At this time of the year, many of us buy a lot of stuff, gifts for family and friends. Some of us also indulge in the practice of buying “one for you and one for me.” Do we really need all this stuff? Do we know the true price to our environment, society, and our own personal and financial well-being? Some consumption is necessary for life. But how much stuff is really needed? Do today’s Americans need to buy five times as much clothing as we did in 1980?
Let’s examine the impact of consumerism on the environment. Everything we purchase comes from our planet: it is farmed or grown, mined or extracted, manufactured or produced from our natural resources. Consider the T-shirt. Cotton is the most pesticide-intensive crop in the world, and the chemicals used to produce the cotton stay in the cloth and are released throughout its life. Making one T-shirt requires approximately 700 gallons of water. Producing and transporting it to the store adds about nine pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And only 15% of clothing is recycled.
Our discards add 10 million tons of waste each year, creating additional greenhouse gases in our landfills and incinerators. Is that new T-shirt worth the true cost?
The social costs are high as well. Much of the stuff we buy is grown or produced in third world countries, often at the cost of their environmental and personal health. Their living standards and life span are often far below ours due to exposure to chemicals, pollution, and unsafe working conditions as well as the diversion of resources needed for a sustainable lifestyle.
Within our country, we’ve allowed the concept of good citizenship to be redefined as being a good consumer. Our leaders tell us that we can solve world problems by buying stuff. We are so used to the identity of consumer that it has become our go-to strategy. When faced with climate change or other major issues, our reaction is too often “I’ll buy Product X instead of Product Y.” It doesn’t solve the problem.
And then consumerism gets personal: we shop to feel better about ourselves, to deal with depression, to make statements about ourselves and identity. The difficulty is that things don’t make us happy, and the new outfit doesn’t change our abilities. Next, we bring all this stuff home, and our safe space becomes cluttered. Clutter and keeping stuff organized is a struggle and a major source of home-based stress. Then the bills arrive, along with the realization that we have spent more than we can afford, more than we want given our real interests and priorities.
Let’s step back and think this through: how can we give, consume, spend money, stay within budget, and reduce stress in ways that bring us closer to our family and friends, enhance our world, and build our personal happiness? Here are some ideas:
1) Gift your time and skills. Create a gift coupon for a home-cooked meal, walking the dog, run errands, shovel the sidewalk. Give home-made salsa, hand-knitted mittens, a poem or painting, dried flowers from your garden, photos from a shared experience.
2) Gift your money, goods and time to those in need. There are many organizations which accept donations in honor or memory of someone. So buy the goat or the tree or the winter coat that others need, and indicate it is a gift in honor of your family or friend.
3) Buy experiences. Instead of items that add clutter, purchase theater tickets, museum membership, park pass, gift cards at a favorite restaurant. Keep in the mind that the best gifts are when you participate with family or friends—so plan a night out when all can attend.
4) Borrow, rent, or download instead of purchasing. Participate in our shared economy.
5) Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Recognize that the true cost is a ratio of price to use. So buy things that will last, and wear or use them often. Don’t throw away stuff. If it no longer has use or value for you, look for ways to recycle.
And, to upgrade your perspective:
1) Recognize your relative affluence and privilege. No matter how little you have, many have much less than you do. Be generous to those in real need. It will make you feel good.
2) Recognize that our society continually tells us that we need more and better and newer. We don’t. Establish your own fashion sense and life style, and don’t believe the marketing pitch that says you need to upgrade or follow the latest trend.
3) Express your identity through your spending: the causes and the makers you support. Buy local, and buy sustainable.
There are many benefits of owning fewer possessions: healthier planet, happier people, less to clean and organize, less stress, less debt, and more money and energy for our priorities.
The Ready & Resilient Hamline Midway project is an initiative of the Hamline Midway Environmental Group (HMEG) to build climate change resiliency in our community.
• The story of stuff: (2007 video that presents the issues around over-production and consumption of stuff.) http://storyofstuff.org/
• Better World Shopper: comprehensive, reliable account of the social and environmental responsibility of every company on the planet in a practical format that individuals can use in their everyday lives. http://www.betterworldshopper.com/
• The St. Paul Public Library http://www.sppl.org/
• The St. Paul Tool Library https://www.ioby.org/project/saint-paul-tool-library