Thursday, May 15, 2008

Save the Planet - Stop Shopping

ANti consumerist SantaI received a nice email from a reader who said:
I get frustrated with advice that amounts to don't drive/buy a hybrid car/convert to solar power/wrap yourself in sack cloth and live in a cave.
It bugs me too that so much green advice seems to boil down to "spend a lot of money, buy all this 'green' stuff". 'Green' is not a lifestyle choice. It's not a sort of fashion that is only available to the rich. The greenest people on earth are the poorest. They don't cause as much pollution, carbon emissions etc as we do because they can't afford to. It's we in the affluent countries who are causing the problems. And the solution isn't to buy a lot of green junk, but to buy less junk.

"Save the planet - buy less junk" is a great message because it's cheap - cheaper than your present lifestyle. It's easy and achievable as long as you take it in babysteps. If you get rid of your car, your tumble drier and you try to only eat food you've grown yourself, all starting on the same day, you'll soon get overwhelmed and give it up. But if you make just one change, take time to get used to it, and then make another one, you should find it's all pretty effortless. That's the thinking behind the monthly Bean Sprouts challenges.

The only real problem with this message is that you have to break the addiction of retail therapy. We're constantly bombarded with adverts telling us we'll be happy, attractive, popular if we only buy their product. A lot of the ads are based on clever and subtle psychology and they work. It's very difficult to break the spell (one way is to avoid advertising, get rid of the TV and don't buy any magazines or newspapers, but even then you'll see ads on billboards, on the Internet, inside shops, and on people's clothes - that's what logos are after all). It's easy to end up feeling deprived and miserable because you can't buy all the things you're told you "need". But of course they don't deliver what they promise. The products don't really make you happier, more attractive, more popular etc. So people keep shopping in the search for happiness.

I think that's the main obstacle in the way of a green revolution - consumerism. The green movement can't afford an advertising budget to counteract the degree of brainwashing we've all been subjected to for years. And the adverts steal and subvert green messages into their own consumerist domain anyway. That's why now so many adverts tell you "Buy our green car, buy our green clothes, our green detergent, our green gizmo". How do you persuade people to stop buying stuff? I dunno. Bean Sprouts is just my little drop in the ocean showing that a non-consumerist lifestyle is possible, and isn't about wrapping yourself in sackcloth and living in a cave.


Nicky said...

Hi Mel

I'm really with you on this but I'm kind of hoping it's ok to indulge in occasional, small bursts of consumerism. In other words, I bought a brilliant summer skirt yesterday in a charity shop and I need you to to absolve me!

Seriously though, I'm amazed at how we can see huge shiny car adverts on one page of the newspaper and on the next a concerned article about environmental damage, and nobody seems to notice the anomaly. The media can be incredibly powerful, but not it seems, more powerful than the money behind it. Advertising is the root of all evil maybe?
Best wishes

Unknown said...

Have you heard the Tom Lehrer song about Christesmas consumerism? Your picture reminded me of it:

I was going to pick out a couple of lines, but there are too many to copy in a comment ~ the whole song is brilliant (I'm a Lehrer fan)

Anonymous said...

Another way to do it is to keep the things you do buy as long as possible. For example, I *have* to have a tumble dryer for the winter, although I also have a Victorian-style clothes dryer hanging from the futility room ceiling, but my last tumble dryer was at least 15 years old when it bit the dust. I didn't feel obliged to buy a new one when we moved as so many people seem to do. And when I did buy a replacement, I bought one which has a good rating for fuel consumption and which stops drying as soon as it senses the washing is dry. It also has programs like "ironing dry" "still damp" and so forth.

The curtains I have at the windows in this room are at least 15 years old and the ones in the sitting room are about 25 years old.

Almost all my furniture (except my bed and wardrobe) is well over 10 years old (much of it is 40 years old) and some of it was second-hand or inherited from in-laws. We had to have a new kitchen when we moved here 9 years ago, because there wasn't one apart from an oven and one cupboard, but we put it in nine years ago and yesterday I refused an offer of a "free" kitchen because I don't want or need one.

I lived with the hideous unhygienic bathroom in this house for 7 years until we found a half-price bathroom suite and the money at the same time, and I love my new bathroom and my kitchen far more than if I were in the habit of changing them every few years.

Another thing to do is to aim to buy second-hand if you have to buy stuff. I know there's nothing like the smell of a new car, but after six months it smells like the second hand one you could have bought for £1000s less and you'd've saved the environment all that carbon involved in the manufacturing process.

