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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