Last summer, I read Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, which inspired me to clean out my closet and organize my clothes. I admit to feeling a little wave of satisfaction wash over me now when I open my dresser drawers and catch glimpses of my socks and T-shirts in all their neatly folded glory. My own brief foray into decluttering fits within a larger movement of “voluntary simplicity”: people seeking a way out of the obsessive consumerism that characterizes modern Western society.
Simplifiers are honing an identity of protest against wasteful consumer culture, the pressure to create an independent self-identity by purchasing more goods, and the notion that economic growth is in itself desirable. They see themselves as people who are using up fewer of the planet’s resources because of their choice to buy and waste less than mainstream consumers. By reducing work hours, moving to smaller houses, and decluttering (including tidying dresser drawers), they see themselves as not only living a better life than others—but a more ethical one too.
My colleague Carol Walther and I started investigating the voluntary simplicity movement in the early 2000s. Our research included an analysis of more than 50,000 online forum posts from a community of more than 11,500 simplifiers, along with in-depth interviews with 15 adults in our community who were choosing to live in a simpler way. Many of the people we spoke to were struggling with trying to balance an ethic of nonjudgment with very real feelings of being morally superior to so-called regular consumers.
The simplifiers we studied were genuinely trying to live a better life centered on family and spirituality rather than consumerism. But their feelings of superiority might be tempered if they appreciated the broader context of their position: Most people living a simple life do so from a place of privilege. The voluntary simplicity movement is largely made up of white, middle-class people with a high level of education; paring back on a high-paying job is easier if one has a cushion of savings and a safety net of supportive friends.
The spokespeople for voluntary simplicity are at the far end of the spectrum of privilege: They belong to a minority at the top economic tier of the movement. And they, like Kondo, interpret simplicity as the need to create a sparse environment with just a few beautiful objects. This kind of aesthetic minimalism is really just a reinvention of materialism: Its proponents have fewer objects, but they invest even more meaning into them. This version of simplicity has become ripe for commodification: magazines, books, diaries, and other objects are available to help you, ironically, simplify your life.
Despite the core values shared across the spectrum of simplifiers, the fracturing out of a highly visible, highly privileged group makes it hard for the movement to gain much traction. In addition, the simplicity movement tends to emphasize individual self-sufficiency rather than collective action; unlike the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) or environmental movements, it does not promote social change through group protest.
It remains to be seen whether the simplicity movement will forge a collective identity that leads to long-lasting social change for the better or whether it will continue along its path of commodification. If the simple life really is going to help humanity live more lightly on the land, it will take much more than a neatly folded T-shirt drawer.