I like to think there are 3 types of minimalism: minimalism purely as a style, the hippy save-the-planet minimalism, and regular jane and joe minimalism.
The problem with minimalism-as-just-a-style is that many people simply do not like that style, so when we only present them this type of minimalism they think “well, this isn’t for me!” Furthermore, since this minimalism only focuses on style, it’s very easy to do things that have just as much of an environmental impact as someone who isn’t a minimalist.
Hippy save-the-planet minimalism, perhaps better described as eco-minimalism, is, as the name might suggest, the best kind of minimalism for helping the environment. Without necessarily adopting minimalism as a style, eco-minimalism takes the key ideas of the minimal lifestyle (which I will describe in just a moment) and uses them as a tool to minimize our environmental impact while still providing value.
The regular Jane-and-Joe brand of minimalism is growing in popularity as people are becoming more aware of the damages of consumerism and are realising that less is more. The benefit of this type of minimalism is that it doesn’t necessitate the adoption of minimalism as a style and is, therefore, more appealing to the average person.
In addition, as many regular-minimalists-turned-eco-minimalists will tell you, it’s only a hop, skip, and jump to learning about the positive environmental impacts of minimalism, thus converting our friends who have started exploring minimalism into folks who are passionate about sustainability.
To understand how minimalism, in all its different forms, helps the environment, we can look at the key values that define what exactly minimalism is. Then, by looking at the problems facing the environment we can see how minimalism can help individuals reduce their impact on the planet.
What is Minimalism?
Minimalism, as a way of simplifying your life and as a way of reducing your environmental impact, can be defined by three core values: owning less, buying less, and placing more value on what you already have. These values are described in broad terms because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to minimalism.
By choosing to adopt minimalism as a lifestyle, you consciously decide to apply these values to various aspects of your life. You may choose this lifestyle if your goal is to live a more simple and fulfilling life or if you’re concerned with the size of your impact on the planet.
Own less stuff
Generally, minimalists own less stuff than the average person. You may see minimalists who own 52 items, or 104, or some other arbitrary number. But there’s actually no limit to how much stuff you can own as a minimalist; different people and lifestyles will use different items.
What is most important is that everything you own has a purpose, even if that purpose is just to bring you joy.
What you may have done with stuff you had before adopting minimalism will determine part of your environmental impact; whether you sold it, donated it, or just threw it away. If you’re considering adopting minimalism, keep this in mind as you cull your belongings.
Buy less stuff
In order to maintain a small number of belongings you choose to have, you ultimately will have to buy less stuff. Many people who are minimalists will only buy new items to replace what they have (after trying to repair or replace second hand).
In our consumerist culture, we’re often encouraged by advertisements to buy things quickly and without thinking. This is exactly what the principles of minimalism are against. It can be hard going against the grain, but the simplicity of only owning things you love and use is worth it.
Value what you have
Part of buying less and owning less is taking care of what you do have. When you take care of something you will value it more, and when you own less you will make sure what you have is things you like. Taking care of the items you own will also extend their lifespan, meaning throughout your life you will create less trash, and buy less.
What Crises are Facing the Environment?
We’re producing too much waste. In the United States alone, it has been estimated that over 230 billion kilograms (which is about 253 million tons) of waste is sent to landfills in a year. Landfills can pollute local water and soil when water runs through the waste and becomes contaminated; this water is called leachate. (Some newer landfills in developed countries have plastic linings to prevent leachate, but the effectiveness of these linings is not known as they have not been in use very long, geologically speaking).
Every day, we pollute the water around us by dumping over 1.8 billion kilograms (2 million tons) of waste into the water. This includes sewage as well as waste from agriculture and manufacturing.
In addition to polluting water, industry and agriculture often have bad practices of taking more than their share of water (known as overdrafting). This can lead to depletion of local water sources (and the pollution of remaining sources.)
A lot of manufacturing and agriculture is done in developing countries with fewer environmental protections. Many of these locations already have issues of water scarcity and poverty, and citizens are not able to defend their rights.
The first three problems are all symptoms of our linear economic system. A linear economic system can be described as take-make-dispose (the alternative to this is a circular economy, where after reaching the end of its life, an item is reused as a resource).
Consumerism is the driving force behind our linear economic system. Planned obsolescence and over-consumption are symptoms of a system driven by profits rather than the wellbeing of people and the planet.
How Does Minimalism Provide Solutions?
Minimalists Often Produce Less Trash
There is a lot of overlap between minimalism and the zero-waste lifestyle. Since you buy less stuff you have less packaging that needs to be disposed of. Minimalists often consciously choose to buy better quality, longer-lasting things, instead of buying multiple lower quality items.
Less Air and Water is Polluted
If the demand for stuff is lower, less stuff will be manufactured. And as previously discussed, manufacturing (and shipping) are a big contributor to pollution. If everyone were to lower their water footprint by buying less and choosing items with a smaller footprint, we would put a big dent in the water scarcity crisis.
Minimalism Opposes Consumerism
Minimalism directly opposes consumerism. In every one of its forms, minimalism is about saying no to the culture that says more is more. By choosing to live minimally, you’re adding one more voice to the crowd demanding change.
Recycling started as a grassroots movement; now, many people who don’t normally think about sustainability recycle. The Grassroots Recycling Network has rebranded as Zero Waste USA, as they set their ambitions even higher. Minimalism is a tool, and one of the first stepping stones, to reducing your environmental impact.