15 February 2012

Step 12: How to Overcome Consumerism

A full list of the Simple Living Challenge steps can be found here.

Consumerism is a myth that we will be gratified and integrated by consuming. In fact, it is a pattern of behavior that helps to destroy our environment, personal financial health, the common good of individuals and human institutions. Ironically, due to its fictitious promises, consumerism is picked up unwittingly but its effects are invariably shattering.

Approximately 2 billion people around the world belong to the consumer class - feeding on processed food, striving for bigger houses, bigger cars, higher levels of debt, and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.

According to Global Issues in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption; the poorest 20% for just 1.5%. Mind-boggling figures.
  
Today we are joined by a well-known figure in the eco spheres. Karen Lee is the captain of Team Eco Etsy, editor of Green Living Ideas and publisher of ecokaren. She is a mom to two greenagers and a wife to an accidental recycler. Karen will be speaking at a workshop for Martha Stewart's Dreamers into Doers Annual Conference on "How to green your business and save money". But today she has taken on the uncomfortable task of analyzing traditional American consumerism and helping us overcome its dominance.



American consumerism has been the way of life for most of us, most of our lives. McMansions popped up everywhere, surrounding major metropolises for as long as we can remember. We've filled them with 'stuff' and then, when we got bored with them or if they broke, we'd throw them out. Then, we'd either upgrade them for bigger and faster models or replace them with the latest and the shiniest. In an attempt to "improve" our lifestyle (according to the ads) and to keep up with the Joneses (according to the ads), we'd keep buying new stuff.

The cheaper pair of shoes
But don't blame yourself. It is not entirely your fault. Many companies entice us, no, "force" us into this absurd buying habits by producing poor quality goods that only last a few years. And you have no choice but to replace them whether you want to or not. According to Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, it is called planned obsolescence. Companies purposely produce items that are actually cheaper to replace than to repair. In fact, some things are not possible to repair. Have  you tried repairing a pair of shoes that cost $29.99? Not possible. Good quality shoes that cost $150 can be repaired. But which shoes would an average American buy? The cheaper shoes.

How did this happen? How did we become such a disposable society?
You can blame it on the Industrial Revolution. Yup. The very thing that made our lives, supposedly better, made us become worse. Back in 1800's and early 1900's, American products were made with care, craftsmanship, and with quality in mind. In addition, we had to think carefully before purchasing things with our hard earned money. And when we did buy an item, we treated it well and if it broke, we repaired it. Can you imagine the pioneers throwing out anything before trying to fix it first?

Then, along came the industrial revolution and the assembly line. The factories cranked out appliances, cars, and combustible engines. The economy boomed and America was 'living it up". We were buying up television, phones, cruising in huge sedans and we were using up oil to manufacture them like it was never going to dry up. We didn't think about if natural resources would ever be gone and we never thought about the pollution problems either. With TV in every American's living room, we were endlessly subjected to provocative commercials for everything from cars, kitchen appliances, packaged foods, and toys for kids of all ages. We had no choice but to buy, buy, and buy.

The price we have to pay
But this mass production of products for a brief, cheap, consumer's thrill cost us a higher price than we realize. The production of unnecessary excess uses non-renewal energy and creates waste that eventually just sits idling in landfills forever.

And, now, we are grappling with shortage of resources while we are living with garbage and clutter of "stuff" that we have to be encouraged to de-clutter and simplify.

But what's more disheartening is, we are not any happier. In fact, we are more stressed because we have to pay off the credit card debt, live in unimportant clutter, and think about the next new item we want to buy but can't afford. So we work harder and longer so we can afford to pay for it. The vicious cycle does not make use happy; it only perpetuates the problem.  

In all fairness, we have been a little more careful with our spending lately due to the downturn in the economy, but when the economy improves, I'm sure we will be back in big box discount stores, spending our disposable income on useless things again. 

