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    Submitted to the Academy of Marketing Studies Journal, April 19, 2002 Presented at the Nashville, 2002 conference (April, 2002)

Filename = Johnston-amsj.doc

Timothy C. Johnston

    College of Business and Public Affairs

    The University of Tennessee at Martin

    Martin, TN 38238

    Phone: (731) 587-7354

    Fax: (731) 587-7231

    (corresponding author)

Jay B. Burton

    College of Business and Public Affairs

    The University of Tennessee at Martin

    Martin, TN 38238

    Phone: (731) 587-7354

    Fax: (731) 587-7231



    Voluntary Simplicity is a growing social movement that is important to marketers,

    because it may herald fundamental and widespread changes in consumer preferences.

    Academics and leaders of the movement agree that a definition is needed for research on

    Voluntary Simplicity to move forward. The contribution of this paper is a catalog and

    analysis of popular definitions of Voluntary Simplicity published from 1977 to 2001. An

    analysis of 142 keywords from 29 citations revealed the following 15 major themes: The

    Good Life, Life Purpose, Material Simplicity, Ecological Awareness, Personal Growth,

    Minimal Consumption, Valued Relationships, Chosen Life, Lifestyle, Self Determination,

    Role of Work, Plain Living, and Human Scale. These themes define the domain of the

    Voluntary Simplicity lifestyle. Researchers can use the themes to craft precise

    definitions and to suggest dimensions and items for measures. Research on Voluntary

    Simplicity can help to identify the influence of the movement on mainstream consumers.


     Voluntary Simplicity is a growing social movement (Etzioni, 1999). According

    to the New York Times, “Choosing to buy and earn less—to give up income and fast-

    track success for more free time and a lower-stress lifeinvolves a quiet revolt against

    the dominant culture of getting and spending,” (Goldberg, 1995). More recently, the Los Angeles Times reported, “the core ideals of voluntary simplicity—spend less, work less

    and focus on important personal goalsare resonating with Americans who have been shaken by the recent events (terrorist attacks) and who are looking for more meaning in

    their lives,” (Weston, 2001). “Simplify” is becoming the rallying cry for a generation of

    alternative consumers.

    Elgin (1993) describes Voluntary Simplicity as “living in a way that is outwardly

    simple and inwardly rich.” More and more people in affluent societies like the United

    States are being attracted to this lifestyle. The purpose of this paper is to further explicate

    the meaning of Voluntary Simplicity by analyzing the definitions of thought leaders in

    the movement over a 25-year time span.

    The Voluntary Simplicity movement is important to marketers. Marketing

    researchers have speculated on the impact of Voluntary Simplicity on consumer behavior

    (Johnston, 2000). Ensley (1983) wrote, “Growth in the number of adherents to Voluntary

    Simplicity could dramatically affect current marketing practices.” Shama (1985) noted

    that Voluntary Simplicity behavior was characterized by choice of functional products

    with simple packaging, response to promotions that stress value and information,

    shopping in localized small channel outlets, and willingness to buy “do-it-yourself”

    products to save money.

    In many ways, Voluntary Simplicity turns the consumer behavior of mainstream

    America on its head (Table 1). Where consumers typically want more material goods,

    simple-livers want to reduce possessions and clutter in their lives. Where consumers

    want to earn more to consume more, simple-livers strive to reduce (paid) work and

    consumption. Simple-livers often share the “reduce, reuse, recycle” credo of the

conservationists, which is often at odds with corporate goals of increasing sales and

    profits (Hawkins, Best & Coney, 2001, p. 90). Where consumers want convenience and

    low cost, simple-livers will go to extra effort and expense to obtain durable, reusable, and

    Earth-friendly products. You can rely on mainstream consumers to buy what they want.

    Simple-livers prefer to minimize their material wants and purchases, obtaining goods by

    making, borrowing, buying used or not at all.

