I can’t say I identify as an anti-consumerist at this point, but I’ve had such leanings for several years and I see them growing stronger. Sometimes it is a little bit frightening. I don’t actually want to become the spoilsport activist who goes around loudly disapproving of things that other people enjoy or are not educated enough not to enjoy. If I were to go down that route, I’d like it to be my personal thing, like religion is personal to a lot of people, except the fundamentalists and those that desire to convert everyone.
Its roots are probably in my slightly animistic thinking, love of nature and general sentimentality. I like items to be special, have a story to tell. People who mindlessly consume do seem to lose the ability to enjoy simple things. They would need even greater luxury or greater quantities to feel an item is special. I kind of want to preserve my joy over simple things, so I wouldn’t want to numb my senses with overconsumption to mindless levels.
This modern trend of very expensive weddings and engagement rings, for example, is completely incomprehensible to me. I’m not going to criticise it either because I just don’t understand it. It clearly matters to many people to have things in their wedding that cost a lot but why it matters so much is a bit of….I wouldn’t want to draw the obvious conclusion. There are very few people like me who’d be okay with a 1 euro ring too if it had personal significance. I said I was a sentimentalist, I did.
So I’d like to think that my consumption levels are not very high compared to the averages of today. They are not admirably low either, though. I like pretty things a lot and pretty clothes, so my closet is not minimalist and is never going to be. However, I do find it very satisfying when whatever items I’ve bought get a good amount of use. I feel good throwing away shoes that have become unuseable because the signs of wear are really bad. I do not feel good throwing away perfectly good quality items, though. Those I take to recycling or second hand store collection points. Sometimes I turn some items into sewing projects too. And generally tend to try to find alternative uses for things if I can think of them.
I would not mind living in a world where clothes were so expensive that you could only afford a few, like it was the case in the 19th century.
I am spoilt and like having a lot of choice at this point, but I could live like this too if I made up my mind to it and set it as a goal, and I admire people who do already, unless they are annoying fundamentalists who think everyone who cannot live like them is a worthless human being.
I’m truly frustrated with the amount of fake materials used in nearly every industry. I would really love to buy high-quality ethically-made natural-material based products. I think very many people would love to. For some the cost may be a stumbling block, but an even greater stumbling block is the lack of such products and how hard it is to find them on the market. If one goes down that route, it becomes your entire life to seek out such products. And that is a point for pause and reflection on one’s priorities.
Basically, to buy high quality, you need to become very, very informed. With clothing it is a little bit easier because there aren’t too many things to look for – just avoid fake materials, like polyester, and seek for brands that manufacture their clothing sustainably, do not use toxic chemicals and so forth. However, the massive problem with such brands for me is that I simply do not like their designs. I’ve looked sometimes, but have not found anything that I would want to buy. Not to mention that brands like that are not available in department stores and if you live in a small country, like me, you would need to order such clothes abroad.
If these brands made more stylish/interesting/feminine/cute clothing and would become more widely available, I’d be a sure customer, but as is the case now, I shop in the same stores everyone else does and hope for the best. What I would never buy are H&M jeans though. The smell of those things is vile. If an item fails even the smell test, then it is very bad indeed. Samsung fridges also smell vile and some washing machines and kettles. I actually bought my current fridge because it was one of the few that didn’t stink to high heaven.
Is this a normal situation?! Couldn’t we just double the prices of everything, give up the attitude that everyone needs 50 items of clothing and all modern tech, AND actually go back to offering high quality again, so shopping isn’t about picking the least offensive item.