I'm fortunate in that I was brought up by a frugal old peasant who didn't believe in buying "stuff" for the sake of it, but I think that the present financial crunch being felt by so many people wouldn't be so bad if they weren't encouraged to feel that they must have new stuff all the time. You'd think they would have realised by now that it doesn't make them happy, but it's like an addiction, they just have to keep on buying stuff in the hope that finally one purchase will make the magic and make them become happy.

On the other hand, I also fear what will happen to a society based on over consumption and mired in debt which suddenly stops consuming. All the jobs will disappear and people will end up bankrupt and homeless. It's a real dilemma.

Allie said...

So well said! I think the trick is to find stuff you love doing -- hiking, gardening, running, etc. -- that revolve more around an action than material things and nurture that. Then it's easier to avoid shopping without it feeling like a punishment. Given a choice, most of us would naturally rather do something we love that we've become good at and we're proud of, than go buy another pair of shoes. It's just hard to realize that when you're stuck in the middle of it. I used to be a shopper and now I feel like throwing a temper tantrum when I have to set foot in a store. There are just so many things I'd rather be doing.

Unknown said...

I must admit to actually enjoying going shopping (shock! horror!), but, apart from Annon's dance class each week, it's usually the only time I leave the mountain & mix with other people. I don't drive, so I travel on the community bus. Shopping is my social time ~ I have made friends with some of the shop keepers & it's more about chatting with them than buying things, in fact, I have €40 to buy food for us 2, 2 ferrets & occasionally cats, so "stuff buying" is out of the question. I've now lost 1 of my chatting points because the bus will no longer allow me to take feed & farm stuff home on it, which means I won't get to see my friends in the Farm Shop very often & my lovely wool lady has disappeared from the drapery shop ~ I'd go in there just in the hopes of seeing her & only occasionally buy yarn. I spend so much time chatting that I have to whizz round Lidl & O'Connors (2 supermarkets) in under an hour, often in 30 minutes, so I can catch the bus back! I never have time to stop for a coffee, unlike the other shoppers, because I'm too busy socializing in the little shops!

Shopping with Annon, or my parents is a nightmare though, especially with my mother as her idea is to raid the supermarkets with no time to go find my shoppy friends

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

Great Graphic! I want it for Christmas cards this year. As for Blackberry44's concern that we may suddenly destroy the economy, you should read Arduous' post from Tuesday
It is an excellent discussion of this exact concern.

Daphne Gould said...

I do fully believe that if everyone started doing this now, the economy would fail, however that will never happen. If it happened over time (which I think is not likely anytime soon), we would gradually switch to a service economy.

I've been an anti-consumer for several years. I've finally convinced most of my family to quit exchanging gifts. Gifts from my family have been one of two kinds. We tell each other what we want then ship them across the country to each other (2000 miles for us) so at least we get what we want and will use. Or we guess what the other wants, which usually results in things we don't need and often don't use. Both kind of silly. A phone call is a much better way to tie a family together and much easier on the environment. I still give my mother a mother's day gift every year though. This year it was organic produce delivered to her door. I've been much more into food as gifts. When I travel (yes I still travel and probably will continue to), I only bring home food gifts. Trying foods from other countries is so much fun, and they make great gifts for the kids.

JessTrev said...

*love* that poster! beyond advertising messages, I think consuming is a habit, and one that is deeply woven into some people's emotional makeup (you know how people shop to cheer themselves up or are shopaholics?). but I am so agreed that simplicity and more care for the things we do buy is a perfect green message, not all the green 'stuff' being marketed out there...

Robbyn said...

GREAT post! :)

Anonymous said...

I love that poster too!

Did anyone hear the Jeremy vine show on Radio 2 today? (15/5/08)

It was all about maybe if there's a global recession maybe people will become less consumerist and basically nicer!

(I'm just off to get my sons birthdays pressies on amazon...)

Anonymous said...

Well said.


Kyle Murphy said...

This is definitely a message that needs to get more traction. A couple of weeks ago I was talking with one of my friends and I told her that I had been using my bike as transportation to be more thrifty. She responded, "No, that's green not thrift." which prompted me to tell her that the best thing she could do for the planet was to buy less and to buy what was necessary locally. "But I like shopping" was her only response.

It is my belief that the only effective environmental activism is that which goes beyond the paradigm of conservation and takes a stand against consumerism and advertising as well. By integrating the concerns of physical and mental environments it becomes more clear that a wholesale lifestyle change is in order, not simply a refocusing of our consumer identity. The hippies, beatniks and punks all fell because their radical opposition to the mainstream mores were co-opted and turned into marketable commodities. Let's hope that environmentalism can make a concerted effort to resist 'green' living becoming little more than another profitable brand.

