Over the last few years there has been a growing backlash against the rise of a culture based on hyper consumption. The movement towards buying and having less has grown as people have begun to realise that a. more stuff doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness, and b. that our planet doesn’t have the resources to sustain our growing levels of consumption.
There is a level of affluence and technical innovation that greatly increases our happiness and ability to lead full, productive lives – from a warm, safe home, access to food, clean water, healthcare, through to education, and access to freedom of ideas and time to discuss them with others. But research suggests that once a country and its citizens have reached a stage of development where people have an acceptable standard of living and where lack of money is no longer an issue, it seems that more money doesn’t equal more happiness.
I’m sure I can’t be the only person who during the recent Christmas holiday season, was slightly dismayed by the inevitable Boxing Day (that’s the day-after-Christmas for non-UK readers) sales adverts, accompanied by news items showing people shoving at shop doors in desperation to get in and ‘pick up a bargain’. The idea that the day after exchanging gifts, the best use of anyone’s holiday is to spend yet more money on more clothes and various other gadgets, doesn’t exactly feel cozy and celebratory. Consider the following:
- Evidence indicates that people who place a lot of importance on wealth and status are less happy than those who don’t.
- It also seems that a materialistic approach to life affects a person’s ability to form long-lasting, trusting relationships with other people, and encourages competitiveness over cooperation.
One area of shopping that many people tend to buy a lot of, especially in the sales, is clothing. But if you look at stats relating to this:
- Estimates suggest that in the UK, the average person hasn’t worn 30% of their wardrobe for over a year.
- One third of clothing discarded in the UK is going to landfill.
- The ‘fast fashion’ industry has some of the lowest pay and some truly terrible working conditions, including child labour.
For a lighter-hearted but no less factual look at the problems of fast fashion, this clip on Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is well worth a watch.
Another area where people tend to ‘splurge’ in the sales is technology – tablets, new TVs, smartphones and so on. From an ethical standpoint, this is also a pretty bad area:
- The minerals used in making mobile phones is another area that is guilty of using child labour in their mining operations.
- The competition for minerals causes conflict and war, devastating people’s lives.
- Even when we think we’re being responsible and recycling our e-waste, the waste is shipped abroad where instead of being recycled, it can instead be dumped, causing huge environmental problems.
This photo article from the Guardian shows the human scale of the e-waste we produce, and how it affects people’s lives and health.
So, if buying more doesn’t make us happy, and by buying more we are directly propping up industries that subject their workers to terrible working conditions, why do we continue to spend, spend, spend?
Well, there’s a whole number of reasons really. Habit, aspirations, a belief that more stuff equals more happiness. But if buying this desirable thing actually did bring long term happiness, why do we need to keep buying more and more? And why do so many people report feeling overwhelmed and bogged down by the amount of stuff they own?
Answer: because buying stuff for the sake of it isn’t actually going to make you happy.
This doesn’t mean that buying something that enables you you do something you want to do isn’t going to make you happy. For example, a house full of clothes you never wear, feel guilty about buying, and feel guilty that you don’t fit into yet (or any more) isn’t going to. But buying, let’s say, the perfect warm winter coat that means you can go for long walks without being cold and miserable, the perfect sports bra that means you aren’t going to give yourself backache or a black eye when you jump about (this object truly can bring great joy), or the laptop that finally means you can work remotely and not commute to an office everyday? Yep, that’s probably going to improve your life no end! But the stuff described here is a means to an end, not the end in itself.
So, for the sake of ourselves, other people, and the environment, why not make 2017 the year that you say ‘no’ to mindless consumption? Ask yourself the following questions when you’re thinking of buying something:
- What will this item enable me to do that the stuff I currently have doesn’t?
- How likely am I to be using this in 6 months, or a year?
- How long do I really think this item in itself will bring me some happiness?
- Do I actually need or even really want this, or am I just buying it out of habit?
If you’re sure that the item in question is going to make you happy, then ask:
- Who made it and where did it come from? Is there a more ethical version available?
- Can it be repaired? Is there a version for sale that can be?
- Is this something I want permanently, or could I borrow/rent this to try it out first?
- Could I buy this second hand instead?
This year, I have personally committed to buying no new clothes, with the exception of underwear, and to allow myself one second-hand purchase a month if needed. Whilst it may seem extreme, for me it’s a way to reset the mindless buying mindset and see how much I really do need.
I hope you’ll consider joining me in trying to be happier with less, and that your 2017 is full of other things instead – friends, family, cozy dinners, hugs, sunshine, long weekends. Let’s start as we mean to go on!