Posts Tagged ‘green consumerism’

4 Questions to Ask Before Buying Anything

A quick update on my no shopping, no buying March experiment: things are going fairly well, though I slipped up once and bought some locally made artisan chocolates (we were the only people in the shop, and having accepted a free sample, I found there was no getting out of it graciously — not that I tried very hard). I’ve also window shopped socially twice — a craft fair with a friend, a used bookstore with Kevin. Nothing too egregious.

Mostly what I’m finding out is that not buying is a matter of attitude. Previously, when I needed anything, my first impulse would be to go out and get it. Not having that option is making me explore other possibilities before buying. I’m thinking this is a good habit to get into and may extend my experiment into April. Here are four questions that I’ve been asking myself whenever I want to buy something:

1. Do I really need it? (This question, by the way, is a lot easier to ask before you see something you desperately want, so avoiding temptation is a good precaution.)  I thought I needed a new oven mitt because the neoprene bit on mine seemed to be melting, but I do have another oven mitt and lots of pot holders. I thought I needed a super lightweight cardigan/wrap to keep mosquitoes away in Hawaii, then realized that most of my wardrobe is lightweight but long sleeved anyway. I’m getting better at telling the difference between what I want and what I need…and I realize, once again, that I don’t need much.

2. Can I make it? I cook, sew, and, er, potter. (There must be a better verb for ‘flinging mud around and shaping it into usable items.’) Between the three of those things, the answer is often yes. (And if not yes, that I can jerry-rig something that works fairly well.) Two of my favorite potter’s tools at the studio are what used to be the steel binding straps around a package and an Ikea butter knife with a bent tip, made by my teacher. What the heck am I doing buying $10 tools at Clay Planet?

3. Can I get it for free?  If I can’t make it, I might have friends who can and would be willing to swap. Or they might have it and be willing to lend or give it to me.  Then there’s always Freecycle and the library. I was tempted by a book at the used bookstore yesterday called The Concise Book of Lying, all about the ins and outs of this most interesting human phenomenon. I put it down when the brilliant thought occurred to me that I could probably borrow it from the library. The fact is, our society is brimming with free resources that we often don’t even think to draw upon.

4. How much of my life energy is it worth? This question is taken from Your Money or Your Life (join the book club going on at Min Hus if you’re curious). It makes the simple but important point that we put a lot of our lives and energy into earning money, so we’d better make sure that what we’re spending it on is worthwhile. Pottery is absolutely worthwhile to me. But a new dress that will spend most of its time in the closet? A new oven mitt? Not so much.

There are other questions, of course. Questions about the item’s impact, about my long term plans for it, about how ethically (or not) it was manufactured. All of them are worth keeping in mind, too, but these four questions are often enough for me to decide not to buy something, and everything else becomes superfluous.

If you’re cutting back on your buying, how do you do it? 

(Also, I’ve been thinking about either adding a page on this blog or starting a separate blog for my pottery. If you’re interested in keeping up with my projects, which form would you prefer? Here’s my latest…)

5 Ways to Fight a Shopping Addiction

This month, perhaps after watching the video above, I’ve gone and done something essentially un-American: I’ve declared March to be a no shopping, no buying month for me. Food and other essentials like toothpaste that allow me to function as a normal member of society are excepted. I’m not a shopaholic to begin with, and my primary vice is cruising a thrift store or two once a month, but I know I still shop for bad reasons. (Most reasons are bad reasons when I already have everything I need.)

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with shopping every now and then, but as a national pastime that is wreaking havoc on the environment, it deserves some increased attention. How much of our happiness do we bank in shopping? How do we get off this track of ever increasing consumerism?

As a solution-oriented INTJ, I carefully catalogued all the bad reasons why I shop — and what to do about them. Which of these reasons do you identify with?

Bad reason #1:  Boredom with what I currently have. A quintessentially first world confession: I get bored with my wardrobe. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that I wear solid color 3/4 sleeve tees and jeans almost every day. If I go shopping, I am likely to find a solid color 3/4 sleeve tee in a shade of green I don’t have, or with a slightly interesting neckline. If I am sufficiently bored, and it is $5 at the thrift store, I am likely to buy it.

