Minimalism: A (Pseudo) Ethical Lifestyle

Last month, I considered the surprising popularity of the KonMari method of organizing our homes, and argued that the attractiveness of this approach to decluttering results, at least in part, from our recognition of our disordered relationship with our stuff, and that this disordered relationship negatively affects our lives.

What Marie Kondo offers her clients is the hope that, by getting a grip on their possessions, they will also get a grip on their disorganized and chaotic lives – and, perhaps, even on their disordered psyches. I have to admit that I find Marie Kondo, as she is presented on the Netflix show Tidying Up, to be a very attractive presence – she seems to genuinely want her clients to be happy, and she also appears to be both sympathetic to the mess some of them have made of their lives, and non-judgmental about the items they identify as “sparking joy” in them, however objectively valueless and unappealing those items appear to the rest of us.

Capsule wardrobe.

Capsule wardrobe.

This month, I want to consider another approach to dealing with our problem with an over-accumulation of material possessions: this is the “lifestyle” of minimalism – an approach to living which advises us to own fewer things so that we have more time and money to focus on the things that really matter, like spending more time with family and friends, and taking trips to exotic locales.

While I agree with much of what minimalist lifestyle gurus are saying – that, for instance, many of us have too many things, and are too quick to invest those things with a meaning and value that they do not, could not, have – I have to admit that there is something about the “minimalist lifestyle” that I find ethically disquieting. This column is an attempt to try to put my finger more precisely on what it is about the “minimalist lifestyle” that I find ethically unappealing, while finding the KonMari approach to decluttering charming and even inspiring.


I have been “following” a blog called Becoming Minimalist on Facebook, and I want to begin my exploration of this “lifestyle” with a brief tour off some of the posts that have appeared on my Facebook newsfeed.

First, I want to consider an entry entitled “8 Reasons Successful People are Choosing to Wear the Same Thing Everyday.” This post describes the “capsule wardrobe” movement – a movement and a term previously entirely unknown to me. Apparently, a “capsule wardrobe” consists of about thirty items,” and those who follow this trend of having only a limited number of items in their wardrobe experience the following benefits: they have fewer decisions to make about what they wear, they spend less time choosing their daily outfits, they experience less stress, have less wasted energy, spend less money and feel more at peace than those who don’t have a capsule clothing collection.

As someone who has very little interest in clothes (except for extravagantly patterned socks, of which I have a small collection that sparks joy in me), I think I already have a capsule wardrobe, especially since I recently KonMaried my closet and gave away three garbage bags of unwanted clothes to charity. Indeed, I would happily have even fewer clothes if I didn’t think that my students might find it peculiar to see me wear only two outfits instead of six or seven.

While I can fully embrace the idea of a limited wardrobe, there was something precious and absurd about one of the benefits listed, namely, the claim that possessing a capsule wardrobe makes one’s clothes “iconic.” The post puts it this way:

Alice Gregory is a writer living in New York City. Last year, her post for J. Crew magazine brought a new word into my reasoning for wearing a uniform: she called it ‘iconic. A cheap and easy way to feel famous.’ She continues, ‘A uniform can be a way of performing maturity or, less charitably, impersonating it. A uniform insinuates the sort of sober priorities that ossify with age, as well as a deliberate past of editing and improving.’

I think it is this claim that a minimalist “capsule” wardrobe can be “iconic,” can make us feel “famous” and “mature” that helps me more clearly identify the source of my ethical disquiet with this kind of minimalist lifestyle, along with the assertion that it is, indeed, a “lifestyle.” This term suggests at least two things. First, that living with fewer things is, indeed, a lifestyle choice, not something that is forced upon us because we can’t actually afford to buy a lot of things; and, second, the word “lifestyle” (like the word “iconic”) suggests that we are, indeed, engaged in a kind of performance, one that we are, at least in part, putting on for others. That is to say (ironically rather than iconically) those minimalists who write about the way in which they have embraced this lifestyle and about the benefits it has offered them seem to be as focused on the things they own as those who have too much stuff. Moreover, while they might have fewer possessions than those whose houses are cluttered, the possessions they do have – while fewer in number – seem to be just as invested with meaning. To think that your clothes make you “iconic” is to invest objects with far too much metaphysical weight.


Most of the articles which appear on the Becoming Minimalist newsfeed seem to end up in a similar place. While they start off looking as though they are intended to give readers good reasons to declutter, and helpful advice about how to go about doing this, they invariably seem to sneak in, somewhere, a statement which implies that those who embrace this lifestyle are not only empowering themselves, but are also somehow more interesting, even ethically superior, to those who don’t.

Minimalist kitchen by Alisberg Parker Architects via The Spruce

Minimalist kitchen by Alisberg Parker Architects via The Spruce

For example, a post entitled “Ways Minimalism Helps Put Money In Your Pocket” not only invites readers to make money by selling unwanted stuff, but also asserts that:

Minimalism brings greater intentionality in all areas of life. It begins by forcing us to evaluate our possessions – why we own what we own. But often times, the principle of ‘keeping only the best’ extends to other areas of life: schedules, relationships, health and habits.

Likewise, a post encouraging readers to downsize from their large houses filled with things to smaller, emptier spaces (“Forget Society’s Standards: Here’s the Secret To a Truly Beautiful Home”) connects this move to helping us truly grasp what makes a house a home:

The concept of home as an ideal for safety and comfort, of acceptance and belonging, is one that resonates with almost everyone. But somewhere along the way, we began chasing a different ideal. ‘Home’ became a place to upscale, store an ever-increasing pile of possessions, and choose a never-realized perfection portrayed in Pottery Barn catalogs and on home-improvement reality shows.

