“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
By Shaelyn McHugh
I used to be a thrift shop junkie.
As a teenager, I would take BART into San Francisco and rummage through thrift store bins in search of yet another special find to add to my eclectic wardrobe. Hours of my youth were spent carefully sifting through the racks of secondhand items.
I’m the middle of three daughters and my sisters loved clothes too. So much so that they would raid my closet when I wasn’t home and “borrow” my newest favorite thing, almost always without asking. When I discovered that an item had been “borrowed”, I’d often fly into a rage at the offending sibling. Even when a friend would ask to borrow something, a protective possessivity would emerge. My carefully collected “stuff” was a source of deep pride and joy, and I felt attached to my things as if they were myself.
When I moved to college, it took an overflowing car to transport all of my stuff – clothes piled into duffles, shoes in boxes, the books I thought I couldn’t live without, even for a few months.
Like most Americans, I put a whole lot of value on stuff, which helped me express who I was to the world. Material items are symbols of social status, from what car you drive to how large your house is. Consumerism is the economic engine that has driven American culture since the post World War II era, and it’s been exported to the rest of the world through free trade, movies, tv, & music in the decades since. It’s become the dominant economic model in modern democracies, and even other cultures that are not so democratic. It prioritizes growth over social and environmental health, has created a deeply-rooted culture of acquisition and an omnipresent feeling of always needing more.
A Different ‘Wealth’
“Money can’t buy you happiness, but…” is a phrase we have probably all heard countless times. Owning nice things or finding joy in treating yourself or your friends and family is the reason materialism thrives at the center of our society. “Retail therapy” just feels good, and is not an evil thing. But I’ve found that at times it feels like I get so excited by new things, I forget what I already have.
On the blog, “Why we buy things we don’t need”, Margo Aaron explains that at the beginning of the modern era, as upward mobility actually became a possibility, shopping became symbolic of becoming emancipated from the past, from restrictive social, economic and gender norms.
She writes, “‘Stuff’ equaled upward mobility, convenience, and portability. Stuff made life easier. Stuff made life better…. Stuff wasn’t ever about stuff. It was and still is about success. About moving up in the world. About a life bigger and better than the one you have. That’s why we buy things we don’t need. Because we think we need them.”
At an event I recently attended, Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA was the keynote speaker. Leonard rose to prominence back in 2007, with her remarkable animated documentary, “The Story of Stuff” – which is every bit as relevant today as it was a decade ago.
Leonard was inspired to create the Story of Stuff Project after visiting factories and dumps around the world, researching for decades on where our stuff comes from and where it goes when we throw it away.
What she found was the need to start an honest conversation about the ugly and damaging side of our consumer culture. The Story of Stuff reveals how excessive consumption leads to health hazards, social injustice, and environmental damage.
In the documentary Rams, Dieter Rams expresses regret over his chosen career path as a product designer, now realizing the threat consumerism poses to our earth. Although you may not recognize his name, the products he’s designed are likely present in your life—computers, phones, even the Oral-B toothbrush.
As one of the most legendary and effective designers of all time, his success has now translated into a philosophy against visual clutter. Rams believes that we should not make our lives about products, but instead get rid of them as distractions.
Both Leonard and Rams recognize that the life of products does not begin or end with their use—there are social and environmental impacts behind every item you purchase. When taking into account the weight of externalities, it is vital to act as a critical consumer, and know where you should put your values before buying.
The Art of Tidying Up
You may have heard of Marie Kondo, the internationally bestselling author and creator of the KonMari method, who stars in Netflix’s hit series Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. Kondo helps American families organize their homes using her method, which shifts the stigma from cleaning as a chore to be centered on gratitude. The series first aired on January 1, 2019. By mid-January, thrift stores around the country were reporting significant year over year increases (double or triple digits in some places) in donations. Reporters from San Francisco to Washington, DC were linking this newfound urge to purge to Tidying Up. By the end of January, some stores had started to limit what they would take.
Kondo’s mission is to “spark joy in the world through cleaning”, and believe it or not, it is definitely possible. Her effectiveness in helping people organize their homes and lives comes with a perspective not guided by outward appearances or judgment, but instead empathy. Her technique reflects the Shinto beliefs of Japan, which see inanimate objects as having divine essence, and therefore deserving of respect. She tells the families she helps to thank their pieces of clothing one-by-one, and take a quiet moment to acknowledge how much the house has done for them.
By putting positive energy into cultivating gratitude and care for items we already have, instead of the need for more, the families that Kondo helps discover empathy for their human relationships at a deeper level. Whether the cleaning craze persists or not is still an open question, but Kondo certainly touched a nerve by urging us to find joy through decluttering.
Minimalism as a Lifestyle
Filmmakers Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, also known as The Minimalists, guide their message through the following philosophy:
“Minimalists don’t focus on having less, less, less. We focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps make that room. Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which aren’t things at all.”
The Minimalists point out that the first step to a minimalist lifestyle is not about getting rid of a bunch of your things, it is about reflecting upon what is truly necessary for your life and then cutting everything else out. (Then, you make the decision to find happiness through life itself rather than material items).
