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Don’t call me a “consumer.” I prefer experiential living.

By Sustainability Office on August 30, 2013

21ba8bbArticle submitted by Kathryn Bacher ’14

I do not like to shop. I’ve never understood the concept of browsing and rarely enter a store unless I know it has something that I need. If my friends convince me to come along, I am the one sitting on the nearest couch or hurrying everyone else along with their purchases. According to the New York Times, it is estimated that the average American is inundated with about 5,000 advertising and promotional messages in a single day. Despite my exposure, I like to think I am immune to the advertising that bombards us and encourages over-consumption. However, many defend shopping on the basis that it is therapeutic or a recreational activity, and is seemingly harmless if one has enough money to spend. Even political systems endorse shopping since consumption is the largest component of gross domestic product (GDP), which measures a country’s standard of living. When consumption decreases, countries are often said to be in an economic slump or recession.

On average, a single American consumes as much total energy output as 2 Japanese, 6 Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, 128 Bangladeshis, 307 Tanzanians, or 370 Ethiopians (US Census Bureau 2006). Why? One reason is that we spend money on items that give us instant material gratification. However, once the fleeting excitement fades, empirical studies show that high consumption has little correlation with feelings of overall satisfaction or happiness. In a way, materialism breeds discontentment and only distracts us from the collective values and relationships that we should treasure.

Conversely, over-consumption is highly correlated with environmental degradation. Consumption requires a lot of resources to mine, manufacture, package, and transport the final product. It is estimated that the average product we consume contains only about 5% of the resources and energy that went into manufacturing and transporting it. The other 95% is waste. Reconsidering the stuff you eye and buy but rarely need could lead to a healthier planet and perhaps a happier you.

The simplest way to reduce waste is to recognize the difference between short-term pleasure and long-term enjoyment. Most material items can only provide short-term pleasure whereas skills, knowledge, relationships, and experiences will always be with you. Spending your time and money on activities that use fewer resources and have spiritual and physical benefits like playing a sport or instrument, hiking, meditating, gardening, reading, or spending time with family and friends can help reduce your carbon footprint while helping you to live a more fulfilled life.

Nonetheless, it may be impossible to completely eliminate shopping for non-essential items from your life, so I recommend using a 30-day shopping list. If you decide you really want to buy something, put it on a list and if you still want it 30 days later then go buy it. The waiting period can help you determine whether you really want or need the item. Make sure to first look for items on exchange websites like eBay or Craigslist, but refrain from the dangers of online shopping with its large carbon footprint from the packaging and transportation required. When you do need to go to a store, try to go alone making it more of an errand than a social activity.

So don’t let the marketing and advertising efforts of our society manipulate you, influence how you spend your hard-earned money, or compromise your overall happiness. Recognize that the best experiences in life are cheap or even free and often do not degrade our environment. Think about your life thus far and whether your most memorable moments and experiences have come from material items or non-material activities, and you too will most likely see the lasting benefits of the latter.

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