The Unsuspecting Impact of Minimalism on Sustainability


by Aaron Hersum and Tilly Pick

It may be one of the most fundamental questions environmentalists ask- maybe less of a question and more of a concern: Is all the “stuff” we make and consume each day destroying our environment?

This month, the Boston Area Sustainability Group (BASG) invited Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Better Future Project, to help us understand the connection between minimalism (e.g. sharing economy, tiny houses etc.) and sustainability. To many of us, minimalism simply offsets materialism, but Juliet unpacked the topic and led a dynamic discussion to show that the relationship is much more complex. More importantly, she provided some of the underlying factors driving the minimalist movement, and connected what on the surface might seem like a problem about “stuff” to a much deeper sociological issue.

The vast majority of Americans agree that we’re too materialistic as a society. When it comes down to our own lives and decisions, however, we as individuals apparently don’t have the affliction. “It’s the other person’s disease,” as Juliet so succinctly stated. Still, it was reassuring that we’re all somewhat on the same page about our addiction to “stuff.”

When Juliet put the environmental impact of “stuff” in context — 20% of The American Carbon Footprint (2010, personal consumption,, transportation and energy represent much larger percentages of our emissions, and overall much more pressing aspects of sustainability. However, when you couple that 20% with her observation that “the cycle of acquisition and discard is getting faster and faster,” the negative impact consumerism has on sustainability is alarming. Juliet used the rapid pace of retail clothing, often referred to as “fast fashion”, to illustrate the dynamic for us. If minimalism is the counter trend to consumerism, it’s one we welcome and should support, but we have to see the bigger picture.

And that bigger picture lies within the drivers of consumerism, according to Juliet’s research. In particular, inequality plays a critical role. What we buy, have, and do – consumerism — is a way for us to close the gap of inequality, feel like we belong. It’s fundamental to our human condition, especially in America, given our immigrant beginnings and difficulties overcoming racist sentiments within our society. “Consumption is one of the most social things,” meaning that America is wired for the carbon footprint of stuff. You could say that our consumerism is an outcome of who we are and our origins.

How minimalism is tied to sustainability is actually less about stuff and more about community. While Juliet agreed that we can do a lot regarding the “stuff” we buy and consume, such as reflecting the true cost of goods not currently born by the manufacturer or the buyer but by the environment and our communities, she indicated that the social power of community is the real strength of minimalism. Turns out that the impact on our carbon footprint of sharing a lawnmower with our neighbors is less about buying fewer lawn mowers and more about building social connections that help close the inequality gap, which over time will reduce our need and desire for “stuff.”

Interestingly, minimalism is not new. “What we are calling ‘minimalism’ today actually has a very long history. This idea keeps coming back to criticize what is going on.” Although the critique of stuff that we are observing through minimalism is legitimate, the underlying criticism is much greater and more profound. Simply put, the focus on “stuff” is an incomplete view of the opportunity that minimalism represents for sustainability. While there is a lot we can do about the “stuff” in our lives to be more sustainable, minimalism is really about community, equality and happiness. When that happens, we inevitably live more sustainable lives.

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