It’s time for Americans to buy less stuff

By Terry Nguyen

In September, I started getting pesky emails from brands hinting that I should get a head start on my holiday shopping. Next came the headlines, and then the reminders from social media users dishing out the same advice. Holiday shopping starts a little earlier every year, but this isn’t just the typical push. People are encouraged to order their gifts as soon as possible or risk having packages arrive late, due to rampant supply chain disruptions and mailing delays. Even books (yes, books!) aren’t safe from the impending shortages.

The holiday shopping industrial complex feels especially unavoidable in 2021, with Halloween still more than a week away. Amazon, Macy’s, Target, and Walmart have launched early-bird sales, and retailers are preparing to dish out millions of dollars on ads for strong fourth-quarter sales.

The pandemic briefly curbed consumer spending, but not for very long: As the country opened back up, Americans felt the urge to get out and shop, an impulse that retailers and marketers happily indulged. The early fall holiday shopping schedule is billed to benefit customers by reducing their annual holiday stress, which will likely be compounded by supply chain delays. But when the early bird catches the worm (and the sales), the retailers rake in all the profits.

Early holiday shopping sprees are good news for retail corporations, logistics companies, and the US economy, but bad, ultimately, for millions of workers (manufacturing, retail, logistics, warehouse) and the planet. Instead of opting to order our Christmas presents early, perhaps now is the time to reconsider America’s great shopping addiction.

When the stuff we want is so hard to get ahold of, why go to such great lengths to buy it? Consumers have the option to not order items manufactured overseas, to source things locally from small businesses or artisans. We also have a choice that eliminates the potential for shipping or supply chain mishaps: We can just buy less.

We know that our collective consumption of consumer goods, from the creation of plastic toys to the fossil fuels that ship them to our homes, isn’t good for the environment. Yes, on a consumer level, our ability to control resource consumption is minimal, but that doesn’t mean there’s no good in a holiday season where gift exchanges don’t require an Amazon Prime account or transit via multiple shipping containers. Mindfulness has its own benefits, especially for affluent consumers, which includes America’s upper-middle class. The higher-income consumers among us use far more resources than the less well-off and are responsible for influencing shopping norms at large.

Americans are now more aware than ever of the global supply chain and its vulnerability to unexpected snarls (like the Suez Canal blockage), raw-material shortages, and shipping delays. Experts predict that these problems, set off by the pandemic, won’t let up until 2022 or 2023. To help reduce supply chain backlogs, the Biden administration has ordered major ports and shipping companies, including Walmart, UPS, and FedEx, to increase their working hours. These domestic efforts, while heartening for consumers, are unlikely to assuage existing supply and demand issues across the world.

Meanwhile, the growing severity of climate disasters threatens to impact how we produce, source, and ship these goods, raw materials, and the food we eat. Product shortages and delays, it seems, are the new normal. At the end of this logistic maze is the shopper, whose buying tendencies are cultivated and incentivized from a young age. The entire consumer enterprise could be summed up in one Ariana Grande lyric: “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.”

If these supply chain problems are expected to persist, however, we must be prepared to curb our shopping habits. Conscious or decreased consumption might not move the needle much on climate change or improve the exploitative working conditions faced by those who produce and ship our goods, but that doesn’t mean we have to be trapped in a cycle of thoughtless buying. The alternative isn’t a moral neutral. Must we continue to drown in our unlimited and unfettered need for more stuff, or could we start buying less?

In his book The Uninhabitable Earth, journalist David Wallace-Wells wrote that “there is something of a moral crime in how much you and I and everyone we know consume, given how little is available to consume for so many other people on the planet.”

Shopping, by this logic, is a sin, one that Americans can’t live without. Well-intentioned consumers have tried to do the next-best thing: Shop sustainably. But sustainable shopping is still ... shopping. It’s an oxymoronic act that makes us feel good about the things we buy. True sustainability requires reducing our consumption (and, likely, the country’s economic growth), not through buying “greener” products.

“In an exploitative consumer market, the answer is not buying more. It’s buying less,” argues fashion journalist and activist Aja Barber. “We can’t buy our way to an ethical world.”

Still, most consumers are swayed by the hope of “voting with one’s wallet.” Shopping and boycotting became a means to perform politics in the Trump era and beyond. But consumer activism, or conscious consumerism, does little to impact legislation or corporate policy. The fossil fuel industries, to that end, have weaponized the fallacy of “personal responsibility” to avoid talking about corporate carbon emissions. (An infuriating, oft-repeated statistic from the Carbon Majors Database is that 100 major fossil fuel companies have produced 71 percent of total carbon emissions since 1988.)

As born consumers, we’re faced with a tricky, paralyzing conundrum: Any collective effort will be futile against the scale of climate change, so why should regular people be tasked with modifying their behaviors when the system that runs global commerce is so ubiquitous?

According to one sustainability researcher, intent matters. Making the active choice to think twice before we buy could improve both our happiness and quality of life. It could help shape social norms and influence others toward more-sustainable choices.

Daniel Fischer, an assistant professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, wants to reframe the conversation around sustainable living. People, he told me, often assume they’re adopting a lower quality of life by owning and buying less. “We need to flip this narrative around and emphasize how sustainability allows you to have a better quality of life,” Fischer said. “It’s not about renunciation, but choice.”