My shift in mindset came with choosing that the things I own would not drain my energy or emotions, but instead, enhance them.
New Consumer Behaviors
Millennials are particularly attracted to the minimalist lifestyle, preferring to spend their money on experiences—such as going out to eat or concerts—rather than things. In fact, three out of four millennials would choose to spend their money on an experience rather than buying some desirable material item, according to a survey from Harris Poll and Eventbrite.
Researchers have suggested that environmental concerns may be motivating some people to consume less. Increasingly, consumers—especially Millennials—support companies that foster social responsibility and sustainability. Millennials—the 18 to 34 demographic that makes up America’s largest generation by population—look for products and brands that reflect sound ethics and transparent business practices. As a matter of fact, “eighty-one percent of Millenials expect companies to make public commitments to good corporate citizenship,” according to a study by Horizon Media’s Finger on the Pulse.
Millennials were raised during the recession, got put into massive amounts of student debt, and then entered a struggling job market. Many have seen their parents fall victim to downsizing and frequent layoffs, making them wary of pursuing the same path. For Millennials, making a life is favored over making a living. As a result, we are witnessing the start of a cultural paradigm shift away from unbridled consumerism towards more mindful consumption.
The Guardian’s Chelsea Fagan argues the minimalism is just another product for wealthy people, a symbolic display of superiority over those who do not have the ability to choose a minimalist lifestyle, but are rather forced into it by financial circumstances.
Half of Americans are unable to pay their bills if they are behind by one check. The ability to choose to consume only in certain ways is a privilege. From this perspective, minimalism is only practiced by wealthy people. At its core, however, minimalism extends far beyond an act for attention or display of status. Research proves that living with less has both financial and emotional benefits.
Roshanda Cummings and Eric Johnson found their way out of $11,000 in debt and are now living off $16,000 a year by changing their relationship with things and money. The couple updated their path to minimalism on social media under a philosophy of “unapologetic living”, doing what is necessary to make more space and flexibility for yourself in your life.
To Cummings, intentional living is a form of self-love. It is easy for the motivation to always be making more money to spend be the center of your life. But, if that is damaging to your own well-being, whether your job sucks the life out of you or you constantly feel like you are falling behind your friends, you can reevaluate. Cummings believes there are a lot of creative ways to have a life that fits you without having to try so hard or constantly feel like you need to be doing more.
Cummings says an example of this is when friends want to get drinks, suggest having a picnic instead, bringing whatever food is in the fridge.
“We’ll buy a bottle of wine. We’ll put a blanket down. It feels luxurious, but as a person of color, it’s revolutionary. When I did this, it was the first experience when I felt truly in my body. I finally felt that life could be playful! Creating these moments doesn’t have to cost as much or be as difficult as I had thought.”
The couple also developed the Jar Method, a guide for planning, grocery shopping, and food prepping to successfully eliminate waste, make produce last longer, and save money on food costs.
Living minimally is not tied to an elite group but instead both possible and beneficial for everyone. There is not one right method, because everyone’s lives require different things. Cummings and Johnson have found creative ways to look at consumption and money spent in a practical way for themselves, rather than giving in to the consumer culture that most of us often fall victim to. A minimal outlook can be adapted to any form of consumption, and what all these leaders in the minimalism movement have emphasized is to not let material items take over what really matters—focusing on your personal values and emotions to create your best life.
The Beauty of Simplicity
There are a multitude of ways to change your perspective when it comes to consumption and waste. You can go thrift shopping, and donate your clothes as a means of recycling items rather than them ending up in a dump. For groceries, there are ways to avoid losing money if food goes bad. For your mental health, you can take a moment to reflect on the joy an item has brought you, or be realistic about what needs to change.
A minimal lifestyle is about chipping away all of the extra material items, internal stress, and pressure that consumerist society has pushed on us. It’s deeper than what you own, it’s about how you feel.
I often burden myself with a heavy load—everything I need to do, what I need to clean, the next thing I want to buy, or the general constant feeling like I am not doing enough. Minimalism lightens, both materially by encouraging living light, but also emotionally, by allowing clarity and light to flow beyond the stuff to get to what really matters.
After recognizing the ridiculousness of the situation, it became obvious that the less I owned, the less I would have to worry about, the less I would have to upgrade, the less I would need to feel happy. I was able to live in Asia for months with just a backpack, and it eliminated so much of the stress around packing and traveling, or losing track of items. The next time I packed my car to move, it was only about half full.
The minimalist movement has many sides, but it has much deeper implications beyond deciding what to buy. It is not a purely physical process, but rather an emotional and spiritual reconnection to what our physical items truly mean to us. So despite the sudden thrift store bonanza sparked by Marie Kondo this year, I’m staying away from Goodwill.
I feel like I am honoring myself by letting go of items that do not have a lifelong purpose, or do not represent who I want to be. Through this, the fear of “not enough” melts away, and I recognize the true value in what I own as a reflection of who I am. Here’s to finding the balance and still living life fully.