Grappling with consumerism
May 18, 2010 12:04 PM   Subscribe

What are specific and attainable things I can do to lessen my participation in the consumerist aspect of our world? Related, how can I justify the degree of 'necessary' participation?

An oft cited phrase regarding capitalism is "vote with your wallet". I find that people idly say "well you can vote with your wallet" and then repeatedly, consistently vote "yes, I would like to buy what you are selling!"

I want to vote "no, no thank you" more than I currently do. I'm not looking to leave society, move to the woods and live off the grid -- I am looking to buy less crap, and support fewer crap companies promoting crap mindsets in the interest of selling crap. What are specific things I can do to lessen my participation in consumerism, given that I still need to function as a 'normal' person in 'normal' society? An example of the type of suggestion I'm looking for is: "not buy a fancy, shiny, smart-phone and instead use a basic, cheap cellphone".

Building on that example, I'm not sure that I am comfortable living without a cellphone due to it's value in emergencies -- on the other hand, I'm not really ethically okay supporting the telecom industry -- how can I reconcile my desire to opt-out, with my practical needs? I understand I need to reach a compromise between my ideology and the convenience/practicality -- how do you find this balance point in your lives?

Apologies if this is a bit vague, it's not a straightforward subject and not necessarily easy to grapple with. :) I'd be appreciative just to hear others' views on the subject.
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I cannot answer your larger question and have some doubts about its premises, but all cell phones in the United States (you don't state your location) must be able to dial 911 even if they are not associated with a cellphone plan or are out of minutes.
posted by proj at 12:11 PM on May 18, 2010

There are two AskMe threads that I think are good intros to this topic

- Cutting Costs without Feeling the Pinch
- What Else Can I Stop Doing

Both of these have a lot of people giving advice from the practical "quit paying for cable and watch Hulu instead" to the more extreme "steal ketchup from McD's" and you can sort of choose how far you want to go along that spectrum. The thing about the voting with your wallet idea, not that I don't think it's a good starting point, is that there's not the equivalent anti-vote in most cases. Sure if you don't go to the local coffee shop and convince your friends to all not go either, that may make a difference, but it won't if the local is a Starbucks [usually] so you have to separate the two issues

- I want to be less of a consumer
- I want to "send a message" about not liking the consumer offerings

The two are not necessarily the same. I'm someone who lives a little on the edge of this and sort of for the same reasons you're looking at. I don't like crappy megacorporation politics and the impact it has on society. However, I think I do more good for the world by being a good example than I do by not spending my #1.39 at Wal-Mart. So sometimes you wind up sending a better message by actually buying, but spending smarter. Supporting local businesses and farms and producers. It can sometimes [usually] cost more but that money stays in your community. So, again, you need to see where you fall on the spectrum. If you're doing this because you're truly broke you'll go more one way. If you're doing it because you're trying to keep small businesses alive, you sort of have to spend money there.

Obviously this is my personal approach but you asked how people balance. For me now that I get paid more as opposed to five years ago, I spend more, but I choose more how I spend. So, some of my choices...

- shop for most food at the farm stand, try to cook with mostly whole foods types of things and eat at local non-chain restaurants. If I were hardcore about this, to my mind, I'd go vegetarian and not eat out.
- use public transportation as much as possible, even when it's somewhat inconvenient, especially when going to the airport or in other cities when I'm there for work. If I were really hardcore I'd drive much less, travel much less and maybe even ditch my car
- buy more fashion-neutral clothes that last long, opt for second-hand when possible, try to repair stuff when possible. I do spend good money on good shoes. If I were really hardcore I'd repair or reuse all my clothes and have even fewer pairs of shoes and outfits than I do now. Maybe even make my own clothes.
- I don't have a TV, I rarely go to the movies, I use the library, I write a lot of letters, I have dinner with friends often. I also have a fancy laptop and a smart phone. I also drive a 15 year old car.

The big deal is to make the choices that you are comfortable with and be able to live out that life without either shame or being a relentless scold about it to other people. Everyone's got their balance they try to strike. I think choosing your path and then making it look like one of the funnest most awesome paths is the way to go with this sort of thing. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 12:15 PM on May 18, 2010 [25 favorites]

Think before you buy. What will this item do for your life?

