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Temporary Minimalism Reinforces American Throw-Away Culture

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Temporary Minimalism Reinforces American Throw-Away Culture

The Purge: Our Collective Turn Towards Temporary Minimalism Has Reinforced American Throw-Away Culture

Temporary Minimalism Reinforces American Throw-Away Culture

While we at Living Deep can appreciate a minimalist aesthetic, the style -- especially when viewed as a temporary trend -- poses a few issues. Minimalism has taken many forms in recent years -- from ten piece capsule wardrobes to shelves clear of any belongings. The philosophy of minimalism -- whether borrowed from Japan, Scandinavia or somewhere else entirely -- emphasizes ridding oneself and one’s home of needless things. It encourages care and love of functional or special things while casting aside those without purpose or sentimental value. Each possession kept should be a meaningful or otherwise intentional choice. In an increasingly commercial culture, minimalism has clashed hard against our American perception of success in decades past. In recent years, though, minimalism has come to represent luxury and wealth. Now more aspirational, minimalism continues to capture a certain sect of the American population. However, the practice can create a rather painful side effect -- even as it intends to form more mindful, eco-conscious people. Unfortunately, it may be that our collective turn towards minimalism has reinforced American throw-away culture. This culture of consumption is particularly present in those who are minimalist in trend but not at heart. When minimalism falls out of favor, will Americans pack their homes with stuff all over again -- mere months or years after tossing everything out? 

What Exactly Is Minimalism?

Minimalism is all about living with less

"Minimalism is all about living with less. This includes less financial burdens such as debt and unnecessary expenses." Christopher Murray, "Minimalist Living: Is Minimalism Just A Fad? Or Can It Really Help You Solve All Your Financial Problems?" Money Under 30

According to Christopher Murray in his article “Minimalist Living: Is Minimalism Just A Fad? Or Can It Really Help You Solve All Your Financial Problems?” for Money Under 30, “minimalism is all about living with less.” It means living a life unburdened by accumulated credit card debt just as much as a life unburdened by needless physical possessions. For a home design perspective on minimalism, we turn to Samantha Myers' article “Everything You Need to Know About Minimalist Design” for Elle Decor. Quoting Sharon Blaustein -- principal designer of B Interior LLC -- Myers writes that “minimalism and functionality go hand in hand” in interior and architectural design. A minimalist-designed space should not be stark and clinically white, but rather comfortable, lived-in and timeless -- a mark often missed by first-time at-home minimalist decorators. Blaustein explains that minimalist design should produce a “soothing and inviting space that has a timeless aesthetic.” 

From a lifestyle perspective, writes Murray for Money Under 30, “the philosophy is about getting rid of excess stuff." Minimalism means "living life based on experiences rather than worldly possessions.” Murray describes two of the primary tenets of minimalism as “get[ing] rid of clutter that doesn’t add value” and “going green.” Unfortunately, these two elements are often at odds with each other. This is particularly so when all that clutter is disposed of improperly and only until it accumulates once more within the home. Many new minimalists will simply rent a dumpster. They will toss out en masse rather than parsing out each item for its rightful place in a donate, sell, recycle or toss pile. 

How Much Stuff Do Americans Actually Own?

average U.S. household has 300,000 things

"The average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards." Mary MacVean, "For Many People, Gathering Possessions is Just the Stuff of Life," The LA Times

It is no secret that American consumers overextend themselves more than the consumers of any other nation with remotely comparable GDP. The average American’s credit card debt -- about $5,332 -- is 22% higher than that of the average Canadian -- about $4,154 -- our closest competitor. While the majority of this debt is from spending on housing, transportation and food, some does come from purchasing stuff -- particularly around the holidays. Americans might be at the top when it comes to stuff accumulation as well. Mary MacVean explains in her article “For Many People, Gathering Possessions is Just the Stuff of Life” for The LA Times. 

MacVean writes that “the average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards.” Furthermore, “U.S. children make up 3.7% of children on the planet but have 47% of all toys and children’s books.” Beyond this, writes Maurie Backman in her 2019 article “You Don’t Need That” for USA Today, “the average adult in the USA spends $1,497 a month on nonessential items [which,]...all told, [is] roughly $18,000 a year on things we can all do without.” Another statistic from the EPA notes that “1 in 4 houses with two-car garages keeps so much stuff...they can’t even fit a car.”

