Fighting the “Consumerism Brain”

By Kristine Kvamme

Recently, our next door neighbor’s 15 year old garage door opener broke. They went to the store to buy a new one and discovered that garage door technology has changed a lot in the past decade. Openers now come Wi-Fi enabled. They also only come in one size – 3 buttons. The kids of the house, born and bred city children, could not understand the function of 3 buttons. “What are the other buttons for?” they asked. Well, they’re for houses with three garage stalls. “3 garage stalls?” they said. “What would you need 3 garage stalls for?”

In many ways, space and consumption are tied. It’s easier to have a smaller footprint in a population dense city. Our houses are smaller so we have less stuff. But when you really think about consumption, is it just about the amount of stuff you have? Or is it really about the amount you buy?

Every season, I go through my closet and get rid of a few more items of clothing. Sweaters that I never actually used, t-shirts that have worn out from too many washings, the skirt or dress I bought for a wedding and never wore again. I look at what’s left and, obviously, it’s still plenty. I will make it though the next season without having to spend any money. But then the catalogs begin to arrive. And, despite my personal pledge to live a green and sustainable life, I start to dream. I turn down pages, or rip out pictures to show my husband. In short, consumerism takes over my brain. And it’s not just clothing. It’s books, kitchen gadgets, Christmas decorations etc. We live in a world where spending money is equated to feeling good. It’s a very hard habit to break.

How does consuming products affect the environment? Every single thing we buy takes energy and resources to produce. 1,800 gallons of water are needed to grow the cotton for a pair of jeans and 400 gallons for one t-shirt! We can’t stop consuming altogether, of course, but we can be more thoughtful about our consumption. Because, in many ways, when we discard items and buy new ones, we’re doubling our environmental impact.

Luckily, there are lots of alternatives to the “consumerism brain”. There are clothing swaps, hand-me-downs from friends and neighbors, craigslist, thrift stores, used book sales at your local library, county-funded fix it clinics, toy and tool lending libraries. You can choose to reuse. It’s easy, cheap and it can be fun too!

Take time to think about the necessity of purchases, research and buy items that are well made and will last a long time, spend time on activities that you happy (instead of shopping), and consider sharing items with friends, family or neighbors. We share a push mower with our neighbors. We lend out our kitchen gadgets to people who only use them a few times a year. We borrow lawn tools we only need once or twice a year. It saves money and builds a better sense of community.

This fall, after I dropped off a carload of unwanted stuff at Arc Value Village, I went inside the store to do some shopping. I found items that I had been thinking about buying new after seeing them in one of those catalogs or in an on-line ad: Halloween decorations, cookie cutters, children’s books and a sweater. It felt good to save money and to choose to reuse. I pledged, again, to remember that feeling the next time I was thinking of buying something new.

Photo credit: © Andres Rodriguez / Dreamstime, provided by Flickr user Roderick Eime

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