Academic journal article Academy of Marketing Studies Journal

Voluntary Simplicity: Definitions and Dimensions

Academic journal article Academy of Marketing Studies Journal

Voluntary Simplicity: Definitions and Dimensions

Article excerpt


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 an analysis of popular definitions of Voluntary Simplicity published from 1977 to 2001. An analysis of 142 keywords from 29 citations revealed the following 12 dimensions: The Good Life, Life Purpose, Personal Growth, Chosen Life, Self Determination, Relationships, Material Simplicity, Minimal Consumption, Role of Work, Plain Living, Ecological Awareness, and Human Scale. These dimensions define the domain of the Voluntary Simplicity lifestyle. Researchers can use the dimensions 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 "living in a way that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich" (Elgin, 1993). More and more people in affluent societies like the United States are being attracted to this lifestyle. As Voluntary Simplicity ideas diffuse into mainstream society, widespread changes in consumer preferences and behavior may result. 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.

This paper begins with a discussion of the growing importance of the Voluntary Simplicity movement, and its relevance to marketers. This is followed by a keyword analysis of definitions of Voluntary Simplicity, which includes selected definitions from the literature from 1977 to 2001. The paper ends with conclusions and recommendations for future research.


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 life-involves 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 goals-are 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.

Maniates (2002, p. 200) suggested that "no observer of the U.S. simplicity movement really knows for sure" how many people live the Voluntary Simplicity lifestyle. Nevertheless, he identified Voluntary Simplicity as a large and growing movement through estimates of the number of U.S. "converts," and by the increase in stories published by major newspapers.

Estimates of the number of simple-livers in the U.S. depends on how Voluntary Simplicity is defined, a problem that is the subject of this paper. Elgin (1981) estimated 10 million as the number of advocates of the Voluntary Simplicity lifestyle in the U.S. An oft-cited study by the Harwood Group (1995) found that about 60 million Americans (28 percent) "voluntarily reduced their income and their consumption in conscious pursuit of new personal or household priorities" between 1990 and 1995. Schor (1998) conducted a large-scale survey and concluded that about 50 million Americans (20 percent) have "permanently chosen to live on significantly less and are happy with the change" (Maniates, 2002).

The public discussion of Voluntary Simplicity moved from niche books and articles read by fervent followers in the 1980's and early 1990's to the mainstream media in the late 1990's. Maniates (2002) found increasing coverage in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Jose Mercury News, Chicago Tribune, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. …

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