Buy things that last longer, by avoiding single-serving products and buying products that are built to last (and possibly be repaired).

With the example of phones: first, how do you communicate with people in your life? You're supporting telecom companies one way or another, either through landlines or cell phones, or even the internet, or you're paying a cable provider, who may not be much better than telecoms. Some "normal" conveniences are run by major corporations any way you go, especially if you're not in a major metropolitan area, where there is the market to support small competitors. Otherwise, there are plenty of pay-as-you-go phones in the US, which are basic and available as you need them. Not ideal as a primary mode of communication as they'll cost a lot more than a standard phone plan, but great if you just want an as-needed communication device.

Depending on your concerns with buying things, might be helpful. The site profiles companies for their worker rights, human rights, political influence, environmental actions and business ethics, but it's a wiki-type site, built by users, so it's not 100% complete and up-to-date (or might not be completely accurate).
posted by filthy light thief at 12:19 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

You can decide not to buy anything that is crap -- that is, avoid the many products that have no real purpose or that are poorly built and intentionally trash. A good kitchen knife coupled with some good knife skills will replace almost every kitchen gadget out there and will last longer than one lifetime. Payless shoes are pretty cheap but they also wear out quickly -- some real leather shoes with replaceable soles can be repaired and can last decades. This approach involves spending more up front for things that 1) you absolutely need and that 2)will last a very long time.

This doesn't work so well with cell phones and computer technology, because there isn't really anything in these categories designed to last a long time. That said, I know someone who has been using the same cell phone since the late 90s -- it's held together with tape, but it gets the job done. These industries want to make you want something new every year or so, but that doesn't mean you actually have to buy a new phone that often.
posted by cubby at 12:23 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Buy second-hand, this includes clothes, cars, furniture, books, household goods. Try to live a clutter-free life and give away anything and everything that you don't need/use. Buy locally whenever possible, including food and art. Repair instead of replace. Do that yourself when possible. Ride your bike whenever you can. Educate yourself by actually attending your lawmakers' meetings so you will know what you're voting for. Volunteer. Actively participate in your community by attending and supporting local activities. Support your local schools.
posted by raisingsand at 12:28 PM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

To counter the notion that computers don't last long: demands upon computers are not really increasing, so unless you want to do graphics heavy work (video rendering or playing the newest video games), a 5 year old computer would be fine today. If you are looking for a different computer and you don't need it to travel with you, get a desktop model which can be repaired with ease, vs a laptop which needs everything to fit in a confined space and could require more skill in repairing (you could repair your own desktop with minimal guidance).

Buy used - embrace thrift stores and garage sales.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:30 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Virtually my entire wardrobe, and most of my household goods, are secondhand. This has the side benefit of costing much less than it would if I bought retail, so that when I do need to buy something "new" (say, underwear) I can afford to patronize locally owned businesses or to seek out items made by companies whose ethics I admire.

Last year I would say roughly half of our food came from a local farm. Since we recently moved I have yet to explore the local CSA farms and farmer's markets, so right now I choose to shop for food at either a locally-owned grocer or at the local co-op, and I actively seek locally produced foods where practical and possible. We prefer restaurants that are locally owned and particularly those that also source their foods thoughtfully and locally--which means we go out less, because it costs more, but we enjoy it more and it supports our community more.

These are the types of thing that to me, are small ways that my family approaches consumption in a thoughtful manner. I am somewhat at peace with the idea that sometimes I will have to make a transaction that, after thought, needs to be made even though it isn't perfect.

Perhaps there is a company out there offering pay-as-you-go phones whose ethics you can live with. That would allow you at least the knowledge that you are only paying for the amount of service you actually need, and not just spitting out seventy dollars a month whether you need it or not.
posted by padraigin at 12:30 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

This NYT article on the subject will probably be of interest to you.
posted by jgirl at 12:31 PM on May 18, 2010

These two articles (both via utne) were very helpful to me:

Disposing with Disposability
Slow Consumption: Heirloom Design
posted by jquinby at 12:36 PM on May 18, 2010

I've always liked what Morgan Hite had to say about this problem: she argues that we should take care of what we have, because although it may be easier to replace anything that wears out or breaks and "the seemingly endless supply" of things "suggests that individual objects have little value," you can live more simply by being "what the philosopher Wendell Berry calls 'a true materialist.' Build things of quality, mend what you have and throw away as little as possible."
posted by colfax at 12:52 PM on May 18, 2010

I recently read a very interesting book called The Rebel Sell, which among other things touches on this problem.