Solutions: Swap clothes with friends or attend (or organize) a local swap meet. If I’m not up for the sociability of a swap meet, I can always dig through the back of my closet to try on what I rarely wear.

Bad reason #2: A desire to get out of the house. I’m a homebody, but every now and then, the urge to get out overcomes my essential inertia. The thrift stores are the nearest and cheapest activities, so they’re a clear temptation.

Solutions: Make a mental list of activities I enjoy more than shopping (including walking in the woods, seeing a friend, socializing shy kitties, and going to pottery) and do one of them whenever I feel tempted to go shopping. Even if they’re a little further or cost a little more, they definitely bring me more satisfaction. I need to make more conscious decisions about how to spend my time. Shopping should not be a hobby.

Bad reason #3: Dissatisfaction with some aspect of my life. Frustrating day at work? Argument with the spouse? Cat being mean to me? We’re trained to believe in consumer therapy, even though I know from real experience that shopping tends to leave me in an exhausted, indecisive, zombie-like state.

Solutions: Address the core issues instead of seeking temporary distraction. Hah! Easier said than done, of course. Back when I was living at home after college, my dad would say or do something that would make steam come out of my ears — just about every week. Instead of confronting him, I went out and bought lip balm. One tube every time he pissed me off. I’m still working through my stash, and I moved out years ago. My current dissatisfaction is mostly with my job. Instead of going shopping, I should put the time into looking for a different job.

Bad reason #4: Keeping up with the Joneses. I hate to say it, but I am ever so slightly susceptible. I have one particular friend that this happens with (it’s a two way process). We’re often interested in the same things, but once she’s gotten one (or I have), the other is much more likely to want it. This year it was sweater dresses. A couple years before that it was the Celtic Woman CDs. Before that it may have been slightly broken and ‘unadoptable’ cats. (Hello, Brie!)

Solutions: Be more conscious about how buying decisions fit in with existing needs and interests.  I ended up getting rid of the Celtic Woman CDs. They never aligned perfectly with my interests (acoustic folk music), and I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t actually like them very much. The sweater dress, on the other hand, is so comfortable and warm that I’ve been tempted to go to bed in it. It’s become one of my favorite winter wardrobe pieces.

Bad reason #5: Aspirational buying. I’m slightly ashamed to tell you how many pottery tools I have. In fact, I don’t even know the exact number. It’s a lot. I only use about five of them regularly. The others I bought for special projects, or because I thought they would do something they didn’t. For each of my hobbies, I’ve bought things based on aspirations I never actually carry out.

Solutions: Avoid ‘problem’ stores.  (Clay Planet for me, Michael’s for you?) Borrow tools from friends to test out before buying, buy only what I need for projects I have already started.

(?) Bad reason #6: Gift giving. This one, I think, I am least willing to fix. I enjoy giving presents, and I also enjoy looking for them. My gift list is short because I’m not close to many people, but I put a lot of effort into finding just the right things, and they’re usually well received.

Solutions: Switch to non-material presents like concert tickets, classes, meals out, and time spent together. Make more presents. Come to non-gift agreements with friends and family who are open to it.  When a material present is just right, compromise.

I believe shifting our time and energy away from consumerism can do a lot to make us happier and more fulfilled, and I’m putting my money where my mouth is. What are the bad reasons you shop? How do you deal with them?

Bulk Binning 101

***Update: don’t forget to label your jars. If you’re tired enough, and it’s late enough, and all your jars are unlabeled because you think you’re that good…well, you might just end up putting farina (cream of wheat) in your bread instead of whole wheat flour. Oops.***

You can shop at the bulk bins even if you don’t have a trace of an inner hippie. Trust me on this one. I don’t have a cell in my body that likes the idea of free love. But lentils, sans plastic packaging? I’ll take that. Kevin and I took the plunge into bulk binning maybe a year ago. We used to use plastic bags for our bulk foods, but the cat decided that attacking plastic bags and eating and/or rolling around in their contents was fun. So we headed to Ikea, got a bunch of old-fashioned glass storage jars, and jumped off the packaged food bandwagon.

Kind of. We still get some things that come in boxes (you can take the Life cereal out of Kevin’s cold, dead hands) and shop at Trader Joe’s from time to time, but our jars of bulk food items are slowly taking over the bottom shelf of the kitchen cart.