His sustainability philosophy centers human needs, or how people can meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. In a consumer society, Fischer explained, our base impulse is to desire material goods that satisfy our needs. People have fundamental needs — food, shelter, safety — and more advanced, self-actualized wants. Most people aren’t fully aware of how to discern these motivations, Fischer added. They buy simply because they “feel like it,” without thinking deeply about the lasting purpose of the purchase. Americans, on average, buy more than one item of clothing each week.

Fischer believes people can be trained to break out of this cycle of consumption. They can choose to replace certain shopping “satisfiers” with more sustainable options: buying vintage and used goods instead of new; seeking out hearty, plant-based meat substitutes; purchasing an experiential gift for their loved ones instead of something material. Fischer calls this process social innovation.

“Our basic needs have always been the same and will always be the same,” he said. “The idea that we have to own every single thing in our household is a recent phenomenon, historically speaking. With social innovation, people can improve their level of satisfaction by still meeting their basic needs while [also] reducing environmental harms.”

Fischer’s work examines how practices such as mindfulness and intention-setting can help a person reflect on their needs. It allows them to consider whether a purchase will bring long-term satisfaction — or, as Marie Kondo puts it, “spark joy” in their lives.

For some shoppers, the pandemic was an opportunity to reassess their consumption habits and relationship to material goods. Many “buy nothing” groups proliferated in quarantine as people sought to trade or give away things they no longer needed. Reddit communities like r/frugal, r/anticonsumption, and r/nobuy, where thousands of members discussed ways to reduce unnecessary spending while stuck at home and shared tips on how to shop intentionally, similarly thrived.

Steph, a 30-year-old corporate lawyer in New York, has gone an entire year without buying a new item of clothing. It’s a commitment that may seem antithetical to fashion, but Steph cares about clothes and appearing stylish — she has an entire Instagram account dedicated to slow fashion and styling. Her intent isn’t to be anti-fashion; she just thinks it’s possible to make do with less.

“During the pandemic, I started a challenge called Project 33, where I could only wear the same 33 items of clothing for the next three months,” Steph told me. “That made me curious about how I could maximize the number of wears I get out of the clothes I already own. Eventually, I committed to not buying anything for an entire year.”

She said she felt freed by the challenge, not restricted: “I have more space in my mind to think about other parts of my life,” she said, “rather than just the things I want.”

Social norms are shifting, and some people are starting to push back against thoughtless, unlimited consumption. Consumers are not only aware of the forces that influence them to buy things but are also, like Steph, actively working to combat them. “I like to believe that everything we do, no matter how small it is, has some sort of impact,” Steph said. “You can demand corporate responsibility while making better individual choices. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”

Individual choice has had an outsized role in climate change discussions, even when it’s clear that federal regulation is the best and most direct way to curb global carbon emissions. The “personal responsibility” debate has trapped American consumers in a cycle of cynicism. It’s easy to shrug our shoulders and continue to order from Amazon while we mutter under our breath that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.”

As citizens of the wealthiest country in the world, Americans’ personal choices do carry some weight. The problem is, it’s hard to quantify the environmental impact of individual actions and lifestyles. Plus, structural systems and social norms make it nearly impossible for people to break shopping habits. About 70 percent of the US economy, after all, stems from consumer spending.

Research has found that a person’s carbon footprint is closely tied to how much wealth they have, even if they’re a supposedly “green” consumer. Wealthy people travel more, buy more stuff, and live in larger, energy-intensive homes. Most “middle class” Americans, according to a 2020 report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, fall in the global top 1 or 10 percent of individuals responsible for blowing through the world’s carbon budget. (For context, anyone earning over $109,000 is categorized in the richest 1 percent of the world, and over $38,000 as within the top 10 percent.) These choices add up over a person’s lifetime, and our tendency to overconsume carries lasting consequences.

On a recent podcast, New York Times opinion writer (and Vox co-founder) Ezra Klein encouraged listeners not to think of their consumption decisions as individual or as only affecting themselves. Rather, they serve as mechanisms for “social, political, and moral contagion.” It’s a mindset that Fischer, the ASU professor and sustainability expert, also champions.

For instance, while Klein admitted his decision to not eat meat is “meaningless” in the context of the global animal trade, it did carry some influence in other people’s choice to go vegetarian or vegan:

It’s in that way that individual attitudes ladder up to social attitudes, and then to social and political change. ... So taking seriously the ideas and morals and views of individuals, that’s not a different sphere than what ends up happening in politics. And it’s not just individual. All of the stuff catches. … I think that a lot of the value of the choices we make is in our willingness to try to use those to change the choices other people see as normal for them to make.

Reducing one’s carbon footprint requires more frugal sacrifices than buying less stuff (such as flying less, eating less meat, using more public transportation), but it’s a good place to start. This holiday season offers a bizarre, supply-chain-induced opportunity to change our shopping habits, to give more thoughtfully, to buy more locally and less overall. Most households are hard-wired to splurge on end-of-year gifts, and it’s unlikely people will ever stop even if the crisis worsens. The supply chain issues can, though, lead us to buy more conscientiously.

The mission to buy less with more intention is achievable for everyone, especially affluent shoppers. It’s incumbent on Americans, the wealthiest people in the world, to cut back on and be critical of their consumption. Plus, if you haven’t ordered that Xbox Series X for the lucky gamer in your life, you might already be out of luck.