One of the points the authors make is that if you spend less, but save the surplus, then what happens is your savings are lent (as bank deposits recycled into lending) to other people, who then... spend them.

If you wish genuinely to reduce consumption as a world phenomenon, you should burn your savings in the manner of the K Foundation, or work less.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:08 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's my not so straightforward answer to a not so straightforward question:

If you haven't already, cancel all of your magazine subscriptions. Magazines are basically advertising circulars that you pay for. While you're at it, cancel all of your catalogs and get off of junk mail lists.

I try to practice an opt-out, vote with my wallet lifestyle where it's practical. I try not to spend my money at places and on products that I believe are doing harm to our society, but again, practicality is an issue. For example: I have a smartphone. It keeps me from getting lost and makes me, as a woman who often travels alone, feel a little less vulnerable. I did not, however, buy the one made by the company whose marketing tactics offend me, no matter how attractive it may have been.

Other things I do are pretty much in line with what Jessamyn posted: my car is 11 years old, my clothes are second-hand save for shoes and underthings, I choose local/organic/sustainable where it makes sense to me.
posted by chez shoes at 1:12 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The main reason people spend so much money on crap because they have lots of money and no time. They literally have nothing better to do with the money than buying crap.

If you want to exit consumerism, you have three choices:

1. Arrange to make less money and have more time to yourself. Negotiate with your boss for a lighter workweek, or negotiate for unpaid vacation time. With more time and less money, you will discover the innumerable wonderful ways to enjoy life that don't involve buying crap, such as spending lots of quality time with someone you love. (This is my strategy.)

2. Stop buying crap. You will begin accumulating savings very quickly. Resist the urge to spend it on crap. Instead, save all it all, and use it to retire super early. (I don't know anyone who's doing this, but in theory it works.)

3. Stop spending the money on crap, and use your money to change the world instead. Become a philanthropist. For every dollar you spend in an industry whose practices you despise, donate one dollars to a group that fights them. For every dollar you give to BP for gas, give one dollar to Greenpeace to stop drilling. AT&T uses your money to spy on Americans, counterbalance by donating to ACLU. Verizon are anti-net neutrality, give to EFF. The key to this is to invest the amount of research necessary to identify organizations that worthy of support, organizations that have changed the world for the better in the past, and which will in the future, then support them with everything you got. (This is what Bill Gates is doing.)
posted by gmarceau at 1:16 PM on May 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Worldchanging has a bunch of good ideas. The book is also good, but of course then you're buying a book. Start at the website.
posted by Lemurrhea at 1:22 PM on May 18, 2010

+1 to The Rebel Sell.

The book is about the many different subtle ways that consumerism incites us to spend our money on crap. Many such ways are indirect forms of peer pressure that are hard to notice unless someone points them to you.

It's a fantastic book.
posted by gmarceau at 1:24 PM on May 18, 2010

One of the most simple consumer changes you can make is to stop buying convenience foods.

As an example, "boil in the bag rice" blows my mind. It's pre-measured and sealed in a plastic bag; you heat a pot of water and boil it for 15 minutes. This is functionally identical to measuring two portions of rice, heating a pot of water and boiling it for 15 minutes, but costs ten times as much per serving. It's insanity.

