Modern-day humans are certainly guilty of materialism, perhaps Americans most of all. But person by person, consumer culture is beginning to change. Minimalist consumerism, sometimes called “living small” in reference to housing, is a growing movement promoting simple living and less reliance on possessions. With the wide variety of bloggers and minimalism advocates active today, there isn’t a consensus definition of minimalist consumerism.
On Leo Babauta’s blog, he says, “It’s simply getting rid of things you do not use or need, leaving an uncluttered, simple environment and an uncluttered, simple life.” Joshua Becker of BecomingMinimalist.com points out that owning less stuff has all sort of practical benefits, like spending less time cleaning, requiring a smaller residence, and reducing stress.
Proponents of minimalist consumerism are usually the first to admit it is complex to define and applies to different people in different ways. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who call themselves The Minimalists, broadly define minimalism as a “a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives.”
Most would agree that in general Americans could stand to cut back on excessive purchases and consumerist attitudes, but one of the common criticisms of the movement is that it actually doesn’t apply to everyone. Even though minimalists strive to have fewer possessions, this lifestyle isn’t necessarily cheap. Some argue it’s even patronizing to people of lower incomes.
So does minimalist consumerism only apply to the privileged?
After all, when you have more income or wealth, it’s easy to start shedding most of your possessions because you can discard something and say to yourself, “I can always buy that again later if I need it.”
Sasha Abramsky, author and fellow at advocacy group DEMOS, told NBC News, “A wealthy person minimalizing is making a lifestyle choice.” Poor people, on the other hand, “don’t have that option in the first place.” For example, minimalists often suggest downsizing your wardrobe, but to only have a few articles of clothing means they will need to be expensive and high quality. Someone in poverty cannot make the choice to go out and buy $100 jeans.
The poor also have to work a lot, Abramsky points out, so they have less time and energy to restructure their day-to-day lifestyles. Plus, if you’re in poverty, you’re already counting pennies. Even when money isn’t spent efficiently, it’s not necessarily a poor person’s fault. Living paycheck to paycheck forces people to focus on short-term needs, not long-term savings.
For Abramsky, the problem of applying minimalism to everyone is it assumes all things are equal. “As long as the big-picture inequalities remain, a conversation about minimalism … is going to end up blaming poor people when they stay poor,” he says.
In response to a New York Times article on the subject, Charlie Lloyd put it simply, “Poor people don’t have clutter because they’re too dumb to see the virtue of living simply; they have it to reduce risk.” Blogger Mindful Riot echoed the sentiment, citing the naiveté in assuming someone who has to stretch every dollar won’t have difficulty repurchasing a previously owned item.
“That isn’t to say that there aren’t concepts of minimalism from which everyone can benefit,” Mindful Riot concedes. “Buying less is always a good idea.”
Others have pointed out the minimal lifestyle often isn’t sustainable, even for the wealthy, as many gung-ho minimalists ultimately end their experiments after only a year or so of living with just 100 possessions. But extreme challenges like cutting out 90% of your possessions don’t represent true minimalism, some argue.
Minimalism advocates frequently emphasize that it’s not about the number of possessions you own, as much as considering the actual value of those objects in your life. The Minimalists say people place too much emphasis on things, often at the expense of our health, relationships, and overall fulfillment. In a post entitled “Is Minimalism Just For Single, Rich, White Guys?” Millburn and Nicodemus explain, “rich people and poor people can both be oppressed by the possessions they desire.”
Leading a simple, stress-free life is undoubtedly easier when you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, but many of the writers and thinkers involved in the minimalist movement appear to have a deeper goal in mind: challenging the relationships between people and possessions.