If there’s one trend that’s really taken over in recent years, it’s minimalism. Now cooler than ever, evidence of the popular lifestyle is present across blogs, websites, and Instagram feeds worldwide. While minimalism isn’t anything new in theory, (after all, who hasn’t seen white Ikea furniture before?) the recent popularity is largely owing to Japanese organisational guru Marie Kondo.
Kondo’s book – The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up – was published in 2011 to immediate and immense success, encouraging thousands to donate their items and trim back their possessions. Suddenly, the virtues of minimalism were being extolled by celebrities like Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow. Even today, it’s not hard to find a plethora of blog posts and articles (including this one) pushing the trend to the forefront of our collective consciousness.
Minimalism’s marketing as a consumer trend with lifestyle benefits means that it’s perfect fodder for social media. Since 2011, the trend has been adopted, hashtagged, and has appeared on almost every lifestyle blog you could imagine. While it’s been taken to the extreme by some, for the most part minimalism is centred around owning a carefully curated collection of items.
But it’s not as simple as just buying less stuff. Oh no! There’s much more to it than that, according to popular bloggers The Minimalists, as well as a host of other new-age minimalism devotees. On a higher level, minimalism is based on “clearing the clutter from life’s path”. By doing this, in theory, we can make more room for “health, relationships, growth, and contribution”. Kondo advocates for getting rid of anything that “doesn’t spark joy in your heart” – which is a pretty vague suggestion, in truth. It’s clear from these descriptions that modern minimalism – in an era where wellness, self-care and mental health is being packaged in with consumerism – is playing a similar game. Readers are encouraged to focus more on the perceived emotional benefits of minimalism (feel joy! have time for health!) rather than the actual functional benefits of, say, not having 20 old t-shirts hanging out in your room anymore.
In spite of the arguably tenuous claims about “making room for health”, it’s hard to write minimalism off as a total gimmick. Anyone who’s ever stood in front of a full closet and proclaimed they have nothing to wear (guilty) could almost certainly benefit from a stroll down the minimalist path. When I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, it was life changing – I spent a week culling things from my bursting-at-the-seams-apartment, filling bags upon bags for my local Vinnies. Even now, a few years later, I still try to do annual closet culls and avoid doubling up on items I already own. Minimalism didn’t cause me to totally rewrite my lifestyle, but there are certainly some obvious benefits. Getting rid of your old things means that you’ll have more space, and less clutter – by extension, it might also be easier to find things (or in my case, remember what you own already). Additionally, it can result in feelgood vibes for you – those old things can go straight to charity and become someone else’s new things.
As a trend that’s been exacerbated by social media, it makes sense that millennials and young professionals are particularly interested in minimalism. Millennials, especially, are less interested in possessions, with over 78% stating they’d rather spend money on an experience than material goods. Kelly Graver, a designer at Snapchat, suggests that this is the case because “now that our entire lives are documented through social media, experiences (and the photos we take of those experiences) have become much more valuable than owning physical goods”.
However, while minimalism was originally presented as an alternative to the buy-now consumer culture which has long been amplified and praised on social media, it’s since become a symbol of wealth in its own way. The current, trendy iteration of minimalism isn’t about simply having less – it’s about having the right kind of less. A quick glance through the #minimalism tag on Instagram reveals very pretty, very desirable kitchens, bedrooms, and living spaces – all rooms that were designed to look good with a few carefully selected, usually expensive items.
By placing so much emphasis on owning the perfect version of an item, or disposing of things that seem unnecessary right now, minimalism positions itself as simply another trend within consumer culture. By doing so, it then remains an aspirational trend, rather than an approachable one that everyone can be part of. Economist Rohin Dhar pointed out that wealthy people can afford to own less things – “if it starts raining, the wealthy can buy an umbrella instead of carrying one around all the time”. In contrast, less affluent people don’t always have the option to buy things when they need them – meaning that ultimately, minimalism is a luxury that many literally can’t afford.
Due to this, the trend has been criticised, with some stating that it allows participants to occupy a moral high ground while still engaging in conspicuous consumption. As author Chelsea Fagan notes, “it allows you to take some of the desirable aesthetics and morality of poverty without having to actually be poor”. These criticisms stem largely from the fact that to buy one great, long-lasting version of an item – such as a dining table – costs significantly more upfront than if you simply bought it from Kmart. As such, minimalism in the age of social media “really just means having enough upfront disposable money to ‘invest’ in your wardrobe and surroundings”.
Ultimately, minimalism is simply another trend that exists on a spectrum – you don’t necessarily need to throw out all your earthly possessions to partake in it. However, the association between fewer, higher quality possessions and being ‘better’ at minimalism means that those who are wealthy are able to participate more fully in minimalism. Additionally, the trend’s fanbase is largely millennials and young professionals, with the most emphasis also placed on procuring new items, rather than making do with things you have – essentially making minimalism just another consumption-based trend.
While it can be great to kickstart a cleaning spree, minimalism as a lifestyle hinges largely on a certain amount of financial security – knowing that you might get rid of things you’ll need or want to repurchase. For people who aren’t well off already, the failure to declutter ‘adequately’ may translate as a ‘failure’ to follow minimalism’s gospel. Ultimately, New York Times contributor Anna North notes, the benefits of minimalism depend in large part on where you start.
And as for me? While I’m glad to have decluttered my closet, I won’t be embracing minimalism fully anytime soon. Getting rid of a few things here and there is nice, but ultimately, I’m a maximalist at heart (much to my wallet’s dismay).