New Years’ Resolution Check Up: Being Less Consumer-Ish

Upon my return from Europe, I’m always reminded of just how American I am, and I’ve set my New Years’ Resolution to revolve around trying to be less consumer-ish–to use less plastics, to waste less paper, to re-use more, to buy less stuff (….I’ve been contemplating whether or not Chick Fil A would let me refill my styrofoam cup from last week in the drive thru…)

I really think the consumerism in America exploded in the 1950’s; home from war, jubilant and feeling powerful, the gap between the lower class and the upper class closed, and the middle class was strengthened. This is the generation where we see Americans buying lots of STUFF–gadgets, nick-knacks, fast food; stuff that was once only available to the upper echelons was now being mass produced and sold cheaply to the middle class, and for once, the middle class could feel rich and famous (this is where we see pink plastic lawn flamingos and pantyhose and velvet Elvis paintings and cubic zirconium jewelry becoming popular). This is why, when you move your grandparents out of their houses into more suitable places, there is so much (unnecessary) stuff to move; they lived in the generation that created consumerism.

My generation, however, does not feel remember these class struggles and, while we certainly have carried on the learned behavior of consumerism (just look in a girl’s purse–you’ll find at least ten different kinds of chap sticks or lip glosses), I do think the Millennials are spending more money on travel and experiences, and less money on stuff. So, four months into 2018, I’m doing a check up on the ways I’ve become aware of my consumerism, and ways that I’ve tried to change my behaviors:

1. Use less plastic: When I first began this New Years’ resolution, I first began by paying attention to what kind of products I used that were plastic, and I was actually astonished at how much plastic I, myself, throw away on a daily basis. According to EcoWatch.Com, the average American throws away approximately 185 pounds of plastic a year; these plastic products include water bottles, shopping bags, straws. When I am reaching for that plastic product, I often consider the length of time I will use it for and what it’s utility is. If I am buying two apples at the grocery store, then the plastic bag I’m using to carry those apples in will really be a five minute expenditure–just until I get in the car and put them in the fridge; that’s easily a kind of plastic I don’t need. I’ve also started to ask to not use a bag when I’m picking up my Tokyo Joe’s, etc. I can just as easily carry my food out (and, since it is sealed in a to-go container, it’s still sanitary).

2. Unplug electricity & turn off things when I’m not using them: In our hotels in Europe, there were these awesome motion detector lights in the hallway, so the lights stayed off until someone was moving. And, in the hotel rooms, our hotel key must be in the light switch in order for the electricity to be turned on. I loved these ideas–it’s like the philosophical dilemma–if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound? Well, no because sound is a human construction, and so is the use of light. Why have a light on in a hallway, or a bedroom, or a bathroom, if there is no one to use it? (dogs and cats have night vision so they could careless). There are a few things that stay plugged in all the time (like my alarm clock), but I’ve been trying to make a better effort to turn off the lights when I am not using them, and to unplug my hair dryer, my fan, the vacuum, the blender, etc. when not in use.

3. Buy used: Recently, I finished Dave Ramsey’s ‘Financial Peace University’ series (my thoughts on that for another blog post). One of the ideas I loved is, when buying presents and gifts for your children (who will inevitably grow disinterested in a few months), is to purchase used toys from consignment stores, garage sales, etc. I love this idea because, the more things that I buy, the more things that have to be produced in order to replace them (and, then when I am done with them, I can re-sell to someone else). Obviously, I do not have children that I am buying kitchen sets and Barbie Dreamhouses for, BUT there are plenty of items I purchase that could easily be purchased as used (for me, the largest purchase is obviously books, but there are many other items I can reuse–baskets, gift bags, Tupperware, etc.).

4. Use ALL of the product : Mac makeup does an excellent recycle program where, if you bring in a certain amount of used containers, you will get a free item. I’ve been stocking up on my recyclable containers for years. The other day, I went to grab an eye shadow that I put in the recycling pile that obviously still had some product left in it. This logic goes along with the previous bullet: the more stuff I buy, the more stuff that has to be produced in order to replace it. So. if I make sure I utilize ALL of the product (eye shadow, tire treads, Ranch dressing), the less new stuff I’m buying, the less stuff that has to be made.