The Environmental Harm of Temporary Minimalism and American Throw-Away Culture

Environmental Harm of Temporary Minimalism

"In 2012, 84 percent of unwanted garments made their way to landfills and incinerators." Cory Rosenberg, “The Clothes You Donate Don't Always End Up on People's Backs” for Tree Hugger

There appear to be two primary environmental concerns posed by extreme minimalism. The first is the fear that those engaging with the philosophy will fall out of love with it and revert to their original practices. The second is that the amount of stuff disposed of during their purge will end up trash rather than needed, usable materials. Many wonder if minimalism will hold the same joy for followers after the initial purge is over. They posit that the excitement and satisfaction comes more from a thorough, cleansing removal and less from a steady state of minimalism. Others simply toss out belongings, avoiding lines at donation shops and trucks or uninterested in spending the necessary time to categorize belongings. Statistics back up this second environment concern. 

Sadly, of those that dispose of clothing each year, “only 28 percent of people donate used clothing.” This is according to Cory Rosenberg in his article “The Clothes You Donate Don't Always End Up on People's Backs” for Tree Hugger. Furthermore, approximately eighty pounds of textile waste is disposed of per person each year in the US. Of all the clothing removed from closets around the country, in 2012, “84 percent of unwanted garments made their way to landfills and incinerators.” These dismal stats are similar to those of disposed furniture. The recent Living Deep article “Fast Furniture Continues to Drown Our Planet“ notes that “nearly 9.7 million tons of furniture...were landfilled in 2018.” This was of "12 million tons generated."

Tossing Out Stuff for a Fresh Start During COVID-19

The Great Decluttering of 2020

"Not since the January 2019 purging tsunami inspired by Marie Kondo’s tidying Netflix series have Americans been so inspired to edit the junk out of their homes." Jura Koncius, "The Great Decluttering of 2020," The Washington Post

The average American disposes of 130 pounds of trash per week, according to the EPA. Around the holidays, Americans throw away a great deal more than the average, notes the Stanford University brief “FAQs: Holiday Waste Prevention.” During the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s, “Americans throw away 25% more trash.” Much of this trash comes from entertaining, from wrapping paper and from “fad gifts” which quickly disappear. The Spring season months are also a busy time for trash collectors. This year has been a blockbuster for trash collecting -- with the COVID-19 pandemic and millions of Americans stuck at home. The desire to purge and start fresh with less stuff truly found its foothold in 2020. Jura Koncius explains this booming -- and concerning -- trend towards minimalism in a recent Washington Post article. 

The article, “The Great Decluttering of 2020” explains the pandemic's production of an entire year of Spring cleaning. Koncius writes that “not since... Marie Kondo...have Americans been so inspired to edit the junk out of their homes.” Unfortunately, in 2020, most donation centers have been closed to donations and yard sales have been disallowed. Furthermore, writes Koncius, in some municipalities, “bulk trash collection” is still limited. This has meant that the majority of purged possessions -- from electronics to furniture -- have been placed on sidewalks. If not tossed on the curb, they have been thrown in dumpsters rather than recycled or donated. Laughably, perhaps one of the biggest drivers in 2020 has been the need to create the perfect background for Zoom calls, writes Koncius. When Americans return to work, how quickly will our homes fill back up with needless stuff?

Intentional Consumption - A Way to Combat the Environmental Harm of Minimalism

Meyer Wells Barlow Table

"Every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the type of world you want,” Anna Lappe, Author of Diet of a Hot Planet, Pictured above on the right: Meyer Wells Barlow Table from Living Deep, created by artisans living and working in the Pacific Northwest

The extent of environmental harm of minimalism may not be fully known until we have better defined minimalism in America. Whether minimalism is a trend or a true, permanent way of life for those who purge most of their possessions remains to be seen. One way we can mitigate the environmental harm of minimalism is by consuming intentionally and buying well-crafted pieces. These pieces -- designed to last -- hold meaning and add to a home's interior in ways rarely achieved by tourist trinkets or cheap furniture. At Living Deep, we offer special pieces intended to last -- made with both human health and the environment in mind.


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