Illustration: James Provost


How do we solve this problem of planned obsolescence?
  • Don't be an American. Imagine you have to move to a quaint little 4th floor walk up apartment in Paris and it has no storage space for anything. What would you take with you to live there? Think about what is most valuable to you and what you can't live without. Ok. you can stop daydreaming about moving to Paris now but de-clutter and simplify your living space as if you are.  
  • Fix it. When something breaks, don’t immediately think you have to replace it with something new. Instead, see if you can repair it. I know people often think it's cheaper to buy new but that's not always the case. A zipper on my daughter's favorite winter boots recently broke. She was bummed because she really liked these winter boots and was sad to think she couldn't wear it anymore. Besides, she said, "What a waste it would be if I had to throw out the boots just because of one broken zipper."  Fortunately, a shoe repairman was able to replace the zipper for $9 and she was ecstatic! A brand new pair of boots would have cost much more than that. Not only was it cheaper, but we reduced our carbon print by not buying new and also supported our local shoe repair shop. I know this was just a pair of boots but this mentality of repairing things can be applied to everything we own.
  • Find it a home. If you can't find a way to repair a broken item or is too expensive to do so, don’t just toss the old one out. I bet you can find someone who would love to take it off your hands. If not, donate it to a charity or recycle it instead.
  • Buy Quality. Before you jump to buy the first cheapest thing you come across, like furniture, stop and think about its lifespan. How long would it last? Sure, cost is an important factor in buying big ticketed items. But quality is "cheaper" in the long run since you won't be throwing it out soon after the purchase. Think about antiques and how long they've lasted. Do you think furniture made with particle board will last that long? Buying vintage that have been around a long time will not disappoint as they are made with quality. If you must buy new clothes, buy classic timeless pieces and not cheap and trendy that will 'go out of style" in a year.    
  • Buy Green. If you have to buy, buy green. Although "buying green" can translate into over consumption too, the environment or your buying habit will not be as damaging as buying conventional. Buy organic as much as possible. Buy items that were made with recycled materials as much as possible. Buy sustainable products as much as possible.  
  • Buy Handmade. Buying handmade supports locally produced industry with products that are not mass produced. Handmade products are eco-friendly since making products by hand uses less energy than operating a factory. Also, most handmade artists use smaller spaces as their workspace that don't require a large amount of energy. If anything, they require less energy because they are using hands to produce and not machines. Added bonus is that handmade artists are compassionate people who care about their art and quality of their crafts. And in general, they also care about the environment and how much impact they are leaving on the planet. Supporting handmade means supporting local businesses that care about long lasting quality.
So when I talk about American consumerism, I am not suggesting that we stop buying. I am merely asking you to change your purchasing and consumption behavior. I'm really saying we need to minimize waste by buying quality or vintage, simplify our lifestyle, and don't become victim to consumerism.

Then, we can live a happier life without worrying about the next purchase and how we are going to pay for it.

Share your experience: How about you? Are you a victim of planned obsolescence? How do you combat it?

See also: 
Step 1: Embrace Your Imperfections
Step 2: Simple Living as Men's Trait
Step 3: The Rules of Simple Home Organization
Step 4: Simple Crafting for Happy People
Step 5: Simple Scheduling and Planning Routines
Step 6: Spend More Time With the People You Love
Step 7: Spend More Time Alone
Step 8: Connect to Your Inner Self 
Step 9: How to De-Stress 
Step 10: Learn to Live With Less and Enjoy it 
Step 11: Start a Debt-Free Life
Step 12: How to Overcome Consumerism
Step 13: Declutter Your Life  
Step 14: Get Rid of Toxic Cosmetics and Reclaim Your Natural Self  
Step 15: Wean Off Plastic  
Step 16: Celebrate Your Story  
The Final Step: Gratitude 

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32 comments:

  1. Another excellent post. I love the idea of having a small living space with no room for storage. How simple life would be. (I would need my sewing machine and computer though).

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    1. From personal experience I will tell you that indeed, life gets simple and clutter-free without storage. I know that most people cannot even imagine such life, like I couldn't several years ago but here I am, living it and feeling free as a bird! Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. Excellent post with so much for all of us to think about:) Indeed, my greatest challenge is hubby, who is a pack-rat and keep/stores everything:) Though he has been getting better as the years go by...the other day he put together a huge box of his things to give away, there is hope for him yet:):)

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    1. Karen gave us food for thought today, didn't she? Your husband seems to need to read our second step of the challenge ;) Maybe you have inverted roles in your family as far as organization and simplification are concerned :)

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  3. Very interesting. I think it's especially noteworthy that one of the promises of consumerism is becoming integrated! That plays right to our need for belonging. TFS

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  4. Yeah - this is the truth. Such a great article in bringing these issues to light. My husband laughs because I call america the land of the "new and improved" - meaning that everything has to be new. I see commercials for "new and improved" deodorant and I think to myself - really? I was thinking I was just fine with my old deodorant. It is deodorant, how many brands do we need and how much improvement does it really need to have?

