As we are embarking on month nine PC (post-COVID), many people are eager to return to normal. We hope that the pandemic has been enough of a wake-up call to ensure whatever we do next doesn’t look like what we left behind nine months ago. It wasn’t healthy, and it sure wasn’t sustainable – not for us and not for our planet.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about (or are just intrigued to learn more), our article today will examine how our collective human activity – notably our (over)consumption – has contributed to the problems our planet and we as individuals are facing. And we’ll have a look at what might happen if we all adopted a more minimalist lifestyle and consumed only what we need.
Why are we (humans) addicted to stuff?
Sigmund Freud dedicated his life’s work to exploring the human psyche. But did you know that Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, leveraged his uncle’s insights to work out how best to control the masses and get them to do exactly what people with power and money want to them to do? That includes the tale that the key to happiness lies in chasing (more) stuff.
If Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, Bernays is the father of the half a trillion USD a year advertising industry that’s become such an integral part of modern life. In advertising, nothing is left to chance. Everything is calculated and measured, to ensure it hits us right where it’s most effective: in our brain. We are being brain-washed, all the time. And most of us don’t even know it.
When we are looking to buy something – a new house, car, phone, dress, you name it – our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that enables us to recognize rewards and take action to capture them. Think big woolly mammoth and the excitement hunting and killing one would have created among our cave-dwelling forefathers.
Dopamine is released whenever we experience something new, exciting or challenging. These days, it’s no longer woolly mammoths that would feed a whole tribe for months. But anticipating the pleasure we may gain from driving that new car or wearing that new dress has the same effect (as do gambling and taking drugs by the way).
Oh, and when we shop online we get that dopamine hit twice – when we order the goods and when the package arrives at our doorstep. That’s two times dopamine for the price of one… bargain.
Speaking of which: Our dopamine hit spikes even higher when we bought that car or dress at a perceived discount (Sales campaigns play with our brains). Not only do we now own that cool whatever, we even managed to pay less for it than we would normally expect. How awesome are we? Just like our mammoth-killing forefathers, we can pat ourselves on the back for our ability to hunt down a… bargain.
The thrill of the hunt
Speaking of hunting, the release of dopamine has another effect:
- It activates our limbic brain, creating the same emotions and heightened response in our body we would experience in a fight or flight situation (critical for the survival of our mammoth-killing forefathers).
- At the same time, it drains blood from our prefrontal cortex, our rational decision-making centre (which may have otherwise told us that buying that whatever is not worth parting our hard-earned funds).
That’s why impulse-buying is so common: We can’t help ourselves, our emotions override our ability to think. Once we can think clearly again, we realize what we’ve done: It’s called buyer’s remorse.
The fear of missing out
A third aspect clever advertisers tap into is called ‘loss aversion’ (commonly referred to as ‘fear of missing out’ or FOMO). Research has shown that we perceive a loss/pain about twice as strong as a potential gain/pleasure of the same magnitude.
That’s why sales campaigns are so effective. ‘For a limited time only’, ‘last chance’, ‘only the first 100 buyers’ – these are all intended to create a sense of urgency and activate our loss aversion behavior. To avoid the pain of missing out (or worse someone else snapping up the goods), we buy.
Satisfying our needs
As human beings, we have needs, and when it comes to telling us what we need, advertisers really get creative.
Clever ads make us believe that owning a big house, driving a flashy car or following the latest fashion trend, helps us meet our core psychological needs – the need to belong, to be recognized and respected. Heck, even that black, artificially colored and flavored water Santa delivers in his big truck makes us happy.
Shopping behaviors are always a means to an emotional end (Dr Chris Gray, Consumer Psychologist and Founder of Buycology)
Rather than valuing stuff for what it really is – a means to an end – we end up deriving the value of our stuff from how we think others will perceive it, especially the more higher-end our stuff gets. We associate ourselves with our stuff. It’s no longer about who we are but what we own.
Shopping makes the world go around
To top it all off, our collective shopping addiction (commonly referred to as ‘household consumption’ or ‘household spending’) has become the engine of the world economy – making up around 60% of GDP across the OECD (or 51% in Australia, 56% in New Zealand, 59% in Canada and 67% in the US in June 2020):
- When our GDP grows we do the right thing: we consume more.
