The term voluntary simplifiers can be found more and more frequently in current research on sustainable consumption. The term is, however, some 80 years old. It was coined by Richard Gregg, a social philosopher and student of Mahatma Ghandi. At the time, voluntary simplifier was a way to call people who volunteered to largely forgo consumption and possession in order to live a life of simplicity and concentrate on more meaningful things. Nowadays, this term is used for people who voluntarily and autonomously decide to consume less. There are no set rules, and each person decides for him or herself what is important in life.

With this approach, voluntary simplifiers appear predestined for a sustainable lifestyle and consumption pattern. A January 2017 study published in the internationally-renowned Journal of Business Research, “The role of sustainability in profiling voluntary simplifiers”, investigated how many people in Germany could be described as voluntary simplifiers, what their reasons might be and how sustainability-oriented their lives really are. In order to do so, the researchers used an innovative analysis method to assess representative data from the Society for Consumer Research about household income and possession of certain durable commodities (such as cars, smartphones and computers) for 1,458 people. The study found that five groups with distinct consumption patterns could be identified. Next to the voluntary simplifiers were the well-off consumers (both income and number of possessions higher than average), over-consumption consumers (higher-than-average income and very high number of possessions) as well as less well-off consumers and poor consumers (lower than average income and little consumption potential).

A key characteristic of voluntary simplifiers is that they reduce their consumption of their own free will and not because of financial hardship. Although they have the second-highest household income of the five groups, their possession of durable commodities was in the second-lowest category. Voluntary simplifiers are characterised by a universalistic set of values, whereby they see themselves as part of and advocates for nature and the world society. For that reason, they also have a pronounced awareness of environmental issues. As expected, voluntary simplifiers share a positive attitude toward a simple lifestyle within one’s financial means. Although they sometimes prefer environmentally-friendly products over conventional ones, this does not hold for fair trade products. The reason for this is the non-materialistic orientation of such people and the corresponding simple lifestyle that is based less on consumption. The voluntary simplifier’s awareness that less consumption contributes to a higher quality of life is more strongly related to saving resources and ecological concepts than it is to solidarity and social justice.

In the discussion concluding the study, the researchers suggest that the sustainability debate cannot focus solely on the demand for environmentally compatible goods. Consumer goods have a “social sustainability” emblem that should be considered on par with the ecological quality. Nevertheless, even social and ecological consumption make use of limited resources. In that regard, it is more important than ever that opportunities for reducing consumption while retaining or even increasing the quality of life are brought into the discussion. This, however, runs contrary to what the many “growth evangelists” say. Here it is important to keep in mind that growth is not only a question of quantity, but of quality. The economy and – more importantly – people’s life satisfaction can grow together – especially when quantitative consumption is reduced.

Journal of Business Research
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Mathias Peyer, Ingo Balderjahn, Barbara Seegebarth, Alexandra Klemm: “The role of sustainability in profiling voluntary simplifiers”. Journal of Business Research, Volume 70, January 2017.