Most Americans know that some lifestyle changes will be necessary to live more sustainably. Doing so can be complicated: Should I be vegetarian? Vegan? Is it still okay to fly? Which brand of refillable soap uses the least plastic? Can I actually afford slow fashion?
One of the most straightforward – and cost-effective – ways to lead a more sustainable life is simply to buy less stuff. That’s why about a year ago, I decided to minimize my clothing purchases.
As simple as consuming less sounds, it’s enormously difficult. Some of the challenges are practical. Transitioning from university to a career, for instance, changed my daily apparel needs. But far more often, it was frivolous concerns that made it challenging to buy less: summer became fall, and I noticed my clothes’ stagnant color palette; my favorite sports team put out new merch; social media advertising pitched me every imaginable item of apparel.
It sometimes felt like the whole world was conspiring to get me to give in and buy. Is it just me, I began to wonder, or is there something going on here?
Buying to belong
Buying things we don’t actually need isn’t rational, but in the context of a culture of consumerism, it certainly feels like it is. Buying is how we define ourselves, how we identify and fit in with groups and, often, how we spend time together.
As social creatures in a society built around consumerism, it makes sense that we’re willing – or even eager – to buy things we don’t need and maybe can’t afford in order to be part of the group. This instinct kicks in early – American teenagers spend $63 billion annually – and is cultivated and manipulated by thousands of brands over a lifetime. Producers of apparel, vehicles, tech, cosmetics, accessories and more compete for our attention by selling their stuff not just as things to own, but as identities to embrace.
The problem is that buying things we don’t need isn’t actually good for us or the planet. The endless urge to buy has failed to make us happy and left us with an ever-growing waste problem. Americans throw out nearly five pounds of trash per person per day. If you start counting at 8:30 a.m., Americans will throw out enough plastic to fill the largest NFL stadium in the country by the time the clock strikes midnight.
One of the reasons unfettered consumerism has failed to make us happy is its massive price tag, which means most people have to work more and possibly choose a job that’s mainly about making money, not doing what they love or value. In a culture of consumerism, work for pay ranks above all other ends – including family, friends, volunteering and other social goods.
Our current cultural norms around work may be deeply rooted, but they were not inevitable. Within the last century, it was conceivable that increasing efficiency and advancing technology would mean ever more leisure and social time for the average American – more time with family and friends, more time outside. But that was not to be. Work hours have been increasing in the U.S. since the 1950s, while the American dream looks less and less like simply providing for oneself and more and more like the Kardashians and HGTV.
The work-to-spend life rhythm that rampant consumerism normalizes is ultimately self-defeating. Instead of helping us fit in, it costs us time, connection and satisfaction. We have less time for others and always feel one step away from finally being able to make the purchase that will make us happy.
Communities of conspicuous non-consumption
Consumerism – in short, the idea that having more will make your life better – has always had dissenters. In ancient times, the Buddha and the Stoics, among others, promoted the idea that material possessions can’t make people happy. Today, groups like Catholic Workers, the Peace Corps and the Amish all embrace voluntary frugality.
What stands out about each of these groups is not only their anti-consumerism tendencies, but also their exceptionally strong communities and activism on behalf of others. Members of each of these groups demonstrate that giving up the pursuit of stuff can make space and time for the pursuit of strong communities and a better world.
Studies have shown that people who intentionally consume less are happier. It makes sense that reducing the time and energy we spend on consumption – or working to afford our consumption habits – would also mean having more time for ourselves, other people and our communities.
In a culture of consumerism, conspicuous consumption – the purchases others can see and recognize – tends to be how we define ourselves and find our groups: You recognize a jersey on the street. You and a coworker bond over your favorite coffee brand. You and your friends wait for hours in a virtual queue in hopes of buying limited-edition merch from an artist you love. These points of connection can be important social building blocks – and fun. But conspicuous non-consumption can work just as well: You strike up a conversation with your neighbor about the old cars you’re both committed to running into the ground. You and a coworker bond over your attempts at visible mending. You spend time with friends by cooking a meal together at home instead of ordering takeout.
In short, instead of defining yourself in part based on the stuff you own, you can define yourself in part with the absence of stuff. And when that absence is conspicuous, instead of making you feel isolated, it should remind you that you are also part of a group – not one that the advertising industry forced upon you, but one that you choose, even when it’s hard.
My no-new-clothes commitment was ultimately only partially effective; I ended up buying a couple of new items after all. But the attempt made me reflect on how my life is shaped by the culture of consumerism. And whenever I told someone about my goal and heard about their own attempts to buy less stuff, it gave me hope that we will all slowly learn to have less space for stuff in our lives and more space for everything else.
Policy Associate, Frontier Group
Abigail is a policy associate with Frontier Group. Abigail lives in Quincy, Massachusetts, where she enjoys long walks and reading on the beach.