    Hee Hee - Brandi

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    1. Haha, the land of the "new and improved" sums it all up for me! But it holds an interesting dualism. The strive for improvement moves the civilization forward but there are areas which, after improving we find that they need to go back, just like my family made the choice of going back to baking soda shampoo despite the "new and improved" formula. I guess the reason is that most of the ideas are neither improved nor new, just claim to be...

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  5. Yes! I've been waiting for a post like this! I did a huge project about consumerism in college, and its what really kick-started my personal change. (Well, that and marrying my husband--like I've mentioned before.)

    Anyway, I'd take quality over quantity every time. I tend to wear the same few pairs of shoes over and over, so I invest in more expensive brands (usually Clarks or Steve Madden) and they last for a long time. Occasionally I'll buy a cheaper pair of shoes for a fancy occasion, and they're usually uncomfortable AND they fall apart after a few months.

    Cell phones are another example of things not designed to last. Everybody I know always has trouble with their phones towards the end of their contract--so they're forced to buy a new one every time they renew. It doesn't matter what carrier or brand. It's so irritating.

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    1. Exactly what Karen talks about in the planned obsolescence paragraph... not just phones but all technical stuff seems to be falling apart at the end of their warranty period.

      On the other hand, it is getting extremely hard for us to distinguish quality because even cheaply produced items are being sold at irrationally high prices.

      As always, thank you for your input!

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    2. I've only HAD to replace a phone once because the electronics inside got fried. Other than that I've recently 'adopted' my mom's old phone and replaced a part ($3) that the people at the phone company said all they can do it replace it! My bf found a video that showed how to replace the part (internal metal sheet-thingy) and it was super easy. Now my hand-me-down phone is good as, well, not new, but good enough!

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  6. I am a minimalist and love finding posts that encourage others to defy the consumerist lifestyle that is sold to us!

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  7. I am a minimalist and love finding posts that encourage others to defy the consumerist lifestyle that is sold to us!

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  8. Great post! I'm behind on reading the simple living series, but loving it so far!

    We find a lot of joy in living simply.

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    1. Thanks for visiting, Taryn! We have a lot to learn from you with regards to simple living!

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  9. Sonya,

    Thanks for the opportunity to post on your awesome blog.

    Long time ago, when I lived in Korea, American made products were deemed the most precious, well made, and expensive. They had a reputation of being made with quality parts that lasted a long time. It's a shame that we've come to expect to buy new gadgets and not keep anything for a long time.

    Thanks again for making us to think about simple living. It's certainly making me think about simply living.

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    1. Thank you for joining, Karen, your post added a so much to the challenge!

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  10. something I SO believe.. but DOing is harder than just believing it is the 'right' way to live.. at least I am trying and getting there. My 'hoarding' problem emerged as an avid op-shopper when I over-indulged in all the fabulous 'retro' items others were getting rid of - I believed i was being 'good' and green and eco buying my clothes, accessories and homewares at the op-shop - but in reality I was still over-indulging and majorly cluttering up my life! My mind was still in 'consumerist' mode: instead of buying one expensive (and cheaply produced) item for $100 - i would buy ten for the same price! - now what to do with it all!!???

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    1. I've often thought about that side of the story, so thank you for opening up and sharing your experience. I even mentioned my worries in my The Totally Wrong Philosophy of Reusing post earlier this year although I wrote just from observation. I appreciate your comment and judging from it, you have conquered your consumersim!

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  11. Great post and good reminders! Being frugal, I have a hard time buying the more expensive item most of the time (there is a line of course) and need to learn how to repair items, like darning a sweater that just got a hole in it instead of getting rid of it. I despise planned obsolescence; not just because of the waste, but also because I sometimes prefer the older designs that one can no longer buy. I had my last cell phone for six years, which is practically forever. Everyone was bugging me to upgrade (the cell phone company and friends). I'm also using my five year old ipod nano, despite the fact that the screen is blank all the time, because I hate the new designs. It seems such a waste to spend $200 on something that only lasts a few years.

