Voluntary Simplicity? An Ethical Investing Perspective

Voluntary Simplicity? An Ethical Investing Perspective

By Ron Robins

A sweeping new consciousness is enveloping the developed world. Some call it ‘voluntary simplicity.′ It has enormous repercussions for whole industries, financial markets and investors. Because of their values, ethical investors are in a unique position to take advantage of this dawning new reality.

The term voluntary simplicity (VS), according to the Simple Living Network, is first thought to have been used by “Richard Gregg who, in 1936, was describing a way of life marked by a new balance between inner and outer growth.” And it is this life balance that is growing in the world today. Please note though, that this style of living is not to be compared with the ‘back to nature′ lifestyle, nor does it involve material impoverishment.

Some might argue that numerous people are being forced into VS—as the unemployed might be, for instance. There is some truth to that. Nonetheless, I believe that most of us are sensing a new frugality and desire for simplicity and personal fulfilment in our lives. We see it in almost everyone around us as well.

The exact numbers of individuals engaged in the VS lifestyle, either knowingly or unknowingly are not known. But it is apparent when looking at current consumer spending behaviour and the growth and interest in the environment and spiritual development that VS is growing fast. (For related information, see my editorial, Everyone Becoming A Cultural Creative.)

According to the Simple Living Network site, the values underlying VS are: material simplicity, human scale, self-determination, ecological awareness, and personal growth. These personal values are also often attributed to individuals of higher consciousness. Also, they generally conform to Maslow′s ‘hierarchy of needs′ where he proposes a psychology of higher human development.

So when it comes to goods and services, what do those subscribing to VS values buy and use? And therefore what industries might ethical investors want to look at to benefit from this huge trend? Let us examine these points in relation to the values espoused by VS participants as described above.

The first value: material simplicity. One interpretation would be that material objects that are important for human life are a priority for VS participants whereas those objects requiring high costs and maintenance or that might be harmful to us or our environment are shunned. For instance in housing a modest sized, easily managed home could be preferable to a big home requiring lots of housework, upkeep and money.

Also, individuals seeking material simplicity might do more walking, cycling and use public transportation when travelling. In many places today, they might participate in car-pooling rental schemes rather than owning a car directly. You can see that the industries which need to be examined from a VS perspective could include basic industries such as food, housing, transportation, recreation, and any industry helping to simplify our lives.

The next value is human scale. ‘Small is beautiful.′ Referring back to housing, the tendency of architects to look at models of European communities such as seen in homes around a central piazza, square or even a pub, are coming back. The local food movement is gaining ground too, as people question the quality, freshness and safety of their food, preferring to get it from the farmer they may know. As more people become contract employees or self-employed, they are able and prefer to work at home or in small, local office and factory environments. Thus, possible industries that need to be reviewed in this light again include housing, food (retail, restaurant, and distribution), agriculture, and everything concerning the functioning of the small home office (SHO) or factory/workshop.

Continuing down the list we have self-determination. For VS adherents, self-determination is often central their being. This could include being self-employed, growing one′s own vegetables and fruits, doing one′s own home repairs and renovations, etc. It is about the freedom to do what you want, when you want, where you want. It is also a characteristic of independence and self-reliance. From this perspective, possible industries to scrutinize are SHO office suppliers, agricultural products and services, home renovation, etc.

The values related to ecological awareness are clearer to everyone today. The American lifestyle is unsustainable and cannot become the standard for all humanity as “… average human consumption of water, forests, land, energy, and other natural resources [already] exceeds the capacity of the biologic systems that support our planet by 20 percent”. For VS participants this means minimizing their use of the planets resources by consuming less, and buying products and services that are optimally efficient and durable. Possible industries to study: natural fibre/materials, natural health and beauty, natural and organic seed companies, organic foods and herbs, everything nutrition related, alternative and preventive medicine, home renewable energy systems, home based-business services, cultural industries, educational services, home health care, self-publishing, and the water industry.

Many of the same industries cited above come into play regarding the final value for VS adherents, personal growth. Industries or areas especially interesting to research might relate to educational services and programmes, spiritual development (i.e. retreats and various services that cater to them), and cultural industries.

In this new economic era, voluntary simplicity is coming to the fore. And many industries that do not change to accommodate it will not survive. Ethical investors, with their concerns for the environment and the health of their families, their communities, and so on, are in a better position to profit from this momentous trend than more ‘conventional′ investors.

May 13, 2009

© Ron Robins 2009

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