
When this is squared with the staggering amount of trash generated by humans – the average American generates 4.5 pounds of rubbish per day, most of it recyclable, and the average UK household produces over a tonne of waste every year – it does indeed clash with the eco-warrior intentions of minimalism. And as wardrobe clear-outs replace haul videos as the YouTube trend du jour, the decluttering movement takes a worrying turn: very rarely in this conversation is it ever mentioned or discussed that ridding your wardrobe of items that you for various reasons no longer want equals creating waste. Almost never do sustainable influencers recommend a suitable way of disposing of unwanted items responsibly.
Very often, donating to charity is recommended. Following the launch of Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, charities were inundated with donations as people enthusiastically cleared their life of things that didn’t “spark joy”. Donations are well-intentioned, but can be problematic: if charities fail to sell all the items they take in, some items can be sold on to be recycled, and others get sent to third-world countries – where they can sometimes threaten local industry.
What’s more, the rise of minimalism as an influencer trend can contribute to…consumerism. Similar to Marie Kondo’s online store, the wave of influencers recommending minimalist clothing, reusable water bottles, jars, and other “ethical” items basically means that more and more people will be compelled to…buy things. And buying things, when you can avoid buying things, is always less sustainable than just keeping the (fully functional) thing you already have. Even if it doesn’t “spark joy”.
Ultimately, minimalism today has become an aesthetic: a visual way of living as much as a practical one. When you think of a minimalist home, what comes to mind? If minimalism is your aspiration and your own home doesn’t reflect the image of a sparsely decorated, high-end space that has come to symbolise minimalist living, you might feel prompted to clear out your existing decor to “pare down” your life and create a new, minimalist abode. Which is hardly a win for the planet.
If minimalism is to have the positive effect on the environment that it can – and should – have, we need to re-think its visual, social-media value. Opening up to a new image of minimalism, one centered around reusing, mending, and prolonging the lifespan of what we already own, is the key to being a truly sustainable minimalist.
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Cover image via Unsplash.