The Intersection of Minimalism and Sustainable Living
To exist on earth in a more sustainable way: that was the vague and ambiguous goal I embarked on in early 2018.
This goal has led me to explore so many paths, many of which were unexpected. That’s because most people come to explore a much narrower definition of sustainability than what they find. I was no exception to this. At the time, I was studying environmental science and was particularly frantic about rising sea levels and the global implications of plastic consumption. I was also looking for ways I could make changes in my own life. I think I lasted about a week of refusing plastic bottles and sorting my recycling in my dorm religiously before I realized I needed to think a lot bigger. Sustainability in a capitalist society doesn’t mean just looking for things to cut out of your life.
Minimalism and Sustainability were buzzwords in 2018. It can be easy to tune a lot of it out, but I wanted to explore minimalism to see if there was anything for me to glean from it. I rarely heard them in succession even though the through-line seemed obvious to me. A minimalist lifestyle asks you to consume less. A sustainable lifestyle relies on you consuming less.
Minimalism has forced me to ask the questions that one needs to answer in order to find a more sustainable lifestyle. I had to examine my own consumption patterns, how much I was consuming and why. Since I started doing that, it has been so much easier to examine where things are coming from, what they are made of and whose hands were involved along the way. But after you’ve purged all these things from your life, then what? Consumption isn’t optional, only what and how much you consume.
Minimalism presented a path forward. It isn’t a set of rules, but a way of life where you consume meaningfully, whatever that means to you. For me, that is defined by a few simple factors. First, how necessary is it to bring this into my life? I want to think about whether I really need this or why I want it. Think long-term- you don’t want to burden yourself with something you will have to get rid of down the road. Second, who made it and where is my money going? I try to think about what I’m funding and if there are alternatives. Basically, am I comfortable supporting this company? Lastly, what is it made out of? I try to think about how these materials are harvested and how they are going to be disposed of. If I’m not comfortable with the answers, I try to explore other options.
From articles and award-winning documentaries to YouTube videos and podcasts all about Minimalism, I’ve seen it all. At first, it seemed like a lot of noise to me. The first time I took a deeper look into this lifestyle was in 2016 when I watched the documentary, ‘Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.’ The film “examines the many flavors of minimalism by taking the audience inside the lives of minimalists from all walks of life—families, entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, scientists, and even a former Wall Street broker—all of whom are striving to live a meaningful life with less,” as described by the producers.
Back in 2016, the film engaged me by simply shining a light on something new. I knew I never wanted my life to be in pursuit of money. Yet, an alternative as straightforward as minimalism had never really been presented to me either. Today, I would say minimalism resonates with me as an ambitious and driven young woman with strong values and ethics, uncomfortable with there being an inherent and direct relationship between success and consumption.
In a lot of ways, I think we underestimate the burden of consumption—the mental, financial, social and environmental burdens of unconscious consumption in the lives of individuals and society at large. Minimalism is often criticized for having the perception of moral superiority; however, when incorporated into life on an individual basis, the impact on our societal fabric is being overlooked and overshadowed by a fear of the unknown. With minimalism as a larger facet of the overall mainstream lifestyle—instead of a trend—the impact could be so far-reaching.
According to American television journalist Elizabeth Vargas, “Americans spend more on beauty than on education every year” (New York Times). Reflecting on that isn’t to say anyone should feel guilty for buying makeup. On its face, that isn’t the point. Minimalism asks you to thoroughly evaluate each purchase you make. If you are spending more of your income on beauty products than education, I would ask you to think about which is more meaningful to you. Now, if the answer is beauty products, then you are on the right track.
“I think we underestimate the burden of consumption—the mental, financial, social and environmental burdens of unconscious consumption in the lives of individuals and society at large.”
Going about your day without comparing your material possessions (clothes, shoes, cars, homes, etc.) to that of everyone else lifts a burden. Think of this as two options. You could look for the cheapest solution to every individual problem. On the other hand, though, you could shop more intentionally for the long-run, evaluating things for usability and reusability.
The hidden savings that will arise from one purchase that serves you for years compared to several slightly cheaper purchases that each only serves you a few months might surprise you. Minimalism just makes sense. One well-made t-shirt replaces four cheaply made t-shirts in an assortment of colors. Believing otherwise isn’t wrong, but it is consumerism at work. This is the cumulative burden that minimalism has alleviated in my life.
As I see it, consumerism is essentially a security blanket we have been carrying since the early twentieth century. We’ve defined American life around consumerism, making it difficult to discard. Yet I don’t see why American life can’t be redefined around something that serves us better. If we have any shot at saving this planet, I think we are going to have to dramatically redefine the American lifestyle. Yesterday, I re-watched my favorite documentary: Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things. I challenge you to watch it, with an open mind. Regardless of your commitment to the idea, it highlights the mentality and philosophy instead of the day-to-day. It shows how everyone can take this into their home and improve their lives in their own way. If sustainability is something you would like to commit yourself to in 2019, I invite you to watch through that lens.
All Photographs courtesy of Heal Your Living.