Maximalism and sustainability: Less isn’t always more

Illustration of a room with a "maximalist" aesthetic, with many posters on the wall, books, and plants
Nerissa Hsieh/Staff

Related Posts

Minimalism dominated the 2010s. From architecture to fashion, followers of this prevailing aesthetic strived to embody a sleek, fresh look. We drew our eyebrows with sharp lines during the “Instagram baddie” era, kept our Nike Air Forces squeaky clean and sparkling white and decorated our homes with simple, contemporary furniture. Millennials were the governing generation — as their name indicates, the trends they forwarded represented this futuristic millennium. Each new iPhone was sleeker and lighter than the previous, and the era’s art replicated this technological perfection. 2010s minimalism strived for an almost anti-human aesthetic of impeccability.

As Gen Z overtakes millennials as the trendsetting generation, we’ve begun to pivot away from minimalism and embrace art at its fullest potential. Current fashion trends are maximalist and extravagant — to Gen Z, more is more. We aren’t afraid of accessories: Leg and arm warmers, layered jewelry, multiple rings on each finger, piercings galore, colored sunglasses, dyed hair and fun bags all add creative flares to our fashion. Each article of clothing acts as a new tool for decorating our otherwise boring bodies. Why wear plain white sneakers when you can stunt your beauty in studded platform Demonias? Why wear a hoodie when you can keep warm — and have fun — with a green, fur-lined, cheetah-print leather coat? 

As we grapple with the reality and impending doom of the climate crisis, however, this inclination towards maximalist fashion and design begs the question: Is it sustainable? It’s easy to assume that more material is inherently less sustainable. It’s an understandable assumption — buying fewer items encourages companies to produce less, thereby extracting fewer natural resources and allowing Mother Nature to persevere a little longer. But there’s more to the conversation than that. 

Despite encouraging consumers to purchase fewer items, the minimalist aesthetic’s anti-environmental plight is its reliance on new items. One simply cannot purchase a pristine, all-white furniture set at a flea market. And it’s impossible to look like a walking iPhone if your shoes are worn in from a previous owner’s use. In the trilogy of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” minimalist fashion simply neglected to reuse and recycle old items. 

Accompanying maximalist fashion, however, is a booming thrift culture. Gen Z exhibits a collective interest in and respect for quality vintage pieces; fashion-oriented Gen-Zers frequently post Tiktoks displaying their recent thrift finds, while apps like Depop allow users to re-sell their old items with ease. Ironically, Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” released in 2012, serves as a perfect anthem for the 2021 fashion culture. 

It’s a nice break from the pressure to constantly purchase the newest items. And it’s more fun, too. Rather than simply clicking “buy now” on a website riddled with mass-produced t-shirts, hunting for unique, vintage pieces allows shoppers and clothing-lovers to be creative. Of course, there will always be the pressure to keep up with trends. However, thrifting allows individuals to find novel pieces that work with current fads. 

Increased thrifting is a net positive for the environment. Along with discouraging excessive production, this surge in thrifting decreases waste. Around two-thirds of unsold apparel from used clothing stores ends up in landfills — more thrift shoppers means fewer clothes piling up in dumps. 

Furthermore, maximalism emboldens us to repurpose our own items. While minimalism may have encouraged people to throw old things away to reduce clutter, maximalism allows individuals to incorporate old clothes and objects into their current wardrobes and environments. This practice decreases waste and inspires creativity — a win-win for maximalism. A little healthy hoarding never hurt anyone. 

At the same time, the movement towards maximalism has received criticism for being inaccessible to low-income communities. Because Gen Z fashionistas often re-sell thrifted items for excessively high prices on apps like Depop, many have called out thrift culture for turning what once served low-income communities into yet another gentrified trend. 

There’s an easy workaround to this dilemma: Stop jacking up prices. 

Of course, any effort to keep up with trends is always going to be easier for the wealthy. With an emphasis on owning more items, whether for personal use or re-sell purposes, maximalism is certainly no exception. However, there are several actions that fashion-lovers can take to stop excluding low-income communities from participating in the maximalist trend, such as advocating for reasonable resale pricing and promoting affordable DIY projects. 

In this capitalist society that promotes infinite consumption on a planet with finite resources, fashion and aesthetic trends will never be perfectly sustainable for all communities. However, maximalist fashion inspires us to reuse and recycle — two out of the three Rs, not bad! 

So, Gen Z, wear your thrifted jeans with pride: You’re saving the planet and looking good while doing it.

Contact Piper Samuels at [email protected].