Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Cheer AKA Rant Against Consumerism

I should tread carefully here lest I come across as a socialist, or worse, communist.  I do think that government has a role in the economy, but clearly it should not be the primary driving source.  I consider myself neither socialist nor communist, but I believe that our materialism is harmful, both for humanity and for the environment.  I may be too anecdotal in this post, but I think the general idea is applicable for most people.  I realize that this comes across as quite the party-spoiler, but that tends to be a hobby of mine, for good or for bad.

Black Friday is a travesty.  I couldn't care less about its timing, the day after Thanksgiving.  I will not put much critique into the abhorrently long lines and primitive behavior.  No, the fundamental problem is that our economy lives or dies based on how much junk we buy.  Let's face it: girls, you hardly wear most of the fancy clothes that you spend so much money on multiple times a year.  All those t-shirts you got for this club or that sports team or your freshman dorm?  Might as well send them to the Goodwill with a note apologizing for destroying Africa's textile industry.  Of course, that's just the small stuff (mostly, depending on how much money you'll blow on prom dresses or new suits).  There's that iPhone 5S that you've just got to have.  There's a new PlayStation   If you're older, you might be looking into getting a new car.  One of the worst cases is when someone says that they're buying a new Prius to save the environment after trading in their "old" 3-year-old Prius because a new model came out.  Or maybe the richer folk decide that they need a Tesla to help the planet.  Unfortunately, even if you're getting the most ethically sourced, fair-trade, hemp skirt, it is not going to help the planet one bit.

In order to thrive with a growing population, we need to buy less.  I am guilty of temptations, but I try harder now to think of whether what I want is something that I'll actually use and something that will last.  I am not suggesting that you don't buy anything.  If you actually do need a new phone and you get a lot of benefit from having a smartphone, go ahead and get that new iPhone.  If your clothes are worn and unwearable for their purpose, get new clothes, or better, check out a used clothing store first.  But you don't need ten pairs of shoes and eight different dresses to go with them.  And yes, I think most of the blame for clothing deservedly goes to women.  From what I've seen, men are actually slightly less materialistic, although we might end up wasting just as much money (and therefore energy) on useless gadgets and fancy televisions.  Part of the blame goes to the manufacturers as well.  Instead of providing us with quality, upgrade-able, and durable products, we get laptops that don't last five years and are almost impossible to modify; instead, we dispose of them, not necessarily in the safest manner.  Then there is a fancier, faster laptop available for the same price that also won't last.  Don't even get me started on how bad Walmart is in this regard.

Unfortunately, there is a cost to reduced consumption, at least in simple terms.  If we decide to buy less stuff, then unemployment will go up even more.  I don't think that unemployment should be the face of the economy though.  High unemployment is a result of efficient production, lack of demand, poor education, and more.  It is easy to say that if consumers were more confident and just shopped more, the economy would be better off.  It's true that GDP would rise, but does that really improve our quality of life?  I don't believe that we need more jobs necessarily.  We need more people working, but they don't have to be manufacturing junk or building new cars or marketing a brand of sex-on-the-beach perfume.  There is certainly a need for more people cleaning up the streets, helping the poor, working at a rehabilitation center, or engineering solar panels that will compete with coal.  In some ways, we are moving towards a less-materialistic society.  The Internet has all but killed solid music and may yet lead to the demise of the printed book.  Newspapers are on their way out, as are non-Wikipedia encyclopedias.  There are companies that deal largely with re-selling used items to eager buyers, making it easy to buy and sell obscure products.  Unfortunately, at its core, the economy is still rooted in the exchange of new goods and services and every one of you reading this is part of the problem.

Now my simple list of advice::

  • Don't buy a new t-shirt.  I made the mistake of wasting $$ on fancy t-shirts.  They're nice, but not spectacular.
  • Don't buy new clothes unless you're going to wear them often (at least once per cycle of clothes for non-formal, weather-permitting).  And you don't need 10 different dress outfits for different job interviews and different dances and different "formal Fridays" and different concerts and junior prom and senior prom and graduation and college graduation and whatever other event you can think of.
  • Don't buy something new unless it's really not worth it to get used.  This goes mostly for books, especially textbooks.
  • Sell/give away your unused junk.  If I gave something that was not liked, I would want it to find a suitable home.
  • Don't get too much decorations.  It's fine to decorate the house, but expensive pottery does not look different for the tenth $50 vase without any plants (saying this from experience as I write this from my living room).
  • Do write cards.  They can say a lot and everyone appreciates them.  I need to focus on this...
  • Ask your friend what they actually want!  If it's something fancy, then team up with their friends to get it for them rather than taking a stab at what small thing they will most appreciate.
  • Volunteer, donate to charity, etc.  You'll make yourself happy, and you'll make others happier than your friend would be with the book that he'll never read.  If you want to buy a present for me, spend the time/money on finding a worthy cause, and more importantly, a reputable charity to invest in.  I seriously do not want any presents ever again.
  • Go out, enjoy yourself.  Experiences matter!  Party it up, go bowling, go on an adventure.  It should be the people you're with that matter, not the stuff you're with/wearing.
Shameless plug: For any textbooks that you still need and can't get from colleagues, go here:  Although it's still a for-profit company, Better World Books does a lot to help literacy (donate one book for every book you buy, gives millions of dollars to literacy charities, and more).  It is a Benefit Corporation, so it is not exclusively bound to maximize profits.

I would like to emphasize again that I am not suggesting you abstain from buying anything new.  Just spend more time thinking about what you are getting.  Is this something that you will use now, next week, five years from now?  Are you still going to get as pleasure out of it then?  Is it worth the energy, pollution, and waste that went into its manufacturing?  Then buy what you want.  Remember these words of wisdom from one Steve van Matre: "The key to a good life is not having what you want, but wanting what you have."


  1. Isn't fueling the economy (especially in sectors that we support growth) something we should do?

    It's probably bad for me to go to Forever 21 and blow cash on some cheap-ass crap clothes that will wear out after a few times, but I'm proud of purchases I make, especially IP (like video games on cloud) because I support the growth of culture/entertainment, and overall stimulating/rewarding work.

  2. I would say to your first statement that we should ONLY fuel the economy in sectors that we support growth. In a perfectly free-information economy with rational consumers and no adverse selection, we would already have that, but introductory economics is not always compatible with reality. Here's another post on the subject, ironically from another for-profit company that's trying to sell stuff.
    Keep in mind that whenever North Korea erects a new statue of Kim Jong Il, its GDP soars.