Anyway, cook from whole natural foods. Buy locally grown, seasonal produce when possible and opt out of rewarding your supermarket for flying green beans across the Atlantic from Kenya.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:31 PM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Reduce, reuse, recycle! Mend things, buy used, buy new but from private sellers (eBay, Craigslist), buy local and not from chains. Don't buy anything you don't need, and when you do buy something, don't settle for the cheapest piece of shit you can find. Sure, maybe you're pumping more into the economy by buying the pricier item in the short term, but if you never have to replace that item in the long run you'll be spending less.
posted by Brittanie at 2:08 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've found that ignoring catalogs, fast-forwarding through commercials, and not going to shopping websites "to browse" has helped me extricate myself from the spending machine. I still want stuff, but it tends to be stuff I need in order to function, instead of fulfilling unnecessary desires implanted by pretty pictures and compelling copy.
posted by TG_Plackenfatz at 2:26 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

What are specific things I can do to lessen my participation in consumerism, given that I still need to function as a 'normal' person in 'normal' society?

'Normal' society would have you believe that 'normal' people have to buy a lot of crap to survive. Are you concerned with social backlash? Whose version of 'normal' are you using, and why is it so important to please this particular person? Since the idea of 'normal' you seem to be presenting fails to take the larger picture into consideration, including environmental harm and exploitative practices, change your idea of normal. Friends and community make a huge difference with changes like these, so don't underestimate the importance of reaching out to others who share your worldview, and feel free to ignore people you know who may scoff at your changes.
posted by blazingunicorn at 2:27 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The library is your friend. Similarly, the salvation army, consignment shops, and (to a lesser degree) pawn shops are places where things you don't need should go, and where you get things that you do need.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:58 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I started down the frugal/decluttering/opting out/less is more lifestyle about five years ago. It's amazing! You'll love it! And not to sound cheesy, but it's an endless journey, and there's always something new to learn and think about.

It all started when I lost cable service and didn't bother to get it back. Not watching TV, with its constant commercial message of BUY BUY BUY FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT'S HOLY BUY BUY BUY helped wake me up from the consumerist fog.

My first effort was to separate "want" from "need." I started making lists of everything non-critical that popped into my head to buy. My rule was a one-week cooling off period. At the end of the week I would study my list, check my budget, and pick a few things to buy.

Inevitably after a few days on The List, it was pretty clear if an item was a "want" or a "need."

For example, I'm still using a Motorola RAZR, the "it" phone of 2004. If it ever died, I would NEED to get a replacement phone. But as long as it's functional (but not as kewl as the Blackberry my heart desires) replacing it with something newer is strictly a WANT.

In Phase 2, I challenged myself to buy NO non-essential items in an entire month.

My definition of an essential in this sense is "consumables." Something where, if I use it all up, I'll buy more. This includes everything from apples, pasta, and cheese to laundry detergent and gas for the car.

This kind of exercise makes it clear that you already own 99.6% of what you need to live a happy and healthy life.

My best advice is to pick up a copy of "Your Money Or Your Life." It has a lot of stuff about analyzing your spending patterns to see where you're spending money, and thinking about your financial habits, etc.
posted by ErikaB at 6:19 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Switch to a credit union.
posted by FuzzyVerde at 9:24 PM on May 18, 2010

I'm late to the party, but take a look at Amy Dacyczyn. For some random reason, my Mom had a copy of this book. Reading it literally changed my life and the lives of the many people I've recommended it to. If you read it, do so with your question(s) in mind and pay attention to the philosophy, not the details.
posted by Vavuzi at 11:59 PM on May 18, 2010

1/ Buy second-hand. Do you need a new car? Really? Why not a five year old one? Do you need a new cellphone? Really? Wouldn't last year's top-of-the-line computer be more than enough for your needs? And so on and so forth.

2/ Learn to make, fix, repair. My wife makes a lot of my daughter's clothes, because she enjoys it. We make food from scratch or mildly processed ingredients, not instant meals and takeaways. I just picked up a second-hand processor to replace one in a PC that cooked itself.

3/ Get into the habit of paying someone else to fix things instead of chucking them out and replacing them, even if the cost isn't that much different.
posted by rodgerd at 3:12 AM on May 19, 2010

Heck, even if it costs a bit more to have something fixed than buying a new item, you're supporting the local economy. Even if you're mailing something back to the manufacturer, you're keeping it out of a land fill or recycling center for a while longer.

With that in mind, buy things that are easier to repair, and learn to fix things yourself. Then you might see more possibilities where before you saw junk.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:48 AM on May 22, 2010

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