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Column: We’re spending our money, then throwing things away. Why?

We buy cheap, we don’t repair the things we buy – and we’re wasting our money on ‘retail therapy’ that won’t make us happy, writes Anne B Ryan.

Anne B Ryan

WHY ARE WE so ready to throw a thing away when it gets broken or develops a flaw? Why do we more readily replace it, than try to repair it?

Part of the answer lies in the way items are designed as sealed systems; it can be impossible to get access to the broken part to repair or replace it. Cheap clothing is designed to be worn a few times and thrown away. The fabric and design make it difficult to repair.

We could of course always try to buy things that can be repaired. But advertising equates shopping with pleasure, so when something breaks, we are encouraged to seek the satisfaction of shopping for a new item, maybe upgrading to this year’s model or the latest trend at the same time. This type of consumer culture discourages us from taking our possessions seriously, because we can always replace them.

Possessions – the newer the better – have also become a source of status and marker of success. Everyone enjoys having some kind of status in the groups they are part of. We also want to be normal, to fit in.

However, the gloss of shopping can wear off quickly; ‘retail therapy’ may induce temporary pleasure, but it uses up our hard-earned money and sometimes leaves us in debt. The items we buy often remain unused or unworn, or they clutter up our living and storage spaces.

Alongside the culture of consumption-as-pleasure, we have long known that over-consumption is destructive. The ‘stuff’ we buy is made from raw materials that come from the earth. Their extraction and manufacture are exhausting the ecosystems that support life in the long term. And many items are made far away by people working in very bad conditions for very low wages.

At a time when most of us have less money to spend, it might seem contradictory to pay more attention to consumption. But the time is right to create a ‘new normal’ of mindful consumption, which would mean becoming truly materialistic, taking our possessions and purchases very seriously. We could give more, not less, attention to our consumer selves, in the process benefiting our pockets, our psychological and social health, producers and the environment.

‘We don’t have to build our own cars, but we can make meals from scratch’

The questions at the end of this article are a guide to mindful consumption. They start with personal issues, then broaden into the social and environmental issues. Mindful consumption eases pressure on earth resources and on our pockets.

But we also need to turn attention more evenly onto production and waste.

Production means being able to create things out of ingredients or components, instead of buying those things as ‘products’ made by someone else. This doesn’t mean we build our own cars, but we could make meals from scratch, knit or sew items of clothing, or build a composting bin, for example. We can also repair things, using the same kinds of skills we use in producing. Items designed to be repaired sometimes cost more initially, but in the long term save us money.

People are learning more skills, or renewing skills they once had, in order to engage in production and repair. Possessing practical skills, such as sewing, knitting, growing, cooking, simple construction and designing, is a form of wealth that differs from possessing things.

It is also personally satisfying to make or repair something, so it is good for psychological health. People often come together to learn or share skills and this is socially beneficial. And time spent producing or repairing is time not spent shopping, so it is good for the pocket.

In addition, many items exist that were once useful to their owners, but are no longer so. We can keep things in circulation through second-hand markets or re-circulating networks such as ‘freecycling’.

Repair and re-circulating prevent waste and decrease the demand for new items, with their accompanying resource depletion and environmental degradation. They also keep the pressure off homes, storage spaces and landfill.

Every system consists of resources, production, consumption and waste. If we practice mindful consumption, try to produce more, and minimize waste, we are part of the creation of a different economic and social system, with different sources of satisfaction, different status markers and a new normality.

So when tempted to buy something, ask:

1. Do I need it?
2. How many do I already have?
3. How much will I use it?
4. How long will it last?
5. Can I borrow it (and will I be sure to give it back in as good or better condition)?
6. Do I already own anything that I could use instead?
7. Can I do without it?
8. If I buy this, will I have to go without something else, which I need more?
9. Would I buy this if I had to pay cash?
10. Is this the best quality for the best price?
11. Can I buy this second-hand or get it through a freecycling network?
12. Do I know my current credit card balance?
13. Can I buy this on credit and clear the debt this month?
14. Am I able to clean and maintain this myself?
15. Am I willing to?
16. Will I be able to repair it?
17. If I can’t or won’t repair or maintain it myself, how much will those services cost me?
18. Will my life be very negatively affected if I don’t buy this?
19. Am I buying this because I’m depressed or bored?
20. Could I feel better now without spending money? How?
21. If I wait a day or a week and come back, will I still want this?
22. How will I dispose of this when I’m finished with it?
23. Was anybody exploited while this was being produced?
24. Are the resources that went into this renewable or non-renewable?
25. How far did this travel and what effects did that travel have on the environment?
26. Is it made of recycled material and is it recyclable?

Anne B Ryan is author of Balancing Your Life: A Practical Guide to Work, Time, Money and Happiness and Enough is Plenty: Public and Private Policies for the 21st Century. Website: enoughisplenty.net.

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Anne B Ryan

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