Buying from the bulk bins has a number of advantages for you and the planet, including less packaging waste, less spoiled food because you can buy small amounts, and lower grocery bills. It’s also fun to try new foods and recipes without committing to using up, say, a full pound of buckwheat groats or amaranth. And buying from the bulk bins tends to mean that you’re making more of your food from scratch.  It’s probably better for you than whatever you were eating before.

Here’s what I usually buy in bulk:

  • flour (all types)
  • sea salt
  • rice (all types)
  • quinoa
  • lentils
  • beans (for when I actually plan my meals in advance)
  • olive oil
  • raw almonds (sometimes)
  • nutritional yeast
  • polenta
  • farina (cream of wheat)
  • dried fruit (apricots, cranberries)
  • popcorn
  • vegetable stock
  • couscous
  • oatmeal

I didn’t switch over immediately, and there are still things that I haven’t bought in bulk that I could. Peanut butter, maple syrup, sugar, tea, and spices, among others. As I bake more of my own bread, I have a feeling I’ll be making more trips to Whole Foods for grains and seeds. (Confession: I don’t really like Whole Foods. It’s just a little too smug for my taste.) 

Getting it all home

We usually bring our empty jars to refill, eliminating the need for bags and tags. Schlepping twenty empty glass jars to the store would be a major pain. However, we don’t typically run out of more than a few things at a time. I was nervous about how bringing empty jars would work, but it’s actually very easy. Take your empty containers to the customer service desk. They’ll weigh each, write the weight on masking tape, and stick it on your jar. At checkout, the clerk weighs your filled jar and subtracts the weight of the empty jar.

Or you could bring your own reused bags (plastic or cloth) or lightweight plastic containers. It’s not the end of the world if you forget and have to take a plastic bag. Chances are, it’s still better than the fully packaged version. 

Do you buy most of your dry goods from the bulk bins? If not, what’s stopping you?

13 Reasons You Can’t Afford to Shop

Shopping is an expenditure of time, energy, and money. It’s easy to forget that all of these are limited resources, and choosing to shop is choosing not to do something else, often something more enjoyable and fulfilling.  Although shopping may not be the worst thing we can do to the planet, it’s probably the eco-sin we commit most often, with the least amount of consciousness. (Greenwashers, you’re not helping here.) 

For your benefit — and mine — I’ve compiled a list of reasons why shopping isn’t a good use of your finite time and energy. (Kevin asks me to offer the caveat that not all of these will apply to you. But I’m pretty sure at least some of them will.) Bookmark it for the next time the urge to shop strikes!

  1. Shopping actually makes you pretty tired, cranky, and/or indecisive. (You tend to forget this inconvenient truth until you’re already in the middle of it.)
  2. You have too much stuff already.
  3. You can’t remember the last time you watched clouds move across the sky, sat by the ocean and listened to the rhythm of the tides, or went for a walk in the woods.
  4. You keep meaning to call your friend/sister/brother/mother but haven’t been able to find the time.
  5. You have books full of recipes, crafts, or music you want to try and have never gotten around to.
  6. Last year’s garden never got planted.
  7. You passed on the last interesting-sounding workshop, class, or community group because you didn’t think you had the time. You probably do, if you cut out all unnecessary shopping (and the internet addiction.)
  8. It’s been months since you read a book.
  9. Your novel/screenplay/painting has been ‘in progress’ for the last ten years. You’re starting to get embarrassed whenever anyone asks how it’s going.
  10. You’ve been slacking on volunteering at your favorite non-profit, even though you love doing it.
  11. Your pet is starting to prefer your spouse because you’re so rarely at home.
  12. You’re starting to realize that you’d prefer a massage to new crap to clutter up your closets.
  13. You haven’t sat down and really spent time with your spouse/best friend in months.

In fact, there might just be two reasons to shop:

  1. None of the above applies to you.
  2. You genuinely need something.

Cutting Down on Packaging

Treehugger: 4 Radical Solutions to Packaging Waste“Recycling means you’ve failed. You’ve failed to reduce and reuse.” — Gary Hirschberg, CEO Stonyfield Farms

If recycling means failure, there’s a whole lot of fail going around at my place. The recycling bag is like the cauldron of plenty. Empty it, wait a few days, and it’s full again. True, recycling is better than tossing, but it’s still not good that we generate this much.