    My fear though is that we won't be able to get society, and especially the US, to stop the work/spend/toss cycle in time. How do we get people to make a real change?

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    1. Ah, I think the bets way to get people make a real change is... to change ourselves. People learn best by example, so I wouldn't worry that much about changing others. If I make a change, my closest relatives and friends see it and the ones that are ready to appreciate it adopt it, and that is how change spreads.

      I too have strong feelings about planned obsolescence. It makes me feel like I have been mocked at but that only makes me feel twice before buying. If no one's buying the low quality products, there will not be a need for producing them.

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  12. I will admit that I used to buy the cheapest products I could find, because well... they were cheap. This was before I started to think of the impact on the environment, and ponder where all that broken junk ended up. I've learned over the years to spend more and get more. Now the stuff that I do buy is quality and should last me for many, many years. :)

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    1. In Scandinavia we have this phenomenon of selling cheaply produced items on almost the same price as better quality ones, so I have long stopped judging about the product based on the price. This makes shopping really hard but on the other hand trains your brain to be always alert :D

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  13. Karen says she's not suggesting we stop buying but I actually think we should. Over consumption of vintage, recycled, or quality products is still over consumption and has a negative impact on the environment and our lives. The bigger issue is that we each have to decide for ourselves what is of real value and how much is enough. And we need to cultivate joy and satisfaction in the non-material aspects of our lives so we don't fill up on products for temporary pleasure.

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    1. Oh, you are so right! Your comment makes me wonder though, why and when did possessions get so over-important to us as a civilization? It must have something to do with the post Industrial Revolution era, as Karen suggests. The funny thing is that we have to reinvent the wheel in that area now and will take us long years to get back to what was considered normal before.

      I believe Karen means that we shouldn't go overboard with not buying. If we have to buy, then buy quality, organic, green and local. At home, we do mend everything that can be mended (thank God for a crafty husband and a creative me) and we don't think of ourselves as the super greenies while doing it because this is the way we were brought up. Only after we see that an item is unusable do we look for buying opportunities.

      In a sense, buying is inevitable but it can be done thoughtfully and reduced to a minimum, thus transferring our attention to the joy of communication and other non-material pleasures, just as you say!

      Thanks for your comment!

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    2. Istwen: I totally agree with your statement, "we need to cultivate joy and satisfaction in the non-material aspects of our lives so we don't fill up on products for temporary pleasure." It's the main tenet to my non-consumerism philosophy.

      However, we do live in a society that requires us to buy things to survive. Clothes, for example. I recently wrote on my own blog how we would have no need for so many industries if we didn't have to wear clothes. Unfortunately, we NEED to wear clothes for obvious reasons. But we don't need to over consume. We don't need to buy every trendy clothes that come out. That's why I said, " ... change your purchasing and consumption behavior. I'm really saying we need to minimize waste by buying quality or vintage, simplify our lifestyle, and don't become victim to consumerism." <--- notice I said, "consumerism" and not even over-consumerim.

      I think we all believe in the same thing....consumerism = bad. But I'm saying, when we NEED to buy, we need to be conscientious users. Don't become consumers who consume but users who use until they are no longer usable.

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  14. I think this is my favorite "Step" so far because by consuming less, you have more time to do all the other other Steps without having to make the time! Less consumerism=less need for $=less work=more time to live simple.

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    1. You are so right! Getting rid of consumerism (which might be the hardest part actually) opens up space for what is really important for our souls.

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  15. Fantastic post! Lots of great information and tips!
    Valerie
    Everyday Inspired

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  16. We learned about the Industrial Revolution not long ago in history, and I agree...that's probably when things started going downhill. Because let's face it, as time goes on products aren't being made to last - they're bad quality so that they'll break and people will have to buy more once they break. Life before the Industrial Revolution was really just a big handmade community - everything was made with care, by hand, and made to last. I definitely love buying handmade - it so much nicer than buying factory-made products. ;) You know that a real person made it for you instead of a robot, and it'll usually last longer as well. That's what's so great about Etsy! ;) Great post, Karen! :D

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  17. this is something everyone should read.

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