I have identified four things which seem to me to be ethically problematic about embracing a “minimalist lifestyle” (as opposed to simply owning fewer things, but not identifying this as a “lifestyle choice”), and these four things, in turn, have helped me identify the ethical problem which I think lies at the heart of this approach. I will set out this central problem after briefly identifying the ethically problematic subsidiary issues.


First, minimalism, understood as a “lifestyle,” as noted above, seems to be entirely predicated on the assumption that this is something a person can choose. Consequently, it seems to be a lifestyle that is really only open to those who are middle-class or even wealthy. The poor have no choice, often, but to live in smaller spaces with less stuff – or perhaps less nice stuff.

Second, in my own life, in periods in which I have had little money, I also had far fewer possessions than I do now, but those I had were precious to me. Now that I could afford to replace almost everything I currently have, if not all at once then at least over time, I find it very easy to give away my books after I have finished reading them, or to donate clothes that I no longer like.

The poor, however, are not worried about whether or not their living spaces look like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog, they often simply want to keep the things that they already have, some of which can be very comforting to them (as my possessions were to me, when I fell into this category). Again, lifestyle minimalists, to use the language currently popular in the academy, seem to be writing and thinking from a place of unconscious privilege.

I think that this helps explain why Marie Kondo’s approach is far more appealing to me than what I can understand of the “minimalist lifestyle.” The people featured in her show come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, and, while for some clients following the KonMari organizing method could, indeed, lead to minimalism, it does not necessarily have to. By recognizing that some possessions “spark joy,” Marie Kondo allows their owners to keep what they truly love, and to tailor their homes to suit themselves rather than to meet, say, the demands of a capsule wardrobe that allows one to put on an iconic performance of maturity when one gets dressed.

Third, what is striking to me about most of the articles I have read about the “minimalist lifestyle” is that the focus seems to be on self-empowerment and self-realization through decluttering, rather than on what one can do to help others. For example, many of the articles which identify more time as a benefit of minimalism are often illustrated by pictures of happy, fulfilled people frolicking on tropical beaches or cycling up mountains, and the articles themselves focus on people discovering themselves, but say almost nothing about, say, volunteering, getting politically active, or even giving the excess stuff one is purging to those who are less fortunate. The “minimalist lifestyle,” that is to say, seems to be a profoundly individualistic one.

Kitchen area in a Hong Kong subdivided flat (Source: WGO

Kitchen area in a Hong Kong subdivided flat (Source: World Green Organization)

Fourth, and again ironically rather than iconically, the “minimalist lifestyle” is seen by business people to generate a marketing opportunity – not to sell more stuff, of course, but to sell more services and experiences. An article in Forbes magazine entitled “Millenials Go Minimal: The Decluttering Lifestyle That is Taking Over” by Deborah Weinsweig offers what is a (presumably unconscious) parodic description of the marketing opportunities generated by the popularity of the minimalist lifestyle.

Many entrepreneurs have picked up on [the popularity of this lifestyle] and are figuring our how they can capitalize on the minimalism and decluttering trends.

Resisting the temptation to embrace alliteration that I am experiencing as I write this (I would have entitled the piece something like “Many Magnificent Militant Millenial Minimalists Make Massive Marketing Opportunities for Malicious Marketers”), and seemingly unconscious of the irony of noting the business opportunities generated by a movement focusing on spending less money and owning fewer things, Weinsweig write that millennials, in particular, seem to be drawn to the minimalist lifestyle.

They prefer to spend on experiences rather than on stuff…They favor products marketed as ethical, sustainable, and environmentally friendly.

(I particularly love the phrase “marketed as,” because it manages to completely evade the question of whether or not the things being marketed are genuinely ethical, sustainable and environmentally friendly, or whether they only appear to be so.)


The desire to possess a capsule wardrobe (so that they can be iconic rather than ordinary, one supposes) is one of the trends Weinsweig identifies as presenting a marketing opportunity for ingenious entrepreneurs who are able to figure out ways to sell to people who don’t want to buy things: a company called Cladwell offers clients:

…a closet clear-out and [help] creating your capsule… Cladwell provides helpful instructions, tips and videos to walk the user through this process. Next, Cladwell’s algorithms generate the ideal wardrobe for the individual user… Cladwell is also offering an outfit generator service that will help users get dressed everyday.

Again, seemingly oblivious to any ironic tension between the supposed values of the “minimalist lifestyle” and the imperatives of businesses in a capitalist economy (let alone the absurdity of thinking that people with few clothes to choose from will need help deciding what to wear), Weinsweig continues:

The enhancement [offered by Cladwell’s new algorithm] will help increase brand loyalty and customer engagement among users” who pay a monthly subscription fee for the service.

She concludes that:

We predict companies that provide consumers, particularly millennials, with services that fit into this minimalist and socially conscious lifestyle will see success.

I now think that I can more clearly articulate what it is that I find most ethically troubling about the “minimalist lifestyle,” namely, the way it is being marketed to us. While its proponents may often come across as sanctimonious and un-self aware middle class people with the time and money to live “intentionally” through decluttering, this is more of an irritation than an ethical problem.

What is deeply ethically problematic, however, is that nowhere, in anything about this lifestyle that I have read, is there any analysis of the challenges that face any and all of us who live in a capitalist economy to resist the cultural imperatives to buy more things than we need, at a great human cost when we consider the workers who are exploited to make many of the things we buy, and at a great cost to the environment.

If minimalism is to be ethically meaningful, rather than being a “lifestyle” movement, it seems to me, minimalism needs to become an environmental or political one. As a “lifestyle” movement, it seems deeply embedded in the very economic structures it purports to challenge, generating new marketing opportunities for companies to not only sell us things to put in our wardrobes, but even subscription services that will help us decide which of those things to put on in the morning.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.