I’m moving from the easier to the more complex in terms of how informed you need to be – next step is food. Awareness of chemicals and unnecessary additives is increasing, but it is definitely tiresome that a person has to turn shopping into a battle of intelligence against producers that try to sell you crap. Anyhow, at this point, I’ve not managed to learn everything yet. Some years ago, I didn’t know that palm oil was bad, for example. It looks natural enough on a label compared to E620. There are plenty of things I don’t know now either. And even if I know what is good quality, how am I supposed to access it when no store stocks French fries without palm oil? (Not buying them is not an option all the time because I cannot cook everything from scratch, and yes, I’ve tried many times, I’m just horrible at cooking vegetables). Also, how can I be sure when buying from a local farmer (who is not a personal acquaintance) that they haven’t soaked their fruit and vegetables in chemicals either? If I want to avoid plastic, how can I be sure that in transporting fruit and vegetables to a packaging-free store, massive amounts of plastic have not been used which only got removed in the store? All in all, I have kind of given up trying because clean food is very hard to access, choice is very limited and there is rarely certainty. It only seems possible to eat clean, high-quality food if you grow it yourself. Until I can do that, I just choose the less bad alternatives from whatever is available.
My pathetic attempt to grow things myself on the balcony
Cosmetics industry requires an education in chemistry to manage to make informed choices. Organic labels help, but are not always sufficient indicators of quality. There is a lot of greenwashing going on, with brands advertising themselves as pure and natural, but having SLS as the second ingredient. If you learn that silicones (things ending with -cone, like dimethicone), parabens and sulphates (particularly sodium laureth sulphate) are bad, you’ve passed grade 1 in orienteering in cosmetics, but it is only the beginning.
It is very much a matter of priorities and convenience too. A lot of the products marketed to us are not really necessary, why would a person need separate moisturisers for their feet and hands, for example? And everyone knows how cellulite got turned into a cosmetic problem so that people could be marketed anti-cellulite treatments. It is actually possible to get all your cosmetics from nature, from the fridge, but since we’ve grown up with getting them out of plastic bottles, it is very hard to rethink it and these things may not work for everyone.
Once again, I’m not there at all myself either. I don’t buy supermarket stuff, I generally buy organic, but that’s as far as I’ve currently gone. My hair is very difficult, so after years of trying with absolutely everything, from medical and organic shampoos to egg and yoghurt, I’m currently using a shampoo with SLS as the second ingredient. It’s a medical shampoo and there isn’t any alternative to it for me, as much as I’d rather like to use something a lot milder.
I think this is the case for very many people in their attempts to turn more ‘natural’, to prioritize quality and sustainability. First, it is so very hard to get that informed to even know what is good. Secondly, when you do know a bit, finding products that meet all your preferred criteria, without causing a massive drop in quality of life, is like finding the holy grail. The compromises one has to make are too great for very many people. I honestly don’t know what I’d end up eating at all if I tried to go one month fully organic/plastic-free. I could probably manage to improve considerably in the clothes & household items & cosmetics department, but not food.
The thing I can see myself improving in is actual attitude to consumption, which is what I began this long essay with. I have become increasingly more disinclined to buy stuff I do not absolutely need and frequently try to think of creative alternatives. Because what we think we “need” is often social pressure and skilful marketing. Spotting that and realizing you don’t actually need it can be like a fun game. But giving up frozen fries and all sweets containing palm oil is just too hard for lack of alternatives and would make life a misery for me. Perhaps there will come a time when it will not feel so, who knows.
When I hear consumerist people talking about my kind of life choices, they often use the same argument – that such a life would be misery if you could not have all that stuff and comfort of modernity. I do not view myself as lacking though. I truly don’t care and feel pleased with myself for having a mind of my own about what I “need”.
With “things” I do see potential for social change. It is probably utopian but I think an attitude change could work: if the cheapest dress cost 300 EUR in Western countries, people would pick it carefully and treasure it more, instead of buying a pile of 10-euro dresses. Same goes for every other item. There would be less need to produce that much because people can only afford few. There would be less waste and everything would be better quality because that would be prioritized again. Perhaps with the environmental crisis we are facing, such measures could be introduced: i.e. very strict quality requirements that would drive up prices. But with overpopulation, the food problem cannot really be solved in any way. Food has to be cheap so people can afford it and it is not possible to produce quality food on such scale, as sad as that may be. Making locally sourced food more easily available in supermarkets is possible, though. It’s depressing how they keep selling foreign mass-produced apples when we are having an apple season and there is an excess of them in all gardens….