Sunday, October 24, 2010

Less Stuff

Here are some thoughts on how to deal with one of the big problems with our culture - consuming too much. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, Annie Leonard does a great job of explaining the problem in The Story of Stuff. Consumption uses up non-renewable resources, fills our environment with waste (much of it toxic), and uses large amounts of energy in manufacture and shipping which in turn releases a lot of greenhouse gases.

Why do we consume so much? How did we end up characterizing ourselves as "consumers"?

If you watch TV, read newspapers or magazines, drive by billboards, or walk through a mall, you're getting inundated with marketing aimed at making you think that consuming is not only natural, but good and necessary. It's understandable that people selling stuff want you to buy more. But even our economists and governments tell us that consumption is what drives our economy and we don't dare slow down. What no one wants to think about is that if we don't slow down, if we all keep accelerating, then sooner or later we're going to crash.

Apart from the environmental issues, another reason to aim for less stuff is to be happier. Our culture tells us more stuff will make us happier. But study after study shows that's not true. Happiness has much more to do with what you do with your life, not what you have. There's a lot to be said for simplicity.

There's more to life than shopping. Shopping is not a hobby. It won't make you happy in the long run. Go for a walk. Go to the library. Go for coffee. Read a good book. Take up a real hobby. Spend time with friends or family.

When I get the urge to buy something, here are some things I ask myself:
  • Will it actually get used in the long run? Or will it just end up gathering dust, or worse, in the garbage.
  • Will it let me do things I couldn't do otherwise? (Preferably something enjoyable, useful, non-destructive.) 
  • Am I just keeping up with the Joneses or getting sucked in by advertising?
  • Is there an alternative? Can I get it from the library or digitally or online? Can I borrow or rent? I get all my music digitally rather than on physical cd's. I buy almost all my books digitally. (with the exception of books of photographs)
  • What future costs will it entail? For example, buying a car means big expenses for insurance, gas, and maintenance. Buying a pet means pet food, and vets, and responsibilities.
These questions apply just as much when you're buying gifts for other people as they do when you're buying for yourself. 

Some more suggestions:
  • Avoid ads. Get a DVR and skip the commercials. The less brainwashing you're exposed to, the easier it is to resist. I guess I should stop looking at Apple ads :-(
  • Take advantage of the natural inclination to procrastinate. Even if you decide you really do "need" something, wait till next week to get it. Maybe by then you'll change your mind.
  • Set yourself quotas - for example, one book per week, or don't replace your computer or camera more than once every two years.
  • Don't buy another if you've already got a shelf full you haven't used. In my case, don't buy more books when I've got a stack of them I haven't read yet.
  • Buy better quality items that will last longer instead of cheap disposable single-use junk.
  • Buy locally made items. Local means less shipping, often less packaging, and it supports small businesses instead of giant corporations.
  • Don't buy something because it's on sale. It doesn't matter how much money you're "saving" if you don't need the item in the first place. Of course, if you previously decided to buy something, and then you find it on sale, great.
  • Save up to buy something instead of buying it on credit. If nothing else, it avoids impulse buying.
  • Spend your money on more environmentally friendly things. Go out for a good meal. Go to a movie. Throw a party. Yes, these things have environmental costs too, but a lot less than loading up a shopping cart at Walmart.
  • When you are finished with something, avoid throwing it out or letting it sit on the shelf. Sell it or give it away. If nothing else, recycle it.
Beware of falling off the wagon. When you buy less stuff, you'll end up with more money. And in our culture, available money means only one thing - shopping! Instead, add it to your savings, or put it towards buying better quality items, or make some donations to good causes.

Note: I'm definitely not claiming to be the perfect non-consumer. I have a basement full of books. I have way too much climbing and outdoor gear. I have too many gadgets. I lust after new cameras and computers. All we can do is try!

1 comment:

  1. I recommend staying poor, that way you can't buy anything (my computer is 7 years old, camera is 4, hand-me-down laptop). The method I choose to use is pets (which were mostly free to attain) and a farm. I get enjoyment from both, they give me a reason to be around, and they both cost me so much money that I'm way to poor to spend my money on useless crap or frivolous goods. Plus I'm helping the environment by planting trees on my farm (free from SaskPower) and working to preserve a Ducks Unlimited habitat (which is currently being destroyed by the town near by).