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Overconsumption or a Move Towards Minimalism?

March 15, 2021 4303

(Over)consumption, climate change and working from home. These are a few of the concerns at the forefront of consumers’ minds and three reasons that minimalism has gained increasing traction in the last several years. Minimalism, at its simplest, is living with less stuff in our physical and mental spaces. Advocates of the movement call it a lifestyle and say that it helps to not only declutter their physical and mental spaces, but also results in improved well-being and increased happiness. Minimalism cuts out the excess so we can prioritize what is important in life.

Photo Credit: Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Some consumption is inevitable; it serves as a form of nourishment. It is an outlet for self-expression, self-actualization and stimulation of new ideas and thoughts. Economist Thorstein Veblen’s argument that people use luxury goods to demonstrate their social status and symbols of belonging to certain groups still stands a century after it was proposed. While technological advancement and increased personalization of consumer options can contribute to streamlined and more direct ways to consuming, the reverse can happen as well. In an effort to represent one’s self and feel a sense of belonging, overconsumption during lockdown is an easy reaction and quickly becomes an environmental issue. The 2011 documentary Consumed: Inside the Belly of the Beast highlights the linkage between prestige and consumption that has come to form in western societies. Yet the film states that this period can be brief as populations become aware of the destruction they cause. Indeed, the past several years have indicated a rising embrace of minimalism. Stuck at home and forced to face their stuff, consumers are reconsidering what they own, fostering a resurgence in appreciation for higher quality goods and conscious living.

As the pandemic continues, many of the restrictions we have experienced are here to stay, and consumption will continue to be a form of self-representation and a means for connectivity. But how does a drive for minimalism and a strengthened concern for the environment manifest in the ways we consume? Home renovation trends are one indication of the changing consumer preferences that developed last year and continue to grow in 2021, with consumers seeking out more natural solutions to their renovations. However, a host of other retail industries such as fashion are also experiencing the impact of a new focus on sustainable practice and living. Perhaps it’s the online shopping strategies that feed us an endless cycle of overproduction and overconsumption, or the growing worry as to what the earth will be like in the next two decades that is fueling the new fervor to consume less and live minimally.

The minimalism movement was founded by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who suggest that decluttering your mental and physical spaces gives way to finding happiness, fulfilment, and freedom. Studies on happiness and consumption report that less consumption benefits not just the planet but our mental health. Research suggests the rich can feel happier when giving their money away, and happiness from additional income tends to taper off at around $75,000 in annual salary. As such, our motives for buying stuff can make or break the impact of materialistic consumption on our mental health and well-being.

Prolonged increases in personal spending during the last several years cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a greater awareness on the negative effects of plastic waste has created a new consumer. A chart sourced from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows a steady growth in Personal Consumption Expenditures from January 1959 to December 2020. Yet fed up with the cycle of constantly buying flimsy goods, “Buy it for Life” consumers (BIFLers) prioritize value in their purchases. The level of identity and organization that this segment of consumers has managed to build is impressive – leveraging the power of the internet, BIFLers use the web as their personal warehouses, skillfully surfing the web and storing massive amounts of detailed information on the best deals and the most insider information available. BIFLers are nothing short of a community of consumers, organized around the prospect of tried and true, durable, and quality goods. Indeed, one BIFLer has even created his own recommendation site for fellow consumers seeking out high-quality and durable goods. On his website, he states, “Hi, I’m Don, and I despise junky, unreliable products.” He describes the site as a ‘resource for discerning consumers who value quality and durability above all’. Along with such personal movements, the BIFLer community has found a home on Reddit. As described in one article published by the American Marketing Association, the site is a user-created extension of more formalized, hierarchical review shops such as Consumer Reports. Nonetheless, this trend and pushback against poor quality goods and plastic waste still does not represent the entire global population. As a study by the United Nations Environment Program and Food Industry Asia found, 91 percent of those surveyed and residing in Southeast Asia expect their governments to do more about plastic waste, fewer than half are less likely to buy a product from non-recycled material.

Photo Credit: John Cameron on Unsplash

Minimalism not only affects consumers, but also the businesses and companies that are selling. As the second largest polluter in the world after the oil industry, the fashion industry is a notorious key player in environmental wreckage and thus, a major industry that has been impacted by sustainability initiatives and coronavirus changes today. In the wake of minimalism, they serve as a great example of how consumer preferences are changing and how brands, companies and industries are responding. According to a report by McKinsey, ‘diminished return’ is the new reality for fashion. As consumers bought less clothing and footwear because of staying at home and a lack of events to dress up for, the impact of coronavirus has not been left behind in 2020. Rather, brands are realizing the power of the notion ‘less is more’. As consumers buy less, they want less stuff but more information.  With working from home, the formation of BIFLers, greater awareness of plastic waste and a growing awareness of environmental destruction, consumers want to know what larger organizations and companies are doing to help mitigate the destruction of consumption.

Minimalism is not simply a trend, but a lifestyle that will continue to be embraced and a community that will continue to grow. During the pandemic and staying at home, we have interrogated what we own and what we want to buy. Faced with the environmental guilt of receiving multiple packages from online orders, consumers have come to consider minimalism even if they did not consciously set out to. When we can shop in-person again, consumers are likely to expect more authentic interactions in their experiences. In other words, in-person interaction, communication and connection will be the key to great in-person shopping experiences. Through the brands they support and the goods that they buy, consumers are likely to want more meaningful connections with sales attendants and shop environments. People will crave the exploration and adventure of shopping in-person, the curation put in place by brands that fosters a sense of a pleasurable experience, and the in-person interaction that is part of shopping in-store will be more important than ever. Marketing the latest stuff will not be the best way to attract shoppers, rather, great customer service and the promise of even better shopping experiences will be. Meanwhile, consumer communities like minimalists and BIFLers formed digitally will continue to grow. The prioritization of quality and consciously made goods, transparency and a collective commitment to helping take care of the planet is set to inform the current and upcoming consumer trends, and through a blend of digital and in-person strategies, the in-store shopping will become a way to connect and communicate with ourselves and others more than ever before.

This article is part of a series on consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we surpassed the 1-year mark of lockdown living, the series looks at how the ways that we connect, communicate, and live have changed. From increased surveillance and usage of personal data for the purpose of surveillance, to restructuring our homes to better meet our changing demands, the pandemic has jumpstarted new trends while accelerating some already existing. It has challenged the ways that we cope and ignited conversation on the need for better support systems such as for mental health and well-being. For further reading, follow the series on Social Science Space with the tag “COVID and Consumption”.

Kenalyn Ang is the social science communications intern with SAGE Publishing. She is also a communications student at the USC Annenberg School. Her research focuses on consumer behavior, identity-making and representation through the written word, and creative sensory marketing and branding strategies.

View all posts by Kenalyn Ang

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