Why Kiwis are embracing minimalism

Otago University lead researcher Leah Watkins said the size of the shift of consumer opinion was surprising.
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Otago University lead researcher Leah Watkins said the size of the shift of consumer opinion was surprising.

When Kane Johnston looks around a shopping mall all he sees are people distracting themselves. Every object on the shelves is a diversion.

"You can attach meaning to an object like a pop vinyl of your favourite TV character and you think that it will bring you happiness but it doesn't," says the Wellington IT professional, 26. "It just helps you stay distracted for a short while and then adds nothing to your life."

While many in his age group are trying to find ways to afford more stuff, Johnston is determined to give it up.

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"The less objects you have, the less you try to fruitlessly derive meaning from them. You are forced more and more into the present moment and that's where life happens - not in any toy or gizmo you can buy."

Wellingtonian Kane Johnston has just taken the leap to minimalism, discarding most of his possessions and clothing.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellingtonian Kane Johnston has just taken the leap to minimalism, discarding most of his possessions and clothing.

You might think Johnston is an outlier, an oddity in a society increasingly defined by what you can get and how little you can pay for it. You would be wrong. Kiwi consumers are actually becoming more frugal, more conscious of the importance of recycling and reusing goods, and more aware of the ethical implications of consumption.

An Otago University study into consumer attitudes and choices running since 1979 has identified a marked increase in the numbers of so-called "progressive" consumers who make buying decisions based on their impact on the environment and other people. In the past decade this progressive consumer group has more than doubled in size to the point where one in five of the study's 2000 subjects share the view.

Meanwhile the more hardcore "greens" cohort is steady at 8 per cent.

Natalie Jane is a professional de-clutterer working in Auckland, and says business is booming.
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Natalie Jane is a professional de-clutterer working in Auckland, and says business is booming.

"The strength of that change, and how mainstream those concerns and attitudes are becoming, was surprising," says lead researcher Leah Watkins. "The biggest segment now is defined by progressive characteristics. Essentially they are very socially minded. They are defined by this idea that they are non-materialistic, they are very concerned with the environment. They tend to be politically left."

Accompanying the growth of the progressive consumer is the view that business should act responsibly, and not simply focus on profit. Watkins believes the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and its long-term impact have played a role in that.

Oxfam spokesman Niall Bennett says the charitable organisation's 'Unwrapped' gift range - which allows Kiwis to send goats, chickens, clean water kits and farming equipment to the needy on behalf of their loved ones in lieu of "stuff" - is proving so popular that competing ethical gift programmes have popped up.

Kiwis are increasingly concerned about the consequences of consumerism, and are basing their purchases more on ethical ...
Stacy Squires

Kiwis are increasingly concerned about the consequences of consumerism, and are basing their purchases more on ethical and environmental factors.

"Christmas is by far the most popular time of year for kind-hearted Kiwis to buy an Unwrapped gift," says Bennett. "Last Christmas New Zealanders bought over NZ$235,000 of Unwrapped gifts."

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Professional declutterer Natalie Jane has built a successful business on the desire for simplicity in the home.

Since Jane began her business four years ago the number of competitors in Auckland has doubled, from five to 10.

When Wellingtonian Kane Johnston looks around a department store all he sees are people distracting themselves.
MAARTEN HOLL/FAIRFAX NZ

When Wellingtonian Kane Johnston looks around a department store all he sees are people distracting themselves.

In the same period demand has grown so much she finds herself routinely turning clients away. At $75 per hour it is not a cheap service, but it's one that she says can prove life-changing.

It's not unusual for her to remove 200 banana boxes of clutter from an ordinary home and deliver it to charities, and make several trips to the dump. A recent client had accumulated 40 platters in their four-person family home.

"By the time they call me they are ready, they are like 'get here, get rid of the stuff, it's driving me mad'."

Despite the stress that often accompanies a serious decluttering, Jane says she has never had a client complain that they shouldn't have thrown something away.

"They have never missed the item, and I find that interesting," she says.

"I walk into clients' homes and the candles are burning and everything is looking beautiful, and then you open the cupboard and everything falls out."

"It's not how it looks, it's how it functions."

Jane says the craze of minimalism, which is spreading like wildfire in America thanks in part to trendy experts like Marie Kondo (the woman who has forever changed the sock drawer), is rapidly spreading in New Zealand.

"You have more time to do things that are meaningful and that you want to do, rather than spending all this time picking up your shit, your stuff. Less is more."

For Johnston it all began when he watched a documentary featuring Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, two American bloggers known as "The Minimalists" to their 4 million readers.

Within a week he had given away his 50-inch TV, sold his desktop computer and his tablet, and replaced all three with a single laptop.

In the space of an evening he reduced his wardrobe by 80 percent until he had only eight shirts, two t-shirts, three pairs of trousers and a jacket.

"It'll be interesting to see how I adapt. I'll have to keep on top of washing a lot more," Johnston jokes.

Items that have joined the charity box include dream catchers, a Rubik's cube, figurines, and posters.

"It gets harder as you go along. You start off throwing away clothes you don't often wear and things like that, but as you come to items and things that you are quite familiar with or do quite enjoy it gets harder."

But the feeling afterwards, Johnston said, is similar to the experience of standing in the middle of a room after a thorough tidy. It is a feeling that persists.

"It's to declutter your life, declutter your mind. As a society we consume too much with reckless abandon and I kind of wanted to set an example of how I think we should live.

"We should be buying things that last longer and are more durable, as opposed to cheaper stuff that just converts into waste."

 - Stuff

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