Over the past nine months I've received varying responses to my non-consumerism project. I'm lucky in that most of the response I've received has been positive, though I do admit I've heard my share of, "Wow, why would anyone do that?"
But perhaps the most annoying response is from people who adopt a sort of holier than thou tone and say stuff like, "Wait, you're still allowed to buy used stuff? Or go to restaurants? I mean isn't that ... like ... cheating?"
Yes, I still buy used stuff, I still go to restaurants, I still go to movies, I still go to plays, I still go to concerts, I still pay for high speed internet, and I still occasionally download music from iTunes.
I'm not a martyr and I did not start this project in order to receive accolades from strangers for living an austere life.
In fact, I became a non-consumer because I saw Evan Osnos discuss how the high demand for cashmere has damaged much of China's land. It's the environmental and humanitarian costs of new stuff that has led me, personally, to stop buying it.
After I watched Evan Osnos on The Colbert Report, I weighed my options and ultimately decided to stop buying new durable items for a year. I further decided not to buy any clothes period, because I already had so many pieces of clothing in my closet that never got worn, that I thought it was stupid to buy any more clothing.
I could have gone further. I could have tried not to buy anything at all for a year like Judith Levine. Ultimately though, I decided that I wanted to make a choice that I might be able to sustain beyond a year. For me, non-consumerism is like a diet. If you get rid of all sweets altogether, once your diet ends, you might find yourself binging on the sweets and end up gaining back all the weight you lost. On the other hand, if you still occasionally allow yourself sweets, you might find that your eating habits are just generally more healthy once the diet is over. My hope is that while on August 3rd I will technically be allowed to go out and shop till I drop, I won't actually want to shop.
So that's why I still buy used, why I eat at restaurants, and why I still go see plays. It's because my beef is primarily with "stuff," how it's produced, the conditions under which it is produced, and what happens when I get bored with said stuff. But after partaking in this project for so many months, I've realized that there's more to my buying philosophy than just that.
You see, when I started my project, my economist uncle seemed a little perturbed. Because, well, what happens, if everyone stops spending money? The economy tanks.
I'm not an anti-capitalist and I support a strong economy, but when I began my project, I did so thinking, "Yeah, if everyone stopped buying new stuff, the economy would tank, but since everyone's not going to stop buying new stuff, we'll be okay." In retrospect, that was kind of a weird position to take since most personal environmentalism is always couched in terms of, "If everyone did X we'd save Y energy." But as I've mentioned before, I kind of dove in with this project without really considering the consequences.
But the truth is, I never really stopped spending money. I've been calling myself a non-consumerist because I'm not buying new stuff, but a true non-consumerist would probably be hoarding gold bricks under her bed. Which is decidedly not what I'm doing. Instead, I'd probably be better classified as an alt-consumerist.
About 13% of my money gets split between my 401(k) and my savings account. That's certainly higher than the 5% I was managing before I began the non-consumerist project, but it's not an insane amount. In fact, I think it's fairly reasonable, and probably around the amount we would want most Americans to save. When you keep money in a savings account, 401(k), or IRA, you are still contributing to economic growth because your money continues to be in circulation. Given that, I think personal savings rates of around 15-20% are not incompatible with economic growth.
As for the rest of the money? Well, it goes to rent, my car loan, food, car insurance and utilities. All clear signs that I am continuing to participate in the economy. Like many Americans, I suspect, I don't have a ton of discretionary income left after I pay for all that. The money I have left over gets spent mostly on experiences (eating at restaurants, travel, concerts, etc) and charitable donations.
I said that when I began my project, I thought that if everyone did as I did, the economy would tank. I no longer believe that. Sure, if everyone became a non-consumer or alt-consumer, the economy would go through some rough patches, but eventually we would switch from a product-based economy to an experience or service-based economy.
We're already headed in that direction anyway. America no longer manufactures many products, and buying products made in China mainly serves to increase our trade deficit. Services on the other hand, cannot be easily outsourced to another country. It's just not that easy to have someone in Asia wait on your table or give you a massage. As far as the American economy is concerned, buying services instead of stuff is a winning proposition. (It's true that buying less stuff would be a blow to China's economy, and that is something to consider, but I have to believe that there are better ways to bring prosperity to the Chinese than to make young Chinese boys manufacture crappy plastic toys in inhumane conditions.)
The experience based economy is my new hope for America. I believe that by buying experiences instead of stuff, we can be happier and more fulfilled. We can spend more time with the people who matter. We can afford to donate more money to worthy causes. In short, we can focus on living instead of on accumulating.
5 months ago