- When our GDP stagnates (or God forbid declines), Governments pump trillions of dollars into the economy so that we continue to do what we are meant to do: consume more.
Sounds like a scene from a zombie movie? Well, let’s have a look at what our mindless consumption has led to.
What has our addiction led to?
We are drowning in our stuff
In 2017, Americans spent $240bn on consumer goods, twice as much as in 2002, even though the population only grew by 13%. Americans also spent ~20% more on clothing during the same period: a whopping 66 garments per person per year – that’s a new item every 5-6 days!
Where do all these goods go?
- They end up cluttering our homes: The average house size in the US almost tripled over the last 70 years – from 950 sq ft in 1950 to 2,640 sq ft in 2016, and in the last 20 years, the number of storage facilities doubled.
- They end up in landfill: Americans generated a whopping 16,000 tons of textile waste in 2016, over five times more than our parents did in 1980. Americans also threw away a staggering 26 million tons of plastics.
All this stuff has an emotional effect on us too.
Clutter is visual noise. It competes for our brain’s resources. Too much stuff robs us of our ability to focus. It drains our energy and makes us feel overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious. And it distracts from what is actually important to us in our lives.
We are destroying our planet
We’re not just drowning in our stuff, our oceans are too. Our collective human activity has led to
- the destruction of 85% of our wetlands,
- the alteration of 75% of our longest rivers, and
- the elimination of 40% of our primary forests.
An estimated one million species are on the brink of extinction – because of us.
We – the affluent citizens of the world – have the largest impact on our environment: The top 10% income earners are responsible for 25-43% of environmental impact, while the bottom 10% only cause around 3–5%. Furthermore, thanks to global trade, most of the environmental impact caused by the top 10% is felt in the global south.
Our demand for ever cheaper stuff means manufacturers are cutting costs wherever possible, making goods of ever lower quality – to the detriment of our environment, and the health and wellbeing of those who make our stuff.
Keeping up with the Joneses doesn’t make us happy
Consumer lifestyle studies conducted by the University of Otago in New Zealand since 1979 survey more than 2,000 Kiwis every 5-10 years about their lifestyle related interests, opinions and activities. In their most recent study conducted in 2013, New Zealanders reported a lower life satisfaction (66% compared to 69% in 2005) and lower personal wellbeing (63% compared to 67% in 2005).
David G. Myers in his article ‘Wanting more in the age of plenty’ found that in the US between 1960 and 2000, divorce rates doubled, teenage suicide rates tripled and depression increased ten-fold. And in most of Europe, life satisfaction has stagnated over a similar time frame despite higher disposable income.
The income gap is widening
While we collectively earn more than our forefathers ever did, that income increase didn’t end up in our wallets equally. The divide between the richest and the poorest of society is widening across the globe, but none more so than in the US.
Ever looked at Forbes’ Richest People list and wondered how they’ve made their money? Well, let’s do just that:
- At the top, we have Jeff Bezos, the founder of online shopping giant Amazon.
- Bernard Arnault, Chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, the world’s largest luxury goods company, takes up spot number 3.
- In 6th position, we find Armancio Ortega, the co-founder of Inditex (which owns clothing brands Zara, Massimo Dutti, Pull & Bear and many others).
- And finally, in spots 8, 9 and 10, we have Jim, Alice and Rob Walton, the children of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
Where would they be if it wasn’t for our (over)consumption?
The income of the richest one percent […] adds up to more than the GDP of the ‘poorest’ 169 countries combined – a list that includes Norway, Sweden, Switzerland […], the Middle East and the entire continent of Africa. (Dr Jason Hickel, Book Author and Anthropologist)
Consumer debt is sky-rocketing
While our collective spending has made the top 1% even richer, it has also led us (mere mortals) into debt. Lots of debt:
- In 2019, US consumer debt hit $14trillion (that’s $14,000,000,000,000) or almost $43,000 for each American, surpassing the debt levels experienced at the outset of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008. While largely driven by mortgages (remember the house size increase mentioned earlier?), it’s still a scary number. In 2017, American households spent a whopping 26% of their disposable income on non-housing related consumer debt, compared with less than 23% at the end of the GFC and 16% in 1992.