Table 1: What they want: mainstream consumers versus simple-livers

Mainstream Consumers Simple-livers

    Want more material goods Want fewer possession and less clutter

    Want to earn more Want to reduce (paid) work

    Want to consume more Want to consume less

    Want convenience Want durable, reusable, Earth-friendly products

    Buy what they want Want little, buy even less

    This paper does not argue that mainstream consumers will become simple-livers. Rather, it argues that simple-livers and mainstream consumers share many values. In

    service of these values, consumers may adopt less-radical but nonetheless substantial

    changes in behavior learned from the hard-core simple-livers. Rudmin and Kilbourne

    (1996) argued that Voluntary Simplicity “has been and will be a recurrent expression of

    deliberately denied materialism” (p. 167) and that “history is again ripe for another round

    of Voluntary Simplicity” (p. 208). Marketers need to be aware of and understand the

    Voluntary Simplicity movement as it portends fundamental and potentially widespread

    change in consumer preferences.

     Voluntary Simplicity resists definition. Shi (1985, p. 3) wrote, “The simple life is almost as difficult to define as to live.” Some say that Voluntary Simplicity is better left

    undefined than to be defined dogmatically (Elgin, 2000, p. 76). The definition of

    Voluntary Simplicity is dependent on the context as well. According to Pierce (1996-99):

    “What may be a simple, enriching life for one person could be a life of deprivation and

    suffering for another.” Rudmin & Kilbourne (1996, p. 169) surmised, “It may be

    unreasonable to strive for a decisively inclusive definition of voluntary simplicity.”

    Despite the difficulties, a definition is needed for research on Voluntary Simplicity to move forward. Twenty-four leaders in Voluntary Simplicity thought met in

    2001 to discuss the future of the movement. The members of the Simplicity Forum

    (Cahn, 2001) identified the need to “sufficiently align on the meaning of simplicity to be

    able to develop public policy recommendations and a research agenda to establish

    „simplicity‟ as a significant field.” The thoughts of several of these leaders, and others,

    are examined in this paper.

    This paper catalogues and analyzes definitions of Voluntary Simplicity from writings published from 1977 to 2001. The methodology is described first. The

    definitions follow. Then, the major themes of Voluntary Simplicity and their associated

    keywords are described. The paper ends with conclusions and recommendations for

    future research.


     The authors identified writings about the Voluntary Simplicity movement that

    were published between 1977 and 2001. Elgin and Mitchell‟s (1977) research and

    Elgin‟s (1981) subsequent book Voluntary Simplicity were influential to the movement,

    and mark the beginning of the period of analysis. Gregg‟s (1936) definition is included

    because of the impact it had on Elgin‟s work. (Other exceptions are drawn from web

    sites in 2002 but probably written earlier). Roots of modern Voluntary Simplicity

    thinking begin much earlier, and have been identified with the American

    Transcendentalists (Johnston, 2001), religious simple-livers like the Quakers and Amish

    (Shi, 1985), and Greek philosophers (Segal, 1999). Published works were identified in

    news articles, bibliographies, and on Voluntary Simplicity web sites.

     Publications included mostly books with a few journal articles and book chapters.

    The focus was on the popular press and selected articles in the marketing field. No

    attempt was made to survey the academic literature in sociology, psychology, home

    economics, ecology and conservation, or related fields. This research “quantifies” the

    major themes of Voluntary Simplicity from otherwise qualitative datapublished

    definitions. This is analogous to protocol analysis research in which the thoughts of

    consumers are quantified (Ericsson & Simon, 1980).

     First, published works were obtained and read by the researchers. Next, explicit

    definitions (or the nearest equivalent) were quoted from each publication and appear

    below. A keyword analysis was performed on the definitions. Keywords from the

    definitions were identified and listed. Similar keywords were grouped together into

    categories, which resulted in keyword mentions being assigned to major themes. Two

    people coded the data independently, and then discussed their findings to agree on a

    common set of keywords and categories. The definitions are quoted next, and these are

    followed by the results of the keyword analysis.


    The definitions are presented below with a minimum of commentary. They appear in roughly chronological order, although contemporaneous thoughts by a single

    author are grouped together.