5. Buy people less stuff: My love language is definitely giving gifts. I love buying a trinket at the store to give to someone, or shopping for birthday/Christmas gifts, or sending birthday balloons. And inevitably, what probably eventually happens is, they take that trinket, display it for a period of time, and someday, it finds itself lodged behind the couch, chucked in the closet, or stuck in the junk drawer so the drawer now won’t open. This is difficult, because especially in our American culture, gifts tend to signify our relationships to each other, and have become a social custom to give someone something; it feels awkward when you walk into someone’s birthday party and not have a gift to give them. But, alas, there are many things I can give people that aren’t stuff: the gift of time, the gift of words and writing cards, the gift of positive affirmations, compliments, and thoughts–these things, too, are limitless, and can sometimes be more meaningful than another coffee cup or notepad that we don’t need.

6. Print less paper: Teachers use SO much paper. This practice has also encouraged me to re-think the types of assignments I’m giving, and the relevance of those assignments; if the assignment is a five minute time waster and requires me to print 90 pages, then perhaps I should find some other assignment that is (a) not as wasteful and (b) more engaging/relevant. I have started printing multiple assignments front to back, using both sides of a piece of poster paper, formatting more than one poem per piece of paper.

When I’m reaching for other paper products (tissues, napkins, etc.), I’m also trying to be more mindful and that I am only using the amount that I need (don’t worry, I’m not going so crazy as to using a family cloth for toilet paper–I think sanitation trumps recycling in that case).

7. Avoid over buying: I recently read a research study that concluded the more stuff someone has in their personal space, the less happier they are. I think this is true of both our minds and our physical spaces; when my physical space is clutter, disorganized, messy, then I often will feel anxious, stressed, and unproductive (because all I can look at is that t-shirt crumpled on the floor that needs a home). When I am out shopping, I try to be mindful about how much of something I am purchasing; I’m definitely not a mom, so it makes no sense for me to buy the CostCo size pack of highlighters (likely, by the time I would use all of those highlighters, they would all be dried up and dead). Retailers like to run sales and two-for-one specials to encourage you to buy more. But, I don’t need 10 different candles of the same scent–I need ONE candle until that one is all used up. I don’t need four different water bottles of the same style–I need ONE water bottle. I don’t need twelve pairs of yoga pants–I need one or two (depending on how often I’m going) and then I can replace when those start smelling bad. As George Strait sings, “I ain’t near seen a hearse with a luggage rack”.

8. Keep myself busy: I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m bored, my default setting is often, “What can I go buy myself so that I can entertain myself? Roller skates? A new set of watercolors? Bubbles? More white t-shirts and cardigan sweaters?” (and, inevitably, when I am out shopping, I then get hungry, so I have to buy myself a meal at Chick Fil A, in which I am using more Styrofoam, more paper products, more plastic Ketchup packets). So, if I keep myself busy, then not only am I saving money, but I am also not loading myself up with more STUFF. There are plenty of free activities around that require little to no stuff (going to the dog park, playing softball, reading books), and plenty of activities around that I can entertain myself with the stuff I already have (adult coloring books, sidewalk chalk, archery).

I stumbled across Gregg Segal’s photography a few months ago, in which he takes kids from the around the world and photographs what a week of their eating looks like, what their living spaces look like, etc.–and I was just amazed at how much stuff we, as American consume and use, compared to other places in the world. I’ve spent four months trying to decrease my consumerist nature, and I can’t say that I am always perfect, but I can say that my wallet is a little fuller, my space is a little less cluttered, and my life still just as fulfilling.

So to all of my friends–please help support me in my New Years’ Resolution by continuing to encourage me to buy less stuff, by asking me to do more activities that require less stuff, to support me in reusing and recycling, and not to make me feel awkward when I bring you a present that isn’t just more stuff.


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