Saturday, 20 October 2012

Getting Off the Consumer Merry-Go-Round

A large part of living a more ecologically conscious life day-to-day is about reducing the amount that one consumes. There is a reason why "reduce" is the first R of the environmental 3 Rs: reduce, reuse recycle. It is time to slow down the consumerist  steamroller and purchase less, use less, make do with less.

I would be a hypocrite saying that I lead by example with this. By living in a suburban community of a developed nation I am a consumer whether I like it or not. This is multiplied by having children. They are always begging for the latest toy, the newest widget, another pair of shoes (Shoes? What? Don't look in my closet, ok?). We too frequently confuse a want with a need as a society.

When I was very young my parents did not have a lot of money and often struggled. One winter they they burned older furniture in the fireplace until they could afford a new furnace. Often my mother sewed my clothes to keep within a budget. Homemade presents were a regular occurrence at birthdays and Christmas; she also enjoyed crafting so it wasn't just to save money. Now, as I reflect upon my childhood, I wish I had appreciated my mother's homespun efforts more. While she had to do it out of necessity, I want to emulate it for more of the simple life she created.

I admit that as an adult some of my spending habits are directly related to feeling like I didn't have enough or I wasn't keeping up with my peers. Financially my parents were stronger by the time my brother was born, but odd snippets and images stick with me from my youth. I didn't get my first real pair of jeans until I was twelve years old and my mother frequently took us to a clothing factory in Chinatown where we bought knock-off styles straight from the manufacturer (which truly mortified me and yes, I was teased for it). I loved Playmobile toys but I only every had some from McDonalds happy meals or sets I saved up for myself. I remember being told that I couldn't have something because they didn't have the money at the time. Of course I remember having lots of other material things, and I was well taken care of and much loved, never truly needing anything.

When my husband finished school and we were both finally working full time we started on the consumerist merry-go-round. We bought a townhouse, we slowly started buying new furniture instead of student hand-me-downs, we bought a second car, I was able to buy the latest styles when they were still in style. When we started a family, though, the merry-go-round went into high gear. Christmas, which we had previously been quite jaded about, suddenly became magical again, not to mention birthdays. We bought all the toys we had wanted as children, including tonnes of Little People and Playmobile. In some ways we were reliving our childhood and buying ourselves these things.

It is almost as if I live a double life. I try to live by natural parenting ideals; cloth diapering when all three children were infants, breast feeding, reusable feminine products, hybrid car, walking and biking as much as is convenient, growing veggies in a backyard garden, recycling and composting. We are asking family to cut down on the amount of gifts we exchange at holidays, we try to make gifts or give experiential gifts as much as possible. We are slowly replacing items around our home with more ecologically friendly ones (for example, push mower when rechargeable mower broke down). We eat local, organic and in season as much as possible. We don't buy commercial cleaners and instead use vinegar for most of our cleaning needs.

But I also drive a mini-van, I love shopping for shoes, I like to buy new clothing items each season to update my wardrobe and we buy our daughters plastic toys. For Mother's Day a year and a half ago I desperately wanted and got an iPhone4, and for my last birthday similarly I got an iPad3. We have pizza delivered for dinner when we are busy, we occasionally like to eat out and we enjoy hosting big parties. We have been to Disneyland once and are hopefully planning a big Hawaii vacation with my parents. As a family we generally do not go without something we really want.

I am trying to really examine what we need, and more and more I am reflecting on our wants versus needs when I feel the impulse to buy. Has it stopped me from buying? Not all the time. Has it slowed me down? I hope so. My priorities in life are different than someone else so I don't expect someone to make the same decisions as me. Case in point - my husband thinks I spend too much on clothes and I do not prioritize buying DVDs and music as he does. But we are beginning the conversation with our daughters about needs and wants, talking about what we are grateful for and how fortunate our lives are. I want them to be happy and content in life regardless what they have materially, and I want them to be conscious about where their material goods come from and how they were produced.

There are definitely areas where I need to re-examine my life, my wants and spending patterns. I can do better. I need to take more risks with living by what I believe. Some might call me a hypocrite and I'm sure that when someone like me starts a blog dedicated to thinking about ways to be more ecological it opens me up to finger pointing and criticism.

I think I am a work in progress and I am trying to do better, step-by-step each day. Slowly but surely I am changing my thinking and changing my behaviour.


  1. It's very difficult, isn't it? Like you, I grew up with limited financial means. The difference between needs and wants was inherently understood, and my mother reiterated it if I forgot. What's interesting is that now that we can afford more - my husband grew up similarly- we are even more frugal than our parents were. We definitely indulge in some "wants," but it takes lots of deliberation. (My first phone with a keyboard is the iPhone 4, which shows how LONG we deliberate!)

    It gets more complicated once kids are born. We don't want them to be ostracized, but we don't want them to be materialistic. It's such a delicate balance. Not sheltered, but not spoiled.

    To be so easy, this suburban first-world life is challenging! Thanks for sharing your views and making me think!

    1. Yes, it is difficult, especially when they see friends getting things when we say no.

      Haha, I had to laugh at your comment about the phone with a keyboard. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the cell phone world. And yes, my first cell phone with a keyboard was my iPhone4. :-)