Here’s an abridged list of what was in the recycle bag this week:

  • Life cereal box, flattened
  • Tom’s of Maine toothpaste box, flattened (why does it need a box when it has a tube inside?)
  • Tresemme extra large conditioner plastic bottle (which took me over a year to use up and was bought pre-cosmetics safety freak out)
  • Recycled toilet paper roll, flattened
  • Plastic organic milk jug
  • Oikos plastic yogurt tub
  • Three aluminum cat food cans (rambunctious foster kitten ate a lot)
  • One ripped plastic bag that can’t be reused and came from my parents
  • This week’s grocery circulars, which I don’t look at anyway
  • Voter mail, which I looked at for approximately .5 seconds
  • Flattened cardboard mailing box
  • Last Sunday’s Chronicle newspaper

Not horrible, but clearly we could be doing better. I sat down to think about how we could reduce our recycling output and came up with this list. It doesn’t address everything in our recycle bag, but it’s a start.

  • Buy in bulk products that won’t go bad (or that you can use up before they go bad) like dish soap, laundry detergent, vinegar, kitty litter, recycled toilet paper. It’s cheaper and you’ll cut down significantly on packaging.
  • Make packaging a consideration in choosing what to buy. If it has more than one layer of packaging, look for another option. Avoid single-serving anything.
  • BYOC (bring your own container) whenever possible. Whole Foods sells shampoo, conditioner, and liquid soap in bulk, as well as milk in returnable glass jars, and a whole lot of bulk spices, grains, flours, and nuts.
  • Use less. You don’t actually need that much dish soap/shampoo/toilet paper/whatever. The longer your supplies last, the less often you’ll need to buy replacements.
  • Make more of your own food and cleaning supplies. Packaged food means, well, packaging. And making your own cleaners out of vinegar, baking soda, and lemons will cut down significantly on the number of plastic-bottled cleaning agents you buy.
  • Buy less new stuff. Not only will you cut down on consumer demand that drives manufacturing, you’ll also be spared a new onslaught of styrofoam peanuts, plastic, and cardboard.
  • Order less stuff online. Mailing anything larger than a letter requires boxes, padding, and tape. You can and should reuse packing supplies as much as possible, but reducing is always better. 
  • Reuse old newspapers as kitty litter bags. Or cancel the subscription, although I think good writers and interesting articles are worth supporting. Maybe subscribe online?

What do you think? Any other suggestions for cutting down on packaging waste?

Diagnosing My Crowded Closet

Last week, one of my fellow condo dwellers put out a box of clothing by the trash bins. I had a quick rummage through (wouldn’t you?) and discovered that the donor 1) was only a size or two bigger than I; 2) liked the same colors; 3) shopped at Target and was getting rid of essentially new clothing. Target clothing is cheap, but I’m still guessing she paid over $300 for the contents of that box.

I dragged the box upstairs and tried on everything for the heck of it. I got three tees out of it, and it was fun, but I also started thinking about how tragic our lives really are. We work long hours at jobs we don’t like or find meaningful, ruining our health and sacrificing our time, energy, and happiness. The money we make goes to buy cheap clothing, which we already have lots of. A lot of natural resources went into making that clothing, and a lot of time and energy from underpaid and unhappy third world workers. And ultimately, we didn’t even want the clothing. For the sake of having too much, too cheaply, we ruin ourselves, other people, and our planet.

But rather than just assume that we’re either crazy or ignorant (though both could well be true) I decided to experiment. On myself. So I went to the mall to rediscover the causes of my own overcrowded closet. These are the reasons I came up with.

1. Boredom/desire for new things/variety. I don’t think humans are alone in wanting novelty; Brie certainly appreciates new toys. I’m a texture junkie and a sucker for anachronistic detail: hooks and eyes, piped seams, lacing rings, interesting seam placement, gored skirts. Of course, the novelty doesn’t last. My romance with a new piece of clothing inevitably turns out to be infatuation. Solutions: clothing swaps, being ruthless about not buying — even used — things that almost fit, need to be altered, or require special care.

