Buying Less

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Consumption for the sake of consumption is a bad idea, both economically and environmentally. Buying on a whim or buying things for the sake of buying them is simply a bad idea.

I participated in a waste study a few years back that looked at what people threw in the trash (and the recycling bin). I was often shocked by the things people threw away. Perhaps more notably, I was perplexed as to why they bought the stuff in the first place. I’m reminded of an old friend telling the story of his mom and dad out shopping one day. The conversation went something like this.

“Oh, look, honey, these are on sale three-for-five dollars!” his mom noted enthusiastically.
“Do you really need three, Mom?” the dad inquired.
“They’re usually two dollars each; we’re saving a dollar on the three.”
“You know what?” the father calmly replied, “You’ll save three bucks if you only buy one.”

Always looking for a bargain, the newest gadget or the material thing that we think will bring happiness or notoriety, many of us buy things we don’t necessarily need or which we can’t afford.

Shopping has become a pastime and “extreme couponing” is a sport. This is not to say, by the way, that shopping is evil or that searching for a bargain is a bad thing. But like anything in life, too much of something is, well, too much. It’s even given rise to its own show, “Extreme Couponing.” Those that they feature are quite proud of the incredible bargains and free things they manage to dig up in their quest for the ultimate coupon bargains. Many of the extreme “couponers” have had to add storage space onto their house or property in order to store all this stuff. It begs the question: how many bottles of dishwashing liquid, containers of deodorant or boxes of macaroni does one family need? Can it all be used before it goes bad?

What began as a money-saving shopping strategy, seems to have become a bizarre obsession, and one that is bad for the environment. Many frequently overlook the volume of resources they consume or the waste they generate. Some argue that our energy use and waste generation are a reflection of a vibrant economy, but a look at the statistics tells a different story. (A great source for such statistical background is www.nationmaster.com.) A number of nations with similar standards of living use much less energy and produce notably less waste than the United States. Even after recycling, we generate nearly twice as much waste as Japan and we more than double the energy use per capita of much of Western Europe.

This life in the fast lane of consumption does not necessarily mean we are healthier or happier than other places in the world either. The United States leads the world in percentage of overweight people and ranks a dismal 49th in life span. A dozen countries score better on personal happiness and satisfaction with their plight in life.

Nineteenth century naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau suggested that we “Simplify, simplify.” We might be well served to try it once and awhile.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday in the Mirror. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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