Awash in a culture of consumerism, we buy stuff to express ourselves, fit in, and connect with others. As discussed in “Buying less stuff is good for the planet. It’s also good for us,” all that buying has consequences; our obsession with consumption is burying the planet in trash and failing to make us happy.
But what’s the alternative? On social media, being a “minimalist” seems to involve trashing what you’ve got and buying the right set of new stuff, which is still a form of consumption.
What if we focused instead on being content with what we already have? And what if, in the process of doing so, we also built communities of commitment and care – communities that helped us inoculate ourselves from the relentless churn of newness, waste, and loneliness that so often accompany consumerism?
Around the world, small groups of people are coalescing around the goal of using less stuff and making the stuff we have last longer.
From South Carolina to Washington, from a London borough to niche corners of the internet, communities seeking more sustainable patterns of consumption share knowledge, celebrate long-loved goods together, and support each other on the journey to wanting less and valuing what they have more.
Their efforts may seem far-flung and disparate, but if we zoom out, we see something else: a movement, growing from the ground up, to use less, take care of what we have better, and build our lives around something more lasting than the next trend.
Saving food, helping people
On college campuses across America, 4,000 students, alumni and business owners have banded together in the Food Recovery Network (FRN) to reduce food waste and help feed some of the 34 million Americans that face food insecurity. For example, at the University of South Carolina, members of a student-led chapter of the FRN collect perishable food from the university’s dining locations and campus events to stock an on-campus food pantry that serves students at the university.
Food rescuers are volunteers who sign up for one recovery shift per month. It may not sound like much, but their collective efforts are a win-win for their communities. Reducing food waste is good for the planet – less food wasted means less greenhouse gases emitted – but, just as importantly, everyone involved is learning to see things that many consider “waste” as a valuable and surprisingly abundant resource. Volunteer efforts like this are powered by teamwork and cooperation; they help people connect to communities and develop a sense of belonging – something Americans, especially young people, desperately need.
“I just want to be content”
Consumer society often equates a prestigious brand name or a high price tag with quality. These are imperfect indicators at best, making it hard to distinguish between well-made products that are built to last and expensive rubbish.
A community can help people learn the difference. Sharing experiences with different products and tips for making what we own last longer can reduce purchases and the amount of waste that they generate.
Styleforum is a virtual meeting place for people interested in men’s fashion and style. On the surface, it’s a very consumerist virtual space. Tucked away among the site’s many forums, however, is one popular thread that bucks that trend. The Contentedness Thread doesn’t describe itself as anti-consumerist, but its values echo those of communities of conspicuous non-consumption around the world: durability, deriving value from repeated use, and the importance of caring for things that last over trends.
One new user described his past shopping as a “never-ending cycle” of spending and waste. “How do I stop, Styleforum?” he asked. “I just want to be content.”
The thread is all about choosing items that will last, putting in the work to keep them in good shape, and celebrating with others the items you love that have lasted a long time. Users boast about the long lives of their jeans, jackets and shoes and weigh in on each other’s efforts to develop a personal style that isn’t dependent on a constant stream of new items.
“Most stuff doesn’t go out of style if you yourself really like it,” one user noted. A world full of people who own only what they actually like using would produce a lot less waste, and perhaps be a more varied and interesting world than the one we live in.
Fair warning: Like any corner of the internet dedicated to a niche interest, the Contentedness Thread can get pretty nerdy pretty fast. But don’t worry, there are less-nerdy alternatives out there for every niche.
Working together to fix things
In the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, residents gather on the last Sunday of every month for Electronic Repair Parties where they work together to repair their old phones, toasters and other electronics. Residents can meet with volunteer fixers for help or even become a trainee fixer, shadowing an experienced fixer to learn more about repairing electronics. These parties help residents avoid needing to buy new things and they bring the community together.
At Griffith University in Australia, repair “cafes” are hosted by a group of students whose aim is to teach people repair skills while strengthening their community. Anyone can visit the cafes for advice and help fixing all sorts of items, from household items to electronics to clothing. The service is totally free.
In Spokane, Washington, a similar group hosts Mend-It Cafes where locals meet to repair old clothes with help from mending experts. And in Boston, bike “kitchens” bring cycling enthusiasts together to repair their bikes with shared tools and help from volunteers.
Shifting away from consumerism for good
What all these groups have in common isn’t just practical results – fewer new purchases and less waste in landfills – but also their values. Changing behavior can help reduce the negative impacts of overconsumption in the short term, but a shift in values is necessary to sustain a movement for the long term. If what we really want is not just less consumption at this moment but a culture that is less obsessed with consumption in a lasting way, we must replace trendiness with longevity, artificial desire with contentment, and waste with care.
And let’s be real: Most of us are going to need help to do it. Modern culture is good at making one feel like an outcast for not having the latest thing. Building communities around thrift, repair and care can help us reinforce our sense of what matters and serve as an invitation for others to join in.
Changing the values of an entire culture is difficult and slow, but it always starts with small communities doing the right thing in some small way. The communities springing up around the world to provide alternatives to consumerism are a clear sign that we’re on the right track.
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.