- It’s not much better in New Zealand either: In 2016, Kiwis bought $36 billion worth of stuff using their credit cards. With over 63% of credit card spending incurring interest and an average interest rate of just over 19%, Kiwis paid $4.4 billion (or just under $940 per person) that year in credit card interest alone.
We’ve become slaves
Instead of spending more time with our loved ones, on our health or on becoming better human beings, we work long hours (and even multiple jobs) to be able to afford ever bigger houses and more stuff. Our lifestyles have become increasingly unhealthy – for ourselves and our planet.
Contemplating how much we are absorbed in consumerism is frightening. […] We’re so accustomed to it that we seldom stop to contemplate it – which is probably a good thing since it’s daunting to realize quite how trapped and how brainwashed by the inescapable tide of consumerism we are. (Shelley Bridgeman, Journalist)
(How) Can we overcome our addiction?
Our current collective (over)consumption is unsustainable, unethical and unjust. There is no sugar-coating it. So, can we step off the treadmill? Can we unravel the damage we have done (to ourselves and our planet)?
I believe we can. In fact, Paul and I, and many others out there are living proof that it can be done. I’d even say: we ARE (part of) the problem, and therefore we HAVE AN OBLIGATION to fix it – for our own sake and our planet’s.
But that requires some radical changes.
Our role as consumers
Firstly, we need to become aware of the problem, its magnitude and the role each of us has played in creating it. One of the reasons why I wrote this article.
Secondly, we need to realize that we have a choice. We may be biologically and chemically predisposed to certain behaviors. But what differentiates us from other living beings is that we have a conscience and a will. We can make decisions that are not instinct-driven. Beings humans, we can choose not to give in to peer pressure, societal expectations and clever marketing tactics.
Thirdly, we need to change our behavior. We need to consume less and consume more consciously, for example by
- buying only what we truly need/regularly use
- sharing items we hardly ever use
- eating food that is more environmentally friendly to produce
- living in smaller places that have a lower environmental footprint
- only owning/driving a car if we absolutely need to
- only flying when we absolutely need to.
As conscious consumers, we are the single-most powerful movement there is: if there is no demand, there is no supply.
The role of manufacturers and advertisers
Manufacturers can do their bit too, by producing goods that
- are of better quality;
- have longer lifespans (effectively ending the current practice of planned obsolescence); and
- can easily be repaired, repurposed or recycled when they’ve reached their end of life.
And finally, advertising and product labeling need to change: by including the real cost of a product – taking into account the environmental sustainability and ethics of its supply chain – so that we (consumers) can make informed decisions.
Remember the change in advertising and product labelling for tobacco products? It’s time we are honest about the impact of our stuff.
What if we all adopted a more minimalist lifestyle and consumed only what we need?
We can (re)focus our energy on what truly matters to us
Imagine you removed all the stuff from your house that is not adding any value to your life. And I don’t mean ‘put it into storage’. I mean ‘get rid of it’ – by giving it to someone who needs and uses it. Your home would be tidier and visually calmer. Keeping your home clean would be much easier and faster too.
Now imagine your clothes are of good quality and fit well – to your body shape and each other – because you’ve created a capsule wardrobe for yourself that allows you to dress up or down as needed. Getting dressed for work or leisure, and packing for a holiday would be so much easier (and faster).
If you didn’t spend your precious time shopping, cleaning, searching, (re)organizing, worrying etc what would you do? Have quality time with your partner, ageing parents or children? Read the books you’ve always wanted to read? Upskill? Start your own business? Volunteer? The choice is yours.
We are financially better off
Imagine you didn’t own a (second) car and didn’t have to pay for registration, warrants of fitness, insurance, fuel – let alone its depreciation in value? Or imagine you lived in a home that’s just the right size for you and that, instead of rooms you never use, has good insulation. It would cost a fraction to keep you cosy in winter and cool in summer. And your mortgage payment would likely be smaller too.
If you didn’t spend your hard-earned funds on stuff you don’t truly need/regularly use what would you do with all those extra $$$? Buy healthier food for your family? Save it for a deposit for your (child’s) first home? Invest it? Work less because you no longer need to? Travel the world? Again, the choice is yours.
Consuming less and more mindfully is not the end of consumption. It’s just a means to shift to a more sustainable way of consuming, a more sustainable way of living – albeit a very powerful one. Don’t you think?
Feature photo by I’m Nik on Unsplash