    Gregg (1936, p. 4) stated, “Voluntary simplicity involves both inner and outer

    condition. It means singleness of purpose, sincerity and honesty within, as well as

    avoidance of exterior clutter, of many possessions irrelevant to the chief purpose of life. It means an ordering and guiding of our energy and our desires, a partial restraint in some directions in order to secure greater abundance of life in other directions. It involves a deliberate organization of life for a purpose.” “Of course, as different people have

    different purposes in life, what is relevant to the purpose of one person might not be

    relevant to the purpose of another. Yet it is easy to see that our individual lives and

    community life would be much changed if every one organized and graded and

    simplified his purposes so that one purpose would easily dominate all the others, and if

    each person then re-organized his outer life in accordance with this new arrangement of

    purposes, discarding possessions and activities irrelevant to the main purpose. The

    degree of simplification is a matter for each individual to settle for himself . . . ”

    Gregg was a major influence on Elgin & Mitchell, who said, “There seems to be

an underlying coherence to the rich diversity of expression of this (Voluntary Simplicity)

    way of life. Consequently, we have selected a skeletal list of those values, which seem to

    us to lie at the heart of this emerging way of life. These five values are the following:

    Material Simplicity, Human Scale, Self-Determination, Ecological Awareness, Personal

    Growth.” Voluntary Simplicity is “living in a way that is outwardly simple and inwardly

    rich.” They go on to add, “This way of life embraces frugality of consumption, a strong

    sense of environmental urgency, a desire to return to living and working environments

    which are of a more human scale, and an intention to realize our higher human

    potentialboth psychological and spiritual—in community with others,” (1977, p. 5). A story about Mitchell in Marketing News (1979, p. 1) stated that simplifiers “stress simplicity, frugality, conservation, and ecological soundness and lean toward items made

    via so-called appropriate technology.”

    Elgin‟s book Voluntary Simplicity influenced many recent thinkers of the movement. He wrote, “Voluntary simplicity (author‟s italics) (is) a manner of living that

    is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of life in which our most

    authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living,” (Elgin,

    [1981]1993, p. 25). Simple living “is a more demanding intention of living with balance

    in order to find a life of greater purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction,” (p. 25). “Voluntary

    simplicity fosters: A progressive refinement of the social and material (author‟s italics)

    aspects of life (and) a progressive refinement of the spiritual or consciousness aspects of

    life,” (p. 159). Elgin suggested that “There are no fixed norms that define this approach

    to living. The worldly expression of an ecological way of life is something that each

    person must discover in the context of his or her unique life circumstances,” (p. 109).

    Elgin & Mitchell‟s influence is visible on the work of sociologist Leonard-Barton,

    who wrote, “Voluntary Simplicity is defined as the degree to which an individual selects

    a life-style intended to maximize his/her direct control over daily activities and to

    minimize his/her consumption and dependency. Five basic values underlie a Voluntary

    Simplicity lifestyle: material simplicity, self-determination, ecological awareness, human

    scale, and personal growth.” These are defined as follows: “Material simplicity is non-

    consumption-oriented patterns of use; Self-determination is a desire to assume greater

    control over destiny; Ecological awareness is recognition of the interdependency of

    people and resources; Human scale is a desire for smaller-scale institutions and

    technology; Personal growth is a desire to explore and develop the inner life,” (Leonard-

    Barton, 1981, p. 244).

    Shama saw the shift to Voluntary Simplicity lifestyle as a reaction to the

    stagflation of the late 1970‟s. Shama wrote, “Simplifiers… emphasize balance between

    material and spiritual growth, and prefer material simplicity and more integrated work

    roles,” (Shama, 1981, p. 128). “Voluntary Simplicity is a lifestyle that influences the

    purchase decision and consumption patterns of those adhering to it,” (Shama, 1985, p.

    60). Shama & Wisenblit (1984) wrote, “The main goals of this lifestyle (voluntary