Most of what we buy we don’t need, but the culture of consumerism is so ingrained that we believe we do, or, at least, that we deserve to have what we want. Retailers, manufacturers and their advertising agencies tell us so. But is it necessary to become a nonconsumer?
The evidence that humanity is suffocating its home planet is mounting; biodiversity loss, global heating, plastic pollution, all directly attributable to the way humans live. Or, more precisely, the way some humans live; those in affluent societies with expendable incomes.
When we buy a product – any product – we become responsible for the destruction of the natural environment, the waste and the carbon emissions embodied by that item; in the extraction of raw materials, in the transportation of those materials to the plant, in manufacture, in packaging, shipping or airfreighting and overland transfer, in boxing, and storing and displaying for sale. And only then, any emissions created by the use of that item.
The production of consumer goods for export contributes at least 22 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are usually accounted for on the basis of domestic production. When consumption-based emissions (adjusted for trade) are taken into consideration it is clear that the tab for rich countries emissions is often picked up by the developing world. Three of the world’s biggest polluters, China, India and Russia, produce more CO2 for goods they export than for goods they import.
While seventy per cent of all carbon emissions can be traced back to just one hundred fossil fuel companies, as Richard Heede, of the Climate Accountability Institute, states: “To be clear, it’s the consumers that actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide.”
When we think about our use of fossil fuels we have to recognise our indirect use, rather than just what we put in our car, or use in our home.
In buying imported consumer goods, we are still creating a problem but allowing it to happen elsewhere. Imported products are not included in the carbon emissions of the importing country. However, the fact that the carbon has already been released in getting that product to the shop we buy it from does not absolve us from responsibility. Consumer goods would not be produced if there was no market for them. We are the market. We are the problem. Until we recognise this cold, hard fact, we will never get a grip on climate chaos.
It is a tough and unpalatable message which cuts through decades of marketing manipulation and corporate propaganda. All these products which we now consider ‘necessary’, far from enabling us to live a better life, are destroying our life support system, the Earth.
Collectively, humans can be a stubborn, myopic species. We do not want to change our way of life until death stares us in the face. But death is staring us in the face. Fires, floods, soil depletion, desertification, species loss; Mother Earth has a gun to our heads but we choose to look the other way, eyes wide shut.
No-one likes to feel that stopping climate chaos should so seriously alter their lifestyle that they have to retreat from the familiar and comforting world of ‘buying stuff’. It is understandable, if not grounded in reality.
‘Buying stuff’ is a preoccupation, whether we realise it or not. Everything is commodified. Happiness can be bought for cheap. When we feel a bit low, we can find a whosit or whatsit that will make us feel good. When something in our house doesn’t work, we can buy a new one. And when we want to show someone we care, we can buy them something; maybe lots of somethings.
Perhaps, instead of a culture of consumerism, we need a new culture of nonconsumerism. If we feel down, we could make ourselves feel better by giving something away to someone less fortunate than ourselves. If something breaks, we could see if we could fix it, or go without it. If we want to show someone we care, we could recognise that our combined future depends on us buying less, and give them a hug, or a laugh, or an hour of our undivided attention.
In Sweden, the Flysgskam, or ‘flight shame’ movement, is gaining traction. Less focussed on actually shaming people who use air travel to get around, it is underpinned by taking a conscious approach to transport. Flying is often the cheapest and quickest method for getting to some places, especially for a holiday from work, but flysgskam ensures that other options are always considered first, thus putting environmental impact at the forefront of the discussion. The same is needed for ALL purchases.
Some products are marketed on their ethical or eco-friendly credentials. They may be locally made, from sustainably-sourced materials, with plastic-free, recyclable or compostable packaging. They usually command a higher price and give the consumer the satisfaction of feeling that they have considered the environment when making their purchase. But can any item that we bring into our lives that we do not really need be called sustainable?
Natural resources are precious and finite. Wood, cotton, clay, natural oils, metals and stone would all be better left in the ground or on the plant than in our homes if we don’t really need them. They all use further resources for their transformation into something ‘consumer friendly’. We humans have an obsession with owning a part of nature’s beauty. Wouldn’t it be better to enjoy it in situ?
This is not some sort of new-age asceticism. The damage we have wrought on our planet is extreme and unprecedented. Our response to it should be likewise. Consumer culture (ie buying more than we need) is a major driver of that damage. Humans in rich countries have lost all perspective about what we need for a happy and fulfilling life. The consumer ‘lifestyle’ has become normalised and the messages of consumerism endemic.