2. Shopping as a hobby/pastime.  Water-skiing is a hobby. Playing chess is a hobby. Painting is a hobby. Buying stuff really shouldn’t be. I suggest making a list of activities that genuinely sustain you and make you happy, and choosing something from it whenever the urge to shop ‘for fun’ comes up. In the meantime, adopt Kevin’s shopping habits: shop only when you need something, make a beeline for it in the store, buy it, and leave.

3. The desire for more of the same. I don’t know about you, but I buy the same piece of clothing over and over again. 3/4 sleeve tees in solid dark colors? I have enough to wear a different one for two weeks. I don’t know why I do this, but I do know it’s a pretty powerful compulsion. The one thing I was really tempted by today was a pair of 1930s brown pumps that fit like a dream, regardless of the facts that I have a similar pair in black and that I wear high heels approximately five times a year. And yet, I’m still fighting the urge to go back and get them. Knowing I already have something similar and recognizing this compulsion are different from not feeling it.

4. The thrill of getting a good deal. The brown pumps were $15. And they fit. If you have an odd shoe size, a weakness for anachronistic footwear, and a small budget, it becomes a pretty potent combination for unconscientious consumerism. Even if you know some factory in China is probably polluting an entire river by itself, mistreating its workforce, and otherwise acting in morally reprehensible ways, the real price of these pumps is an abstraction, whereas the price tag and the shoes themselves are in front of my face.

Yup. It’s a real problem. And I say this as a very moderate consumer who can’t quite remember the last time she bought a shirt new. Sadly, I’ve gotten to the point in my environmentalism where I don’ t think voluntary action is possibly going to be enough to save our own hides; I think we’re going to need someone or something to save us from ourselves.

100 Personal Items: Minimalism & Environmentalism

My slightly lopsided pottery

I’ve read a lot of minimalist articles lately. One of the most recent to come to my attention was a 100 personal items challenge. Pretty simple: get yourself down to under 100 personal belongings. (Easier said than done, of course.) Then I read a far more upsetting article: how to get rid of your books.

And I thought immediately, Over my cold, dead body.

I guess I’m not sufficiently evolved in my thinking to embrace minimalism. It’s not hard to see the connection between minimalism and environmentalism; I’ve been arguing all along that we need to be buying much less and centering our lives around things more satisfying than shopping. At the same time — and I speak as an unabashed sensory junkie — I really like stuff.  I think it can play a positive role in our lives. And I don’t think we necessarily need to be minimalists to lead environmentally conscious and sustainable lives. What we do need is a new attitude towards stuff.

I keep coming back to this one quote by William Morris: “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Whenever I’m out shopping, which is increasingly rare, I’m amazed at the types of things people buy. I can’t think of any way you could justify plastic inflatable Santas as either useful or beautiful. Half the time, I think we buy things just because we think we’re getting a good deal. The other half of the time, I don’t think we actually think about what we’re buying at all. We definitely don’t spend enough time thinking about the true cost of our addiction to consumerism, and I admire minimalism because it does — and rejects it.

At the same time, I’m no minimalist. Come into my house, and the first thing you’ll see is a dainty Art Nouveau style console table, with two antique barley twist candlesticks and a hand turned wooden bowl perched on top of it. Sensory junkie-ness continues throughout the house. I love the glow of oiled antique maple, the smooth coldness of burnished pottery, the smell of an Arthur Rackham book published in 1908, the dense pile of a plush peacock-blue throw. I love drinking tea out of mugs specifically chosen for the way they feel in my hands. From a sensory and aesthetic perspective, I love stuff. I love making it. I love supporting artists who make beautiful things. But I’m very picky and quite poor, and between the two of those, I don’t end up getting very much, and most of it isn’t new. 

Minimalism is one, perhaps the ideal, way to be conscious about stuff. I’m arguing that thoughtful appreciation is another. It’s about only buying things that genuinely bring beauty into my life, and it’s about buying less. It’s also about appreciating what I already have, and realizing that I don’t always need to own something to appreciate its beauty. Like everything else, it’s ultimately about consciousness.

That said, I’m also willing to admit that I’m not a perfect adherent to my own principles (who is?) and could probably do more appreciating with less stuff. I’m not ready to get down to 100 items, but getting rid of 100 items? That sounds like something I could do.

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