We’ve all seen it. Somehow the trendiness of sustainability has allowed our consumer pasts to seep into our plans for the future. Instagram is filled with minimalist pictures of the best new gear to hop out and buy. Influencers push more and more products that are just a click away. And although the rationale of buying better products is good at heart, buying more and buying new is an easy trap to fall into, especially if you are prone to impulse buying to begin with. So today, we’ll focus on how to avoid consumerism while continuing on our zero waste journeys.
But not all these advertisements are bad. Since most ethical and sustainable companies are small and just starting out, it can be hard to find out about them without sponsored posts. It’s important to have this stream of information, but at the same time we each need to reflect on what is best for our interests and if what we have right now still does the job. We need to learn to be patience, to use up what we have, and to find other avenues of “shopping” that are better for the environment.
We also need to remember to keep our personal “why’s” in mind when we are faced with the option to make new purchases. Consider the consequences that decision will have on your chosen reason to save the planet to nudge you in the right direction.
This post will also include a brief discussion of some things you might see all over the internet, but you really don’t need them. Either you can just do without them completely, or there’s something you own that can serve the same purpose.
Learn Patience And Resist Impulses
It’s hard to avoid consumerism when we’re surrounded by product ads (or just pretty photos). We get impatient and impulsive, justifying it as a “sustainable swap”. We don’t want to wait until our shampoo bottle runs out to switch to fancy shampoo bars. No one wants to wait until their shirts become rag-worthy to buy a new one from an ethical brand. Frustration drives you to impulse buys that end up replacing a useful item you already have.
I’m still trying to use up my disposal products. Sometimes it really bothers me that I’m still surrounded by plastic when I could go out and buy better versions right now. I’ve bought things impulsively because they look pretty and are sustainable or zero waste, but I didn’t really need it right then. While that would make me feel good in the moment, I’d feel guilty afterward because I’m wasting what I own. Or I let the new item sit there and taunt me as I continue to use up what I own instead (sooo frustrating).
The best way I’ve found to stay patient is by keeping yourself busy by learning. Read an informative article or watch a documentary. Research resources available in your area. Discuss the environment or zero waste with others in person or online.
Take this new knowledge and set some goals. Focus on changes you can make that don’t require a physical item. By staying busy, you won’t have time to brood over your slowing dwindling supply of disposables. At the same time, you’ll get doses of satisfaction from learning something new and from the changes you make.
Use What You Have And Use It Up
A number of “swap” videos and blog posts take you through the same list of products, but many of those items can already be found in your own home. Three frequent products are travel silverware, mason jars, and reusable bags. Let’s see how we can avoid consumerism by using items found in our own home instead of clicking “Add To Cart”.
A fork and spoon from your kitchen drawer can do the job just as well as a new kit. Many foods already come in glass jars or bottles so you can save these from recycling and use them again yourself. Pasta sauce, pickles, vinegar, jelly, and some drinks can come in glass. Using a backpack, reusing plastic grocery bags, or a cardboard box can perform the same function as new canvas reusable bags. Not only do these diminish the demand for new products, they also save you money.
Be sure to check out my list of 50 (Free) Little Changes which focuses on making do with what you have before heading to the store or Amazon as well as behavioral changes which are both green and save you green.
If keeping busy isn’t enough, try turning using up what you have into a game. Occasionally I go through my apartment and make a list of what I still have to use up. It’s fun to do a kind of scavenger hunt for disposables, see what I’ve used up from last time, and try to guess how long each item has left.
Other Ways To Shop
What happens when you can’t avoid consumerism and do need something new? There’s a few possible solutions that still don’t mean buying new. Shopping secondhand either from online marketplaces or thrift stores has so many benefits. You get something that solves your problem, all while not contributing to new product demand and rescuing one from landfill. You can read more about the benefits of thrift shopping in this post.
While thrift shopping is great, especially for those of us who love to shop, there are other options too. You can ask your friends or family if they have something you need they’d be willing to part with. Have a clothing swap with friends to freshen up your wardrobe. Borrow books from the library instead of heading to Barnes & Noble. Do your best to contribute to a sharing economy instead of a single stream.
Another way to “shop” is by turning these new purchases into gifts you receive from others. This doesn’t avoid consumerism, but it does help reduce it. Instead of being gifted items you don’t want, you’ll ensure you’ll receive something sustainable, needed, and useful.
Keep Your “Why” In Mind
Lastly, before you make any purchases, think about how they will affect the reason you’ve chosen to go zero waste. I discuss finding your “why” in Part 5 of my recent series on How to (Finally) Start Going Zero Waste. Remembering this reason will keep you focused and avoid impulsive decisions.
For example, my “why” is protecting innocent wildlife. When I think about making a purchase, I think about how that purchase will affect (or has affected via production) wildlife. Did its raw materials come from land that used to be thriving animal habitat? At the end of the product’s life, is there a chance it ends up as plastic in the ocean, enticing fish and birds to eat it instead? The answers to these questions help me decide what purchases are worth it.
Things You Probably Don’t Need
There are also some items I recommend avoiding entirely. Special lunchboxes or stainless steel tiffins aren’t necessary. You can use containers or jars you currently have, or learn furoshiki, the Japanese art of cloth wrapping, to protect your meal.
Reusable napkins can be replaced with washcloths or hand towels you already own, or you can make your own our of old clothing. I pack a washcloth with my lunch every day, which also comes in handy to dry my containers after washing them out.
Charcoal sticks for your water in lieu of filter attachments are something that really confuse me. Most tap water is perfectly fine to drink (even many brands of bottled water are just tap water). You can perform a test at home if you are worried about it, but I just drink plain water from the tap.
At the grocery store, I try to avoid bags as much as possible. If I’m buying just a handful of items, I just carry them out with me. Although I do own a mesh produce bag (and use it for green beans), it’s generally not that necessary. Just keep your produce loose instead. I tend to use the self-checkout lanes when possible to avoid potentially annoying the cashiers with my unbagged produce, but it shouldn’t be an issue if you bring it to a cashier.
There are so many ways to avoid consumerism. You can learn to resist impulse buying, turn using up items into a game, shop secondhand, borrow, or just plain do without. Many zero waste swaps are living right under your nose already; sometimes you just need to get creative.
When it comes time to buy new, of course you should try to purchase from companies that align with your beliefs, but for the good of the planet, try to wait a little longer.
Need a few distractions to avoid consumerism? Check out these posts:
- 8 Reasons To Thrift Shop
- 50 (FREE!) Little Changes To Live Sustainably
- What More Can You Do For Our Future?
- List of Must Watch Eco-Documentaries
- List of Must Read Books on Sustainability