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What the minimalist movement can teach us about living sustainably

Upon waking, an email lets you know that one of your favourite brands has 40% off everything. You’re out to lunch and your friends have all upgraded to the latest iPhone. You’re scrolling social media and you really like a jacket that someone is wearing. From the moment we wake until we fall asleep, we’re being sold the idea that more ‘stuff’ will make us happy.

The message is everywhere: get more stuff. And it doesn’t matter what stuff you get, there’s always new stuff to want. Meanwhile, our consumption of the earth’s natural resources has tripled in the last 40 years.

Minimalism is a lifestyle movement that encourages people to entertain the idea that when it comes to stuff, less is more. Dr Kelly Miller, an Associate Professor in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at Deakin University, says that minimalism promotes the idea of a more conscious engagement with both the objects we own and the world around us. ‘The primary aspects of minimalism are about getting back to basics and thinking deeply about what you need in your life rather than what you want.’

Those experimenting with minimalism report benefits to their health and mindset. ‘When someone clears out their inbox or cleans up their desk or declutters a cupboard they feel good. People feel lighter; they feel like they’ve got more time to focus on other things. The human wellbeing aspect of being able to focus on experiences rather than all the stuff that we accumulate is a really important part of minimalism.’

'The human wellbeing aspect of being able to focus on experiences rather than all the stuff that we accumulate is a really important part of minimalism.'

Dr Kelly Miller,
School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

The environmental argument for minimalism

Dr Miller says that alongside population growth, overconsumption is one of the primary causes of the environmental issues that we are experiencing globally. ‘We have such a large, growing population and our consumption of the earth’s natural resources is also growing: it’s tripled in the last 40 years or so. We are using our resources far more quickly than they can regenerate.’

And it’s not just about how much we consume, the types of things we consume matter too. ‘Another issue is failing to account for the true environmental costs in the things that we buy, so not appreciating all of the environmental and social costs that come with our purchases. We can get a top from Kmart for $3 but what is the environmental cost? What is the social cost of that garment being made and being transported to Australia? The power of advertising and marketing is so strong that people get pulled into that idea that we need all this stuff and that we should be spending our money in this way.’

Not all minimalism is sustainable

While minimalism has the capacity to benefit the environment, not all minimalists have environmental protection as a motivation. ‘You could bulldoze your house to build a nice modern, minimalist home and have the same decluttering benefits but that’s not good for the environment,’ Dr Miller points out.

To address the global crises related to overconsumption we need to think carefully about what we eat, how much we travel and how much we buy. ‘There is certainly an argument for making each item we own last as long as it can. When something is at the end of its life it’s worth thinking about whether it can be repurposed into something else. Maybe you can’t use it anymore but someone else can. Or you might be able to use part of it for something else, dismantle it or refurbish it.’

Minimalism isn’t sustainable if you declutter only to replace your stuff with more stuff.

Minimalism for the masses

Dr Miller doesn’t believe that minimalism will ever become mainstream. ‘Our economy is set up in such a way that it relies on us buying stuff. If we looked at progress and growth in different ways rather than just focussing on economic indicators and how much money is moving through the economy then we might be better placed to measure our progress towards sustainability.’

There is potential for governments to discourage a throwaway society by preventing manufacturers from creating products with a short lifespan. ‘In France there is legislation that makes the practice of planned obsolescence a criminal offence,’ Dr Miller says. ‘More and more governments are looking to those solutions but I think we have a long way to go.’

Reducing your personal footprint

Dr Miller doesn’t consider herself a minimalist in its truest form; nor does she think many Australians would be able to. ‘We have a very resource intensive lifestyle in Australia. I really love some of the ideas underpinning the concept and certainly I try to incorporate some of those principles into my daily life.’

She regularly reflects on her environmental impact and looks for ways to reduce her footprint. ‘There are some really good ecological footprint calculators on the web. They give you an overview of the main areas where you are having a big impact and the areas where you could make some changes.’

Dr Miller suggests we all start small. Think critically about the advertising we are exposed to and take some time to reflect on our purchases. ‘If we all considered what we really need rather than what we want we would reduce our consumption and we would have a much lower footprint on the earth. This would mean that we could be more sustainable into the future.’ And the added bonus? You might actually notice some tangible improvements in your daily life. ‘Removing ourselves from all of the stuff that we buy, being and living and connecting with nature is really healthy for people.’


Want to reduce your ecological footprint even further? Maybe you could live in a tiny house. If you’re considering a career in this area, find out more about studying environment courses.

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Dr Kelly Miller
Dr Kelly Miller

Associate Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

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