Can Wabi-Sabi offer an antidote to mass consumption and perfectionism?

We are living in a time of mass production, consumption, and waste. The Western world is obsessed with perfection, by symmetry, and ideal proportion. Goods produced and sold must meet a certain criteria of perfection whereby each individual product is identical, immaculate, and flawless. This is a taste for beauty influenced by society’s focus on universal laws, mathematics, and a desire for the perfect and the eternal. The result, however, is that large volumes of waste are being generated purely because certain products fail to meet the aesthetic criteria to be sold. This constant physical manifestation of perfection inevitably permeates into our daily lives,  likely affecting our perceptions on flaws, and imperfections such that they are viewed in a negative light. 

In order to tackle this issue, there must be a shift of attitude with regard to our consumption habits. What if perfection was not the requirement, but in fact undesirable? Instead, we place our focus on the intrinsic and shift away from the material. The Japanese ideology of Wabi-Sabi, a philosophy of life, can provide some insight. Wabi-Sabi embraces and promotes imperfection, authenticity and transience. It teaches its adherents to be comfortable with ambiguities and contradictions, while discouraging overindulgence. 

This has implications for everything from the way consumers and retailers tackle food waste to a wider acceptance of the natural process of ageing and the way we view failures in our lives. 

Origins of Wabi-Sabi 

Wabi-sabi emerged from Zen Buddhism, wherein emphasis is placed on living a humble and unrefined life, as well as embracing nature. As the forefront of Wabi-Sabi, the tea ceremony often represents the early implementation of this philosophy. The tea ceremony is a spiritual process to seek peace and harmony. Traditionally, the same combination of objects was never used twice to ensure a unique and unmatched experience for guests. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Japan was experiencing social and economic shifts which were a considerable factor in the spawning of so many creative ideas. During the Japanese tea ceremony, there was a rebellion against the decadence and opulent nature of the ritual. Gatherings instead became infused with simple items bearing marks of age and celebrated irregularity, rough surfaces, and asymmetry in the teapots. A trickle of glaze or a carefully repaired crack on a piece of pottery is gently appreciated rather than made invisible. 

As a single idea, Wabi-Sabi fuses the feelings of gentle melancholy and bittersweet contentment, awareness of the transience of earthly things and a pleasure in simple things that bear marks of the passage of time. 

Diving more into its etymology, the term ‘Wabi’ originally meant ‘solitude’. The meaning began to evolve during the 14th century and is now characterised by humility, and seeking out the beauty in simplicity. It focuses on cultivating a state/sense of serenity by detaching from the material world, so as to elevate an individual spirituality. ‘Sabi’ originally meant ‘withered’, but now focuses on the passing of time and transience. The way that things grow and decay is celebrated as authenticity. It’s less about what we see, and more about how we see. These terms together create a beautiful harmony that the modern world should readily embrace. 

The key to liberation 

Western society’s relentless obsession with perfection inevitably influences our daily life. This may manifest itself in putting off tasks, delaying activities, or even suppressing your input in a conversation in the fear of not saying something grand and magnificent. This is a pertinent issue in modern society, with rising levels of anxiety and feelings of inferiority. Mood and anxiety disorders comprise almost 65 per cent of psychosocial disabilities worldwide, representing a significant public health challenge. 

In reality, however, we often do not impose these unrealistic standards of perfection when interacting with our fellow humans. Rather, it is the vulnerabilities and realisation that we are fallible that creates intimacy and trust in relationships. It enables us to foster forgiveness, and opportunities to heal and grow, as we accept the failures and imperfections that come with being human. Yet acknowledging this, why do we persist to act upon these double standards? Psychologists call this phenomenon the “beautiful mess effect” whereby we view other people’s honesty about their flaws, and vulnerabilities in a positive light, but embracing our own imperfections is rather problematic. 

Recent literature by psychologists explains that we ‘understand other people’s experiences abstractly, yet see our own concretely’. This may be attributed to the distance of the failures of the other person, giving a sense of perspective. We feel our own failures viscerally and blame ourselves. Bene Brown in her book ‘Daring Greatly’ succinctly writes “Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me”. Such an attitude acts as a cage and limits our freedom. Striving for perfection is limiting and oppressive, and it is crucial that we do not let this lead to a further deterioration in our society.  Embracing the imperfect will serve as liberation.  Wabi Sabi offers a transformative shift in this perfectionist mindset, whereby we begin to embrace missteps and flaws, as they feature in all our lives. Once we internalise this, we can draw lessons from perceived negative and imperfect experiences, and thrive.    

Reducing Waste and Embracing Creativity: Altering what we consume and produce

The intertwined nature of production, marketing and psychology explains why we observe a significant emphasis on perfectly manufactured goods and flawless foods. Perfection is glorified within adverts. Any advertising products that appear in the media have been meticulously airbrushed and edited. Not only does this result in the creation of unrealistic standards, but we end up in a world where resources are wasted on a daily basis. For example, the supermarket industry is responsible for a huge proportion of fruit and vegetable waste, as they do not anticipate consumers will purchase ‘wonky’ fruit and vegetables. In a world where we struggle to feed the poorest in society, food waste is not an option. Companies such as OddBox and Misfits are directly tackling this issue, providing an effective means of rescuing misshapen fruit and vegetables and allowing consumers to purchase them at reduced prices.  

The philosophy of Wabi-Sabi enables us to radically shift our attitudes towards imperfect food and products, which can encourage more progressive production and consumption habits that contribute towards the goal of reducing waste and resource depletion. Whilst we are seeing some signs of progress, the corporate sector must realise the plentiful opportunities in embracing this philosophy, and cater to this demand for ethical production. When it comes to marketing, the appetite for a more personalised approach is rising. Year on year we see increasing interest in vintage markets. Conscious millennial shoppers have been the early drivers of interest in resale, making up 33% of shoppers of secondhand goods, with boomers close behind at 31%. The online marketplace OfferUp, which sells vintage items, reported significant waves of growth in buying activity recently, including a 110% increase in searches for antiques, specifically couches and chairs. John Lagerling, CEO of Mercari’s US operations explains:

 “I think it’s a reflection of how many of us are feeling these days. Our lives are disrupted, so we’re seeking out the familiar”. Here’s to cultivating a more wholesome, meaningful and less wasteful life that is rid of perfectionism. 

An antidote to mass consumption and perfectionism

Envision a world where instead of channelling our energy into the hope of achieving perfection, we instead perceive that perfection leaves us in a state in which there is nothing left to learn, to grow and progress. What if we dismantle the consumer cycle by cherishing our old things, rather than constantly seeking out unnecessary new replacements? Instead, we shift our concept of beauty, placing value on each of our unique quirks and flaws. Not only will we be less anxious, but we will radically reduce waste and learn to love and appreciate the little things. If the notion of transience appeals to you, rekindle your love for the world of vintage aesthetics, become more in harmony with simplicity, and embrace the prospects of failures and flaws as merely an opportunity to grow. Give wabi-sabi a try.

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