Also, there is a wonderful documentary out right now about consumerism and Christmas called What Would Jesus Buy? ( that is certainly worth a look. has a section advocating a buy nothing Christmas here

Keep up the good work,
Kyle Murphy

rhonda jean said...

I agree with you blackberry - buying the best quality you can afford and then looking after what you own it the way we go. I gave up shopping years ago and I can honestly say I don't miss it at all. In fact now that I look back and think about what I used to buy, I cringe.

Great post, Melanie.

Yellow said...

The message isn't being communicated because a) advertisers want us to buy more, not less, even using the 'green' idea as a hook and b) because if the UK government suddenly sttod up and started shouting 'buy less' then all the businesses that support tem would be out with torches and pitchforks. And as for the idea that buying less would cause a global crash of the economy, I thought that the the news has been announcing a global crash for the last few months. So it's already here, and it's because of borrowing and lessening oil reserves. If we buy less, we'd suddenly be able to pay off our credit, and all the oil wouldn't be turned into plastic crap so the reserves would last longer. Again, I know it's a simplistic suggestion but hey, I bet people said 'don't abolish slavery, think of the people it would put out of work!'. It's not such a strong defense of very bad practice really.

Melanie Rimmer said...

Great comments everybody, but i have to say I loved this:
"I bet people said 'don't abolish slavery, think of the people it would put out of work!'. It's not such a strong defense of very bad practice really."

Well said, Steph!

Sarah said...

I LOVE that poster! :) It cracks me up but it's so true.

bigbluemeanie said...

Nice poster. I spotted a very similar message in Oxford recently: stencil graffiti.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I get really torqued when I hear/read about how I can "go green" by purchasing new products. I'm definitely in the wear-it-out camp. Maybe I am daft, but I don't understand how throwing all my appliances away because (gasp!) they don't have a stainless steel finish is better for the environment than using them up. Even if all those new appliances run cleaner and cheaper, there is still a cost (monetary and environmental) to buying new and throwing away something that still works well.

AMCSviatko said...

In terms of the "slowly slowly" approach, do you know about Green as a Thistle's challenge last year where she made one green change a day for a year?

Also a fiscal fast is a good way to stop spending for a period of time. I did a one week trial run in March last year and followed it up with a one month fast in June ( I'm all set to do it again this June...

Anonymous said...

Alternatively try living on welfare benefits. We have to bulk purchase in order to eat (sadly most people on benefits dont have access to such luxury!. We have to re-use in order to furnish our home.
We have to tear up all your rubbish, as you cant afford to run a car.
We cant afford to run oil central heating.. so you dont. We cant afford to leave things turned on, so you dont.

Drying clothes - for a family of three, including a toddler, is done over two air's.

As for ideas on buying green stuff.. Oh we make use of the ideas, then do it our way..

And when we do buy esential items (ie bed) we go into credit, so we can buy items which will last a long time.

We don't own most gadgets, but we do own a very sharp kitchen knife, and a good assortment of tea towels. :D

Advertising, government propaganda, which ever you wish to call it, is sadly governed by the government, and as such it does the job they want it to do.

Nothing else.

Nicole D. Johns said...

A great post. I totally agree. I find that so many of my "green" friends are into buying more than they are into conserving. I think thriftiness is a by-product of buying responsibly and consciously. It's a daily struggle for me to resist spending and consuming. I have been making a concerted effort to just stay home more or go to places like parks and the library for fun time with my family. It works. We bring along some lunch or dinner and make a day of it. If you don't have the opportunity to shop, then you really can't. Of course there's always the internet but I manage to resist that most of the time.

Unknown said...

Well said vicki. I'm on disability & as such am not supposed to even try to earn any extra funds. I don't drive; have no tumble drier or TV; use solid fuel for heating & hot water (started off ripping anything that could be burnt to keep us warm ~ the whole house needed renovating, so I burnt all the old rotten wood, drylining, anything that would hold a flame); kitchen & bathroom came free from a pub that was about to be bulldozed; much of my furniture is hand-me-downs. The things that have to be bought often have to be put on hold until I can afford them ~ that's why part of the house is still a damp shell. I really want to fence off a chicken section of my land (the compensation from the "accident" that left me hemi-plegic bought me the property), so I'm trying to find out how to sink poles into rock & then make wattle fencing from the branches of the trees that had to come down. Anyone have any ideas as to what I can do with ripped bales of ancient silage?

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