What do we need for a good life?
If we have our basic needs met to the point that we are reasonably comfortable, ie. we have a warm (or cool, depending on the outside temperature) shelter and a decent bed to sleep in, we have enough clothing to keep us warm and protect our bodies, we have healthy, sustaining food to eat, and safe drinking water, we have more than the majority of the world’s population and should never take that for granted.
Add to that the ability to access medical care, gain information about the world and communicate with people where-ever they are, and a decent public transport system to get around our locality, and we are truly fortunate. If we have expendable income beyond this, we should consider giving it to those in need, or perhaps furthering our understanding of the world through low-impact travel. Not shopping.
For the sake of our planet, we need to stop identifying ourselves by what we own and instead concentrate on what we do, the people we associate with, the good causes we support and the way we spend our time.
Is it all about personal responsibility?
Of course, there are other things we can do to work towards alleviating the climate crisis. We can hold our governments to account over their environmental records and future policies, we can sign petitions, lobby our members of parliament, disseminate relevant information via social media and in our networks, support environmental initiatives locally and nationally, boycott polluting and wasteful corporations, join political parties and organisations that work tirelessly for positive change, and ultimately use our vote at the ballot box.
But the changes we all make in our everyday lives are crucial. Recycling, insulating our homes, using green energy suppliers, eating less or no meat, and reducing our reliance on plastics and cars are all important, but we must also consider the embodied energy of EVERY item we buy. I can only think of one product in my home that includes an actual figure for the carbon emissions of its production on its packaging. If more companies took responsibility for providing customers with this valuable information, they could make informed choices in this regard.
Becoming a nonconsumer
It is all a matter of degrees. I did not become a vegan or get rid of my car overnight, but by making gradual, small steps in the right direction we begin to recognise the value of changing our habits.
For many years, I have been considering how I shop and now would never purchase anything new without asking myself if I truly need it or can do without it. It is important to give ourselves time to think this through. Most often, I find that the item isn’t really necessary. If it is, can I borrow it or buy it second-hand? These days, very few purchases make it through this rigorous filtering process.
As a family of three, aside from food, we buy very little, new or used. People often ask how we can manage on one income and find spare cash for travel. The answer is that our regular outgoings are small.
For the whole of 2019, for example, we have replaced a few worn-out items of clothing (some new, some second-hand) and shoes, my son has bought himself a couple of small toys and a book and my partner has bought a few comic books for his collection. We have bought nothing else. I do not believe that our happy and fulfilling lives could have been enhanced by any further purchases.
What is a nonconsumer Christmas?
The hardest time to explain the choice not buy stuff is at Christmas. Last year, my partner and I decided to have a ‘nonconsumer’ festive period. In lieu of presents, wrapping paper, cards, stamps and decorations, we made donations to a number of charitable causes and organisations. We asked our family to respectfully accept our wishes and do likewise.
Morally and ethically, we felt we could not keep participating in a faux religious festival that has essentially become a shopping free-for-all. The gifts we really want are peace, love, and a beautiful, natural and abundant world for us all to live in. We wanted this to be our gift to the next generation of our family, and other families around the world. Buying stuff will not create, maintain or ensure any of these things.
Gifts do not equate to love and, while they may bring momentary happiness for the recipient, they will not ensure the long-term happiness of our species. Instead, we gave our money away, mindful of the family and friends in whose names we made the donations. It felt like the most loving, meaningful, appropriate and joyful thing to do. We don’t regret our decision for a second.
One of the hardest things to rationalise at Christmas is the social and cultural pressure to give gifts to children. To not give is the greatest taboo. Many children have expectations and a list of items they aspire to own. But our decisions to buy items now impacts the planet and, by extension, the health and happiness of our children in the future.
Over to you..
Nonconsumerism is not about buying nothing. We could not live in developed countries without participating in the consumer economy to a small extent. But it IS about thinking carefully whether each and every purchase is truly necessary for a reasonably comfortable life. It IS about taking an ethical stance, not about what to buy, but about whether to buy. It IS about direct action and making the choice not to buy an act of resistance against the dominant consumer culture.
Please join us. Nothing will change unless we do.
Do you agree? Are you working towards nonconsumerism, or would you like to? I would love to hear from you. Please comment below.