Reconsidering consumption

I’ve been thinking a lot about consumption recently, both in terms of my more academic research and in terms of how I live my life.  It seems to be something I think about and write about a lot, especially as we head into a new year, but more and more I find myself feeling that academics need to not only research and write about their interests and convictions, but to live them as well, and vice versa.  And so, I’m thinking through my consumption habits yet again with an eye towards making some changes around here.

Over time, my awareness of issues around consumption has affected my own habits.  I consume less, look for quality, and buy locally, fair trade, and secondhand whenever possible.  But…I still consume, and typically, I don’t have a lot of trouble justifying the things that I do choose to buy.  For instance, books are easy to explain away as repositories of knowledge and inexpensive entertainment, cookware lets me make delicious meals at home and save on the cost of going out, and clearly I need a range of clothing for different situations.  Add in the fact that all of this is second hand and arguments against creating a market for new goods to be produced goes largely out the window, as do many concerns around cost and the financial implications.


Despite these changes, there are still some things going on here that I’m becoming less comfortable with as time passes and that I’d like to start thinking through and addressing.  First, I feel like I’m still buying into a consumer mindset more than I would like.  Although I suspect that I buy far less than the North American average, I’m still buying, and often buying unnecessarily.  Although I can justify some things in terms of saving money, saving time, and even stockpiling for the future, the truth is that sometimes I still shop for entertainment, out of boredom, or as a reward.  I’m not comfortable with this, and I’d like to get away from using shopping as a form of recreation as well as from feelings of wanting more than what I already have.

Second, although I buy almost exclusively in a secondhand market, this is still the result of a culture that is focused on disposable goods.  Secondhand shopping is possible largely because of the excessive waste produced from the consumption of new goods.  Consider how much waste has to be generated to fill all the thrift stores out there, and that’s before the things that they can’t sell are factored in.  For me to buy secondhand someone still has to buy new goods in the first place, and I’d like to get further away from supporting that system.  Furthermore, it’s possible that the fact that goods can be donated rather than thrown out makes people feel better about disposing of the things they no longer want but haven’t been used up, perpetuating the cycle of buying and tossing.

Third, I’m not buying all that locally.  I’d like to support local businesses as much as possible, and especially people who are producers.  Although I certainly save money by buying secondhand, what I spend doesn’t always go to local businesses. And finally, although I’m not spending a lot, I’m still spending money here and there that could be put to better use, like defraying the cost of the pressure canner I still have yet to buy, or buying more local food and hand-made goods.  A bit more money – even five or ten dollars a week – should add up over time.

Right now, there are few things that I have in mind to work on.  Some of them I’m already doing, and so this list is partly a reminder of the things I want to be doing, partly a further concentration or distillation of some of my guiding ideas, and partly some new ideas that I plan to keep in mind.

My first goal is to further reduce my consumption.  There are still some big purchases on my list, but I’d like to cut the rest of my consumption – books, clothes, housewares, non-local food, and other bits and pieces – down even further.   I have more than enough, and I’d like to be sure that I’m making the best use that I can of what I have, and that I’m not overconsuming.  Also, when I do buy something, I’d like to spend more time considering quality, durability, and whether what I buy can be repaired.

My second goal is to continue to reuse, but to focus more on reusing what I already have than shopping secondhand.  When wandering through the thrift store, all of the inexpensive options are far too tempting, so trips will be reserved for when I have something specific that I need rather than something that I might want or only have a vague idea about.  Instead, I hope to be better about finding ways to reuse (or rework, or reshape, or repurpose) things that I already have.

My third goal is focused on relocalizing, especially in terms of making more purchases locally.  This certainly includes food, but I’d also like to become more familiar with local artisans and what they produce, from food and pottery to knitted goods and baking.  This also means that if I do shop secondhand, I’ll go to smaller non-profit stores that are working within the community.

Finally, I plan to increase my understanding and appreciation of things, especially on the production end.  It feels easy to not appreciate tangible goods when they’re inexpensive, easily replaced, and when I haven’t seen the work that’s gone into their production.  I feel like it’s easy to let food go bad when there’s more available at the supermarket, or to let a hole in a sweater get bigger when there are racks upon racks at nearby stores.  To remedy this, I’m continuing to try to make as much as I can for myself to really appreciate the work that goes into production and to value the resulting product.  This means baking more bread, knitting more socks, sewing more clothes, and growing more food.  I have the materials, I just need to be better about actually doing this.

It seems like thinking through and improving how I consume is an ongoing goal that I’m constantly adjusting and refining.  In the past I’ve generally tried to cut myself off without really thinking through the reasons why, or what my future consumption could or should look like.  This time, I’m trying to give some more thought to my underlying motivations – for consuming in the first place and for backing off now – and some of the ways that I can adjust my shopping habits.  I imagine I’ll be writing more about consumption as the new year progresses.  There are a number of ideas that I want to think through with respect to the necessity of shopping, how and what I want to consume, and future purchases.  At the same time, I also have a good amount of consumption related research on my plate, and I’d really like to have my own consumption match up more closely with my ideals and values.


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