Minimalism is a philosophy teaching us to be happier with less. But how did the ethics of having less become a luxury trend we buy into?
Minimalism is a low-consumption lifestyle premised on the idea that wellbeing and happiness comes from the simple act of buying less. And in walks the minimalist crew, led by the likes of Marie Kondo, The Minimalists and Joshua Becker who advocate the personal benefits of adhering to a capsule wardrobe and carefully curated home space. This has manifested into a timeless aesthetic which is inherently sustainable, but equally a luxury.
Minimalism is growing
By 2019, 46 per cent of people were choosing minimalism as their top trend, and it’s the millennial generation guiding us through this cultural shift that tackles 21st century excess consumption head on.
But that doesn’t translate into empty white rooms, with just a plant and wooden desk the way social media depictions of #minimalism insinuate. Instead, minimalism has evolved into a mindset as millennials reconcile concerns about the environment, financial debt and lower levels of wellbeing.
Joshua Becker, founder of the ‘Becoming a Minimalist’ blog said: “I think that there are probably three things, particularly with the millennial generation. Environmentalism, just their age of life and then their economic realities.”
This generation is the most environmentally conscious, it carries the burden of financial debt, their job prospects are poorer, and surveys show that owning fewer things allows them to prioritise experiences over the deeply unsatisfying accumulation of stuff.
Is minimalism compatible with the economy?
The economic paradigm to buy less, might appear incompatible with an economy built on a treadmill of trends. But minimalism’s formula doesn’t equate to zero spending. Instead, it promotes spending more in our pursuit for less.
Our flexible economy has cunningly reformed itself to make our philosophy of buying less a profitable market. Fashion and interior design companies locked eyes with minimalism and quickly waltzed into the sunset by offering a timeless trend with a hefty price tag. Marie Kondo has capitalised her minimalist teachings to charge 245 dollars for a linen kimono lounge set. Meanwhile, Danish luxury design brand, Frama, charge 4,000 euros for a carefully crafted wooden table.
Minimalism as luxury
There is an inherent paradox buried within minimalism. How did an anti-consumerist ideology become the most consumer-fuelled trend going? Becker believes that rather than stopping people spending, it instead redirects their money toward non-material pursuits and high-quality goods: “I think companies that produce high quality products that last, can charge a little bit more for them than cheaply created goods, so I think a company can respond to the movement in a good way. I think that's great if we're producing less clothing but making ones that actually last.”
There is merit to minimalism bearing in mind growing concerns about excess consumption’s impact on the environment. A £125 pair of Doc Marten boots, for a minimalist, is justifiable if their physical lifeline can take the environment off life support. Reaching for the higher quality alternative, for someone with the financial means, can dodge the fast-fashion trends with inherently shorter lifelines and greater environmental consequences.
The marketing blueprint follows that if you invest more in less, then rest assured your ethics stand firmly in-tact. This would explain why many luxury brands’ mission statements’ glorify principles of respecting the environment and promote the durability of use.
Yet Becker added: “I think you also just find companies that just jump on the train of selling a minimalist handbag even though your handbag works just fine.” He added, “brands that jump on the trend distort it even more.
“I think that you are always going to have companies that take advantage of trends and movements. I think that a company can do it well and I think a company can also do it in a manipulative way.”
This is where minimalism gets confused and entangled with luxury - outwardly simple and inherently privileged.
For Chelsea Fagan, minimalism is just another form of superficial conspicuous consumption, brands capitalise on, which masks an aesthetic choice with a moral one. The ultra-rich, she argues, glorify ‘simplicity’ and shout their capsule wardrobes from the rooftop as someone advocating for ‘minimalism’.
But for Cassandra Bradfield, Head Designer of Frama, “It’s a contradiction when it’s an aesthetic thing because the point is to be able to take a breath of fresh air in your own home and take stock of what you do have.”
The true minimalists?
Whilst brands continue to pump out chic-like minimalism that offer outward signifiers of morality, the definition of minimalism, for Bradfield, is constantly being redefined and “it turns into a classist issue really quickly when we think about marketing power and the quality of products.”
Strip away the power of marketing, and the Instagram depiction of what #minimalism is, the Marie Kondo’s and Joshua Becker’s of this world are onto something more profound than a carefully curated backdrop of minimalist nothingness.
As the The Minimalists state on their website, it is “freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around.” This aligns with Becker’s philosophy, whereby “not only do possessions not bring us happiness, but possessions actually distract us from happiness.”
Minimalism is not intended to be another aesthetic trend we buy into - minimalism is actually about finding happiness beyond the objects we accumulate. If you’re genuinely striving for a truly minimalist lifestyle, you won’t feel the burning desire to purchase the pared down, sleek looking clock in the first place.
For both Becker and Bradfield, if we engage with minimalism for what it is, we’ll reap the rewards of happiness the movement promises to deliver.
So, is minimalism purely a sustainable and moral choice, or is it just another luxury trend for consumers to buy into? Becker said: “I think it depends upon how millennials respond to economic security and abundance. My guess is that this will be a lifestyle for millennials given that environmentalism will always be a concern of theirs and so I think it's probably here to stay.”