From every angle, we are bombarded with messages about what we need. From in-store advertising to Instagram influencers, the message is always that you need to buy more stuff to be happy. This isn't necessarily advertising companies’ fault, or even the companies behind the ads'-- it’s a cultural norm that stems from the root of our society that tells us we need to constantly strive for more (greater profits, more shoes, more extravagant vacations, etc.). This profit mindset has lead to tremendous economic success for companies (and CEOs) that have successfully pushed this message, so what's the downside?
Companies get an edge up on their competitors by offering the most convenient options.
Everything from home delivery services to unbelievably cheap products are extra incentives for consumers to choose one company over another, and consumers definitely benefit from this trend in convenience. How easy is it to get anything you want from Amazon in two days for free shipping, or get any clothing piece from Forever 21 for under $20? Consistent consumerism is the key to economic growth-- but at what cost?
Let's start by looking at the cost of convenience in an industry like fast fashion.
Here, the norm is to provide cheaply-made, trendy clothes for consumers to purchase and then discard once a new trend becomes popular. To provide dirt cheap products, companies frequently outsource labor to countries without strict pollution regulations, meaning factories are free to pollute into the air and water systems without consequence (although similar things take place in the US). Furthermore, these factories don't have strict labor laws (or at least don't enforce them), meaning the laborers making the clothing are often underpaid and work in horrific conditions.
Furthermore, the materials used to create cheap clothing release micro-plastics into the ocean (and into our food systems) when they're washed, and when they break down in landfill they cause further harm. The practice of constantly switching out inventory to make space for new trends also means that these fast fashion stores send tons of clothes to landfill, or burn them.
Besides the issues with production and end of life, cheap clothes break down faster. This means we don't care for or value our clothes as much, we end up spending more in the end because we have to keep replacing cheap items, and we're buying into marketing schemes that tell us we need more things to be happy or successful.
Fast fashion is just one example of an industry that promotes constant consumption, but the issue is widespread.
Every single time we buy something new, we're responsible for the use of resources (water, fossil fuels, etc) that are hidden to the consumer's eye, we're giving money to a company and therefore showing support for their business practices (including their care for the environment and labor), creating demand for more items to be produced, and putting the burden on ourselves to figure out how to deal with this item responsibly at the end of its life.
This does not mean we need to stop buying things all together and suddenly; it simply means we should be more aware of what we're buying, why, and from whom, in order to make the most responsible decision for the environment, for laborers, and for society.
Take a deep breath-- you're not single-handedly killing the Earth if you love to go shopping or have a full closet.
I'm just here to remind you that you don’t need to buy more things to be happy! Here are ways to buy less, by focusing on buying second-hand, keeping old things in your life, and adjusting your expectations of what you need to be fulfilled:
- The first step to buying less is to adjust your understanding and expectations of what you need. Minimalism is a big buzz word that has come up a lot lately, but in essence all it means is that you only need to own things that you truly need or that are very important to you, without needing to constantly be buying in excess. Proponents of this lifestyle (myself included) promise that it makes you happier, neater, and of course saves you money. Read more about it here from popular minimalists, The Minimalists.
- The next step is to reuse what you already have. Every time you want something new, think about the purpose it will serve in your life, and see if there's anything you already have that can be reused to serve that same purpose. For instance, there's no need to go buy new Tupperware if you have extra glass jars or containers from food you can reuse to store food.
- If you don't already have something on hand, maybe you can DIY it! We have been making our own things for centuries, and it's only in the past few years that it's become so much more convenient to buy it from the store. Get crafty and look up ways to make your own produce bags, lip balm, hummus-- the possibilities to make it yourself are endless. This category also includes repairing. Instead of throwing away and repurchasing a shirt with a hole in it, try your hand at sewing and extend its life.
- If you're buying a gift for someone's birthday or checking off your Christmas list, think about buying experiences instead of items. A night at the movies, a massage, a nice meal, or even a donation to a charity or a day volunteering for a cause someone is passionate about speaks volumes without needing to buy any items.
- If you find that you really want to buy something, give yourself time to think about it to prevent impulse buying. Buying new items on a whim rarely leads to long-term satisfaction because we don't take the time to think about what we already have, how we'll use it, is this the best option out there, etc. Especially when it comes to big purchases, make yourself wait at least a few weeks to give yourself the opportunity to really think about the purchase before you buy.
- Once you've decided to bring something new into your life, take a look at your local Buy Nothing Facebook group. These groups exist in almost every neighborhood, and they allow people to post or search for items that they want to give to their neighbors for free. This is a great way to save money and form community!
- If something you need isn't available on Buy Nothing, try to find it second-hand. When you buy second-hand, your money doesn't go to companies who are using poor environmental or labor practices, and you're preventing clothing from being sent to the landfill, so it's a win-win! Thrift stores are a great option, but there are tons more. Check out websites like Craigslist, EBay, and Nextdoor, or ask your friends and family if they would be willing to sell or give to you. Scope out garage sales, flea markets, and estate sales for good deals and fun finds.
- At the end of the day, buying things firsthand is not the end of the world-- sometimes it's necessary for reasons of hygiene or accessibility. When you do buy first hand, focus on quality and transparency. Give your money to companies who are doing good, like companies who are reducing/eliminating their negative environmental and social impacts (check out Good On You tool to see how clothing companies rank for environmental and social issues). Buy better quality things that will last for longer, like a safety razor that lasts your whole life or a menstrual cup/reusable pads that will last at least 10 years, instead of lots of cheap disposable alternatives. Support companies that are small and local!
- While many of these tips are specific to retail, the same goes for things like food. Buy only what you need, when you need it, focus on reusing or making what you can, and buy from companies or sources that are actively working to reduce their negative environmental impact!
At the end of the day, it's true that buying things responsibly can sometimes have a higher cost, either in money (buying high-quality, sustainable, durable goods) or in time (second-hand or searching on Facebook). This means that it's not always accessible to people without the time or resources to make these choices. However, all things considered, buying things that will last a long time, reusing things you already have, and adopting a minimalist mindset will almost certainly save you money and lead to greater satisfaction with the items you choose to bring into your life. Check out this TED talk to hear more about how less stuff makes us even happier! :)