Minimalism and environmentalism are gaining traction in the mainstream, as global issues like climate change and wealth inequality rise to the front pages. Minimalism and environmentalism overlap so often that we’ve come up with a word for it. That word is eco-minimalism. Where did it come from?
Eco-minimalism started as a design approach pioneered by architect Howard Liddell and energy consultant Nick Grant in the early 2000s. They considered it a set of guidelines and principles for creating buildings that have a minimized environmental impact.
As eco-minimalism grew in popularity amongst green building designers, Dr. Paul Knights took an environmental ethics approach, and defined the virtue eco-minimalism, in a paper published in 2011.
Today, we’re seeing the beginnings of a cultural revolution; as influencers, bloggers, and YouTube personalities practice eco-minimalism as a lifestyle. I hope to explore eco-minimalism in the context of these three categories.
- A design approach,
- a personal virtue,
- and a lifestyle
As a design approach eco-minimalism can be understood in terms of buildings and architecture, as it was initially proposed, and in terms of the stuff we use in our day-to-day lives. Eco-minimalism as a virtue can be defined from the design approach it evolves from, and by exploring what makes up the practical wisdom it requires. We’ll explore eco-minimalism as a lifestyle by looking at popular, self-proclaimed eco-minimalists.
Eco-Minimalism: A Design Approach
The term eco-minimalism was first coined by architect Howard Liddell, most notably in his 2008 book titled: Eco-Minimalism: The Antidote to Eco-Bling. The term was used to describe a more sustainable and common-sense guide to “green” buildings.
The eco-minimal approach was developed in opposition to what Liddell described as “eco-bling” or “eco-cliches”: expensive technologies touted as “green” that do more to harm the environment than help it. Like greenwashing, the primary focus of eco-bling is appearing green; how well it works is a secondary consideration, if it’s considered at all.
Eco-minimalism is the solution he proposed. The goals of eco-minimalism are to minimize environmental impact while maximizing human wellbeing and economic benefit. It means taking a simpler approach to reducing a building’s environmental impact. This may mean reducing size, using less energy-intensive technology, or investing in the basic structure.
Minimalism in this sense doesn’t refer to the style of the building; the design doesn’t have to fit the “minimalist style” in order to be eco-minimal. In fact, its Grant says that eco-minimal designs should be judged “by how successfully they minimize environmental impact, not how minimal they are”.
Eco-minimalism is not about minimalism as a style; it’s about environmental minimalism, and also technological minimalism.
Technological minimalism doesn’t mean avoiding technology, but it does mean avoiding overly engineered and complex solutions. Eco-minimalism demands that we critically assess “eco-gadgets” in terms of their actual contribution to overall sustainability, instead of blindly applying the latest green technologies. It also asks that we look at simpler options, that may not be as flashy, but have less of an impact on the environment.
Once we have our eco-minimal design, how do we ensure that it’s implemented, used, and decommissioned in such a way as to fully minimize the environmental impact? One solution is to approach all of the stages with the same eco-minimal approach we took to the design. And that’s where the virtue of eco-minimalism comes in.
Eco-Minimalism: As a Virtue
Liddell and Grant focus on the design aspect of eco-minimal buildings. Naturally, they skim over the stages of construction, use, and the eventual deconstruction of buildings. This leaves a lot of room for error and departure from the intended eco-minimal design.
In Eco-Minimalism as a Virtue, Dr. Paul Knights argues that everyone, from architects and designers to construction teams and building users, must adhere to values, behaviors, attitudes wherein they focus on minimizing environmental impact and maximizing human benefit, in order for eco-minimal designs to succeed. Knights refers to this set of virtue beliefs as the virtue of eco-minimalism.
Knights defines the virtue of eco-minimalism as “the disposition to use the minimum resource we need to live within the community consistent with personal well-being and the well-being of others.” Essentially, the decisions you make should minimize environmental impact, provide value for money, and maximize human benefit. Eco-minimalism as a lifestyle can thus be characterized by living according to the virtue of eco-minimalism.
Eco-Minimalism: A Lifestyle
What does it look like to live as an eco-minimalist? To answer this question we can look at YouTubers and bloggers who consider themselves eco-minimalists.
On her YouTube channel Shelbizleee, Shelbi has over 200k subscribers. On her channel, she posts videos like anti-hauls, which criticize consumerism, and lists of zero-waste swaps. She has a playlist dedicated to videos about eco-minimalism. Shelbi became an eco-minimalist after she began pursuing a sustainable lifestyle. Her definition of eco-minimalism is
- a lifestyle technique used to create the smallest demand possible for natural resource use in efforts to save mother earth.
- a method used to form a holistic view of your footprint (carbon, water, waste, etc) left on this planet. Including but not limited to the upstream as well as downstream effects of consumerism.
In her blog post, A Concise Introduction to Eco-Minimalism, Deanna on Eco Ally defines eco-minimalism as an approach to minimalism from an environmentally conscious standpoint. Like Shelby, she also started as an environmentalist before focusing on eco-minimalism.
Her 3 guiding principles for minimalism are:
- Simplify your life
- Purchase thoughtfully
- Build habits that are environmentally positive
Check out my article for more eco-friendly bloggers, YouTubers, and websites to see how they’re approaching sustainability.
Eco-minimalism is a set of principles we can follow, when designing buildings or products, when making decisions, and to reduce the environmental impact of our lifestyle. Eco-minimalism encourages us to think critically about the consumerist society we live in, and focus on what matters most.
Are you an eco-minimalist? Is this your first time hearing about eco-minimalism? Let me know it a comment.
If you’re interested in living zero-waste check out my article about zero-waste swaps you can DIY.