Not long ago, I was in a newly renovated kitchen in a New York City apartment. The designer had done everything in his power to respect the economy of space, with a flip-top counter and diminutive appliances, but it was the cabinetry that most piqued my interest. To minimize surface clutter, everything was sheathed in lacquered white fiberboard. Even the refrigerator and dishwasher were behind flat cabinet doors.
This clean aesthetic was, in fact, a blatant subversion of the very idea of minimalism—a study in extravagance disguised as pure economy. Twice the amount of surfacing material had been used on the appliances than was needed, and twice the amount of effort would be required to open them every time they were used.
I might have relegated this encounter to the archives of curious design decisions, except that it seemed to say something about the strange place minimalism has found for itself in our culture: Often, now, it is used as a kind of mask for an underlying excess and extravagance.
Few of us will deny that this is a time of consumer excess and that the cycle of bloated consumption and grievous waste is part of our national profile. But as individuals, we are unwilling to cop to our own participation in it. The health of our economy might depend upon our constant consumption of goods, but it's not an identity we much like. It implicates us in something—not exactly a conspiracy, but at least a kind of collusion between voracious consumer appetite and the marketers who depend upon it. As the writer and conservationist Wendell Berry describes the situation: "It is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom—a symbiosis of unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom—and all of us are involved in it."
Still, most of us prefer to think of ourselves as wanting and needing only the essentials. It's the divided self of American identity. This is only a guess, but I'd bet that the millions of Americans who carry monthly credit card debt like to think of themselves as self-reliant, able, and sensible, rather than extravagant, imprudent, and impractical. And often, even when we do admit to our excesses, we are quickly corrected. "I'm a drunk when it comes to clothes," said socialite Nan Kempner, but the public was more inclined to view her as an icon of elegance, a maestra of the organized closet. The title given to the show of her wardrobe at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [in New York] was "American Chic." She might have considered herself a drunk, but to others, owning 12 lemon-yellow cashmere sweaters is the epitome of high style.
So as substance abusers in the most literal sense, we seem to do what most other addicts do when faced with the obvious: We go into denial. We spin. Often, that spin involves redefining excess as less. And for all the dangers implicit in the cycle of consumption and waste, I would venture to say that the cycle of indulgence and denial is even more dangerous, because it involves a level of self-deception, along with convoluted arguments of justification that allow us to do whatever we want. Take the VivaTerra catalog, which comes from an eco-friendly retailer that donates a dollar per $75 order to the Trust for Public Land. But the friend of mine who gets its catalog has received two in the past month, and wouldn't it make more sense anyway, she asks, to donate her $225 to the Trust rather than spend that amount on a handbag made from candy wrappers "headed for landfill"?
Ambivalence toward abundance and reinventing excess as less happens at every level of the consumer chain. It's not just candy-wrapper handbags or minimalist kitchens—consider shoppers who go to warehouse outlets such as BJ's, Sam's Club, and Costco, where low prices entice shoppers to buy items sold in bulk, often 3 or 7 or 12 of something when they really require only one. But rather than view their jumbo purchases of shampoo in gallon jugs and shrink-wrapped eight-packs of T-shirts as excessive buying, they define such super-sized purchases as thrifty.
Enoch Palmer, vice president of design at Aveda, agrees with the notion that over-consumption often comes from a desire to do the efficient and economic thing. "If my wife and I see something at Old Navy that looks like it's really great for our child, then we consider buying it in three sizes. But then you also have to consider having a closet full of stuff you end up not needing." Bulk shopping, Palmer suggests, is two-sided: While it obviously makes more sense in terms of packaging to buy one large package than eight small ones over the course of a year, if you're buying lots of stuff you don't need and are just going to throw it all out, it defeats the original purpose.
In his job, Palmer and his team at Aveda review a list of questions before making design decisions: Do we need it? Can we live without it? Can we borrow, rent, or get it used? Is the project designed to minimize waste? Is it designed to be durable or multifunctional? Such questions apply not only to Aveda's new projects but to the decisions made in the company's office planning. When the New York headquarters was refurbished three years ago, for example, the company bought used filing cabinets and office furniture. Aveda's questions can easily be applied to our individual habits of consumption.
Other companies have started to do their own soul-searching when it comes to paring down, and their choice to do so can derive as much from market forces as from the will to do good. Corporate sustainability consultant Marc Alt, who has been working with Wal-Mart, says that the nation's largest retailer gives its buyers a bonus when they bring in products with reduced packaging. Sylvania's CFL bulbs, for example, were once packaged in bulky, oversized blister packs; today, they come in small cardboard boxes. As a result, they are awarded better placement on shelves, which leads to greater sales.
That Wal-Mart—whose very existence is predicated on urging consumers to buy more—is paying closer attention to sustainable packaging brings us, of course, back to the divided self, and mirrors the paradox most of us just tend to live with, if more and more uneasily. But rather than merely chalking it up to one more irony of modern life, perhaps this is one paradox we'll have to work harder to resolve.
Make less, buy less, use less, throw away less. As Russell Davies, a branding expert (and former global consumer planning director for Nike) writes on his blog, "Once upon a time, packaging wasn't disposable, it was useful. We didn't think about recycling biscuit tins, because we kept them, they were useful. And now they're even more valuable than they were. So I'm wondering if there's a way of thinking about packaging sustainability that makes it more valuable, not more recyclable. Does that make sense?"
It does. Davies questions whether his own thinking is "horribly simplistic." It may be. But what is also horribly simplistic is the banal human malady of wanting too much. Which brings us back to Wendell Berry, who once wrote that the greatest obstacle is "the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent upon what is wrong. But that is the addict's excuse, and we know that it will not do."