We live in a world overwhelmed by stuff. Consumer society tells us that we are defined by the stuff we own; our cars, shoes, bikes and boats, how we adorn ourselves, the possessions we have. The average American household contains over 300,000 items (LA Times). Do we really need all this stuff? The containers; our ever-growing houses (tripling in size in the last 50-years) to accommodate these things. What impact might it be having on our lives and the lives of our loved ones? How will a child with 238 toys (the UK average: Telegraph) grow up differently to a child who has a few toys (since the average only plays with 12 anyway)? How can we learn true value when we are so swamped?
How about impacts on the natural world? The Story of Stuff demonstrates this perfectly in their short, informative and impactful series. The carbon footprint (across its life cycle, the average product results in carbon emissions of 6.3 times its own weight (Meinrenken)), the plastic waste (380-million tonnes per year), the mindset of newness and throwaway-ness is having demonstrable negative effects on planet earth. For what cause? So we can accrue unnecessary possessions that clutter our lives and minds before heading downstream to clutter river ways, dolphin stomachs and ever-growing landfills.
My exploration of minimalism comes from these places. How will my life feel with less clutter, a diminished need for newness, less decisions to be made and more disposable income (or, as I will explore soon, its sustainable equivalent; less need for higher income). I am shedding items I have slowly gathered and am asking the question; how does this item serve me and my mission? I am attached to lots of my possessions, but slowly I am relinquishing these attachments and it feels amazing. I am becoming lighter.
Minimalism is a win-win scenario. It has freed up my life in a number of ways and continues to do so each day, which is unsurprising, given that we spend 12-days a year looking for misplaced items at home (makingsenseofcents). My negative environmental impacts (through plastic/material/tech waste, fossil fuel burning and so forth) decrease with every item I decide to not buy. Stuff I give away or sell can be used by others, decreasing the need for new things to be made.
Minimalism is accessible. Maximism (ie consumerism) is a problem predominantly of the financially wealthier peoples of the planet. Minimalism doesn’t (shouldn’t) cost a thing (it typically saves/makes money for the individual). However, just as it is possible for ethical anything to be turned capitalist, minimalism can very easily be washed many shades of green. As a minimalist, do I need a special recycled lunchbox, a simple watch or a new Swiss Army knife!?
This brings me to another point. As a human inhabiting the world perfectly well, how is it that we so often feel we need something new, something else? If I have been functioning just fine, why do I suddenly feel the need for a new iPhone, a spiralizer or a pair of bamboo socks? It’s a requirement of our current economic situation that we all need to feel the need that something is lacking. To elect out of consumerism is to ask that our economic system find a better path. So minimalism is activism. It’s radical, in that the constant daily decision to not-buy is anti-consumerist, therefore it is political. It rewires one's brain toward a reaction of ‘I'll take that, it will bring me closer to enoughness’ to the subtle unconscious ‘no thanks, I am fine (I am already enough)’. So it is also psychological.
Minimalism is, necessarily, not about new stuff, no matter how ‘minimalist’ or ethical that product. It is about connection, gratitude for what we have, making do, sharing, borrowing and lending. Sure, there is stuff that can support this movement and when I really do need something (this is not a denial of needs) I have the responsibility to source it from an ethical producer. This will cost me more, but I have saved in the not-buying of so many superfluous tricks that my money flows more readily in the direction of regenerative economics. Life becomes abundant.
Ok, so the 300,000 quoted above is an impactful count, likely taking a maximum (is a box of matches one or many items?) average, but the undeniable point is that globally we are consuming vast quantities of largely unnecessary stuff and its impacts are deeply worrying. Maybe it’s 100,000 items to a conservative count. That’s still mind boggling.
Minimalism is what you already have. It's just that you likely have more of it than you need! That biodegradable lunch box is simply an unused container you already own. Minimalism is making do, quietly and with an understanding of the privilege many of us sit in when we have food to place in that container. Minimalism isn’t (necessarily) organic jeans from an ethical brand. It might be generic jeans from a charity shop, or care for the jeans you currently own.
Beyond this, or beyond stuff, the act of embodying minimalism takes us into the deeper realms and implications possible from the development of this minimalist mindset. What about minimal water usage? Minimal car journeys? Minimal food waste? And the mirror of minimalism? Maximum sharing, maximum appreciation, maximum care.
So let’s share what we have, move unused, unwanted or unappreciated stuff out into the world of appreciation through sharing, selling or gifting and let’s develop an attitude of appreciation for the profound luck we have to be asking the question; ‘what is it that I truly need?’
Meinrenken, C.J., Chen, D., Esparza, R.A. et al. Carbon emissions embodied in product value chains and the role of Life Cycle Assessment in curbing them. Sci Rep 10, 6184 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62030-x