Back in her high school days, when idealism was all the rage, Marissa Michalkiewicz would sit around with her friends in the Appleton East commons and explain that she would make her mark on the world by getting degrees in business and environmental science and collaborating them … somehow.
And, as she said this, then looked across the table, she was met by a cascade of furrowed brows.
“They would look at me,’’ said Marissa, “And say, ‘Oh, God. What are you going to do with that?’”
Never lacking for confidence, the three-sport standout was quick with an answer.
“It’ll make sense one day,’’ she assured them.
Now 10 years later, it does make sense.
“It makes complete sense,’’ Marissa said.
In many respects Marissa was ahead of her time in seeking to adopt a lifestyle of sustainability combined with a minimalistic approach to consumerism. While it may be hard to determine if it’s a growing trend, a movement, or is something more temporary, it nonetheless is a way of life more and more people around the world have begun to adopt, especially in light of the year-long COVID-19 pandemic.
“So the definition of minimalism, according to me, is that minimalism is a paradigm and a philosophy of life that can be leveraged to achieve a goal,’’ said Dr. Aniruddha Pangarkar, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay whose research on this topic was published in the Journal of Business Research, an academic journal.
“And that goal is leading an uncluttered, simplistic and congenial life in the pursuit of happiness and free from any kinds of tensions or worries. So minimalism focuses on owning less, reducing excessive consumption and improving the quality of life by not indulging in consumerism. And minimalism basically highlights subjective well-being, happiness and increased quality of life.”
The idea of minimalism is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Pursuing sustainability, waste reduction, recycling, decluttering your home, contributing to causes, donating to charities, reducing debt, engaging in healthy pursuits or forms of self-improvement all fit under this rather large umbrella.
“It’s more like an awakening,’’ said Aniruddha. “You’ve been hit so hard. Because of various factors, job loss, finances dwindling, someone close to you dying; those kinds of things are very awakening. It’s like a fresh life for them. People want to rethink. People want more happiness and more of a sense of purpose in life.’’
Ask Marissa Michalkiewicz about the goals of her job and she gives you an answer you don’t hear every day.
“Make environmentalism entertaining or to make sustainability sexy,’’ she said.
Marissa actually has two jobs. She owns her own business -- Giveadaam Ventures, LLC -- and also works full time at Outagamie County Recycling & Solid Waste.
“I always joke. I adore my parents and they’re fabulous in everything they do, but we weren’t a family of tree huggers,’’ she said. “So, I don’t know where my desire to dive into sustainability and learn all about the field came from because it’s not like I was taught that at home.
“But dealing with minimalism and buying products to last, that comes from my parents and their parents’ generation. To me, that concept is not anything new. We didn’t frivolously spend our money. Our parents taught us how to be super frugal and use products until the end of their life. So that’s maybe how I got stemmed into resource management.’’
Marissa began working for the county full time earlier this year and, yes, she’s busy.
“I adore it,’’ she said. “It’s a lot of fun being able to educate people on how to dispose of their waste properly and how to consume less, but also when I leave here -- I just enjoy work I guess -- but I will have a couple of meetings after I get done with work. My weekends are usually full of doing things that pertain to my business. It all kind of blends together because the overarching goal is sustainability. “That’s how I kind of get away with it. I also don’t have children and am not married to anyone, so I have time to burn.’’
The idea for her business came from walking around the UWGB campus and becoming frustrated by the lack of student housing.
“But, for some reason, I just loved the whole build homes to last and energy efficiency and save money there,” she said. “So I tied those concepts together and said, ‘OK, I’m going to introduce housing in the Green Bay area for college students, or young professionals, and I’m going to utilize it as an affordable housing option, but also to teach them about energy-efficient design and sustainable construction.’’’
She’s about to embark on construction of her first home, which will be similar, yet very dissimilar, to the average home.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a house, but you just do several things differently to build them to last, if that makes sense,’’ said Marissa. “Different insulation, how you orient your homes; all sorts of fun, nerdy science. And once these houses are going, it’s educating them about sustainability but also bringing the community to them.”
Hannah remembers sitting around with her husband AJ, along with friends and family, and hearing the silence, followed by the blank stares.
That was perfectly fine. The De Pere family’s interest in minimalism was fueled by a Netflix special, and it was at that point they took concrete steps to change the way they lived. But they also realized it wasn’t for everyone. So to engage with like-minded folks, they started their own podcast, The Wisconsin Homestead, where they’ve connected with people across the United States. They also have an accompanying Instagram account.
“So we’ve kind of stepped back a little bit and that’s why the podcast is so great,’’ said Hannah. “It lets us have our outlet to put out our feelings and thoughts, and if you want to tune in you can, and if you want to talk about it with us, yeah, reach out. We love talking about this, but then we don’t feel in so people’s faces if they really don’t want to talk about.”
From Hannah’s viewpoint, the changes they’ve made have delivered exactly the kind of result Dr. Pangarkar said it would.
“Oh my gosh, I feel like it’s so much better,’’ she said. “Clutter, I didn’t realize it, but clutter just gave me anxiety. Sitting in my living room and seeing toys everywhere -- we still have toys -- seeing toys everywhere, and books everywhere, and things just not looking nice, just made me feel anxious and so, now that I’ve become more minimalistic and have less things sitting around and I just feel way more at peace when I’m in the living room, or my room, or my son’s room; the tidiness makes me feel very calm.’’
Hannah said the process was slow but steady, at first getting rid of one item per day, then two, then going through each room, then all their clothes. They’ve also paid off their student loans, and one day hope to take the money they’re saving and purchase a larger parcel of land and expand on their homesteading.
“I think it requires a lot of soul searching and really thinking about what makes you happy in a lasting way,’’ said Hannah. “Minimalism, it doesn’t necessarily have to be, to me, walking into someone’s house and seeing nothing anywhere. I just believe it’s just thinking more critically about what you are spending your money on and what makes you truly happy and everything in your home having a purpose. Whether it’s useful or decorative, but if it makes you really happy, keep it; but just kind of letting go of the notion that you need these physical things to be happy. That’s kind of my definition of it.’’
Of course, the question is: Does this trend continue, or will people revert to their old ways once the pandemic subsides and returning to life as we knew it is a viable option?
“I think it will be a mixture of both,’’ said Marissa. “You’ll definitely have those that will go back to their regular routines because now you see the shelves are full again and our supply chains are becoming more reliable like they were prior to the pandemic.
“But then, you have the others who through this process, it rocked their world, and it did mine, too. But it just solidified my beliefs in these practices. But I truly hope that moving forward, people will understand that these events could happen again … and going forward, people are more prepared and mindful of how they can switch up their routines, so things like this, and unforeseen events won’t be so hard-hitting on their lifestyle.
“And that’s the core of sustainability, trying to live within your means so that you can sustain the next generation without depleting your natural resources. So, I truly hope that’s what people are buying in to.’’
While there are many tentacles to the idea of minimalism and sustainability, and potentially many positive repercussions, the central idea to it all may be the most important.
“Consumers want to feel they contribute to the lives of others,’’ said Aniruddha. “It’s just not just about I, me and myself, it’s also about others around me. Consumers have that awakening, that they are part of society. So, how do I contribute to society? How do I contribute to others around me? How do I contribute to the world? So they reach out, because they want to make sure somebody’s life was affected in a positive manner.’’
It’s an idea worth recycling.
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