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Taking a step back from consumerism

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“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production.” No, this isn’t Apple’s secret business slogan, nor is it a window into a dystopian future where everything hinges on consumption. This is a quote from Adam Smith’s book, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. It was published in 1776.

It appears we’re following Smith’s words. According to Trading Economics, Canadians’ spending was at $1,161,382 for the third quarter of 2018, up $1,083,667 in the second quarter. Consumer spending averaged $547,967 each year from 1961 to 2018. The record low was $172,861 in 1961; the record high was the third quarter of 2018.

Other than the fact that we’re blowing through our paycheques (which isn’t hard, given the combination of housing crisis and student status), our consumerism-based society has led Canada to be one of the highest waste-producing nations in the world. According to the CBC, the Conference Board of Canada ranked Canada as 15 out of 17 developing nations in regards to environmental efficiency standards. Len Coad, the Conference Board’s director of energy says this is due in part to Canada’s large land mass and the necessity for natural resources, but our inefficiency in using these resources is an issue as well.

The rise in consumer society began after the Second World War and the Great Depression. After it was no longer necessary to adhere to a strict budget and make do with what one had, identity shifted from how much one made to how much one bought. This was especially true for wives: they moved from being expected to be thrifty and make ends meet to being household managers of funds this is likely why many ads were targeted at wives and mothers.

Following this, consumption snowballed, and magazines were a substantial cause of this. Ads were tailored to both men and women, subtly changing their wording to fit with cultural ideas of the time. They’re worded in such a way to make it seem that yes, you do need this product we’re advertising. Even now, ads are customized for the person viewing them; log onto Facebook and you’ll see what I mean.

Though the war ended nearly 75 years ago, we continue our high-spending habits. According to Sven Van de Wetering, associate professor of psychology at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), there are a couple of reasons for the increase in spending in present day, and they all involve needs. The first being basic needs: we need food to survive, and clothes to cover ourselves. But most of us want variety. Growing up in Western society, we’d get bored if we ate beans for every meal, or wore the same shirt five days in a row. We crave diversity of choice, and that’s something we’ve learned as more things become available to us.

But part of the purpose of shopping is to fulfill social needs, too. As humans, we desire and need connection with others in order to live healthy and happy lives, and these relationships are affected by how we display ourselves to others. After physical needs are met, social needs in the form of approval of others are sought; this can be done through the clothes we wear, the vehicles we drive, and the devices we carry. Unfortunately, shopping goes beyond us trying to look good and gain social approval it can also be evoked when our efforts of connection end in rejection, ridicule, or humiliation.

“A lot of the time you get rejected and at some point in time you feel pain. You go to the mall, buy yourself a nice new outfit. That is both an emotional coping mechanism and an attempt to improve your social signaling abilities,” said Van de Wetering.

But relationships can also positively impact our spending habits. In fact, having a number of close relationships can significantly reduce our desire to shop. And, as students, these relationships can help us get through midnight paper writing and finals without turning to shopping as a coping mechanism.

“Cultivating relationships is more emotionally rewarding for most people than shopping is. There’s a fringe benefit: those are the people who typically care the least about your social status. They care about who you are, not how much money you make or what position you occupy in some obscure occupational hierarchy.”

As a student, think of all the things you buy and the waste you create. Do you remember to bring your reusable mug when you stop for coffee at Fairgrounds? Do you keep your notebook after class is done for the semester, or do you toss it? Do you take a trip to the mall when you’re stressed about exams?

One thing we as students can do to reduce waste at UFV is bring reusable coffee cups when we’re fueling up at Fairgrounds or Tim Hortons. At present, we’re not doing so hot.

“I see some people using reusable goods, but it looks to me like a minority. I still see an awful lot of people disposing of disposable coffee cups.”

Of course, we may have reasons for this. According to Van de Wetering, part of the problem is that, as students, we’re already trying to maintain our regular functioning while juggling classes, work, and social lives. Trying to remember to grab our reusable cups on the way out the door when we’re already frazzled just isn’t on our radar.

Another thing we can do: find alternate coping mechanisms for dealing with stress that don’t involve shopping. The Government of Canada has a very practical solution to this: identify the stressor, think of ways you can lower the impact of the problem, and take action. But sometimes, the solution isn’t as clear-cut. Let’s say you’re stressed about exams you can’t just say “No thank you, I’ll pass.” But what you can do is go for a walk, talk with friends and family, paint, write, or read all proven ways to reduce stress levels.

But if we do find ourselves itching to spend money in order to get that feel-good rush (thanks to neurotransmitters released in the brain when we buy something), the next best thing we can do is spend money on experiences, rather than physical objects.

“Luxuries that take the form of experiences tend to be more enjoyed than luxuries that you bought and take home,” said Van de Wetering.

In present day, humans value experiences more than things. According to Forbes, physical objects clothes, kitchen items, vehicles represented specific life milestones. Now, experiences going to a concert with friends, spending the day at the beach are more valuable because it’s a way to build community. (This circles back to the importance of close relationships.) We don’t need extra stuff piling up; we need to build memorable experiences with the people we’re close with.

David Suzuki, much like Forbes, presents an interesting idea in Huffington Post: a consumerism-based society is outdated. During the Great Depression, items were made to last because people couldn’t afford to go out and buy a new winter jacket every season, or a new toaster because your old one doesn’t match the colour of your kitchen. What they already owned needed to endure. But with the end of World War II and the Great Depression, this need for items to persevere diminished.

Suzuki says that throw-away or disposable clothing is planned to be as such. If something is cheap and easy to wear through, you’re more likely to go out and buy something new to replace it when it inevitably rips. And if it doesn’t, well, everything is so cheap that you don’t feel bad about donating it and buying something new anyway.

Unfortunately, fast fashion brands are thriving. Forever 21’s Bangladesh-based warehouses aren’t protected by the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety because the execs refuse to sign. H&M refuses to pay factory workers living wages. I’m sure you’ve heard of the garment warehouse collapse in Rana Plaza that killed 1,000 garment workers and injured another 2,500? Five years later, it’s still a problem.

Fast fashion isn’t the only problem: the Guardian reports that Amazon allegedly treats its workers poorly; they’re overworked, underpaid, subject to “frivolous disciplinary action.” Injuries aren’t dealt with, and bathroom breaks aren’t allowed.

Aside from the exceptionally unethical behaviour of these companies (and, you know, the death and suffering of thousands of people), there’s the environmental impact. Polyester is a common fabric used by fast fashion brands. Polyester sheds tiny plastic fibres that seep into the ocean that aren’t isn’t biodegradable, and neither are most household items. And the environmental effects are staggering.

“Making this stuff typically involves mining materials which causes environmental damage; transporting materials causes damage through greenhouse gas emissions through transport devices. Many of the things actually use electricity or gasoline or you know, various energy sources that some way or another contribute to climate change. And then when you dispose of them, they poison the water,” said Van de Wetering.

Have you received a package from Amazon lately? Did you noticed the unnecessary layers of paper and plastic shrouding your items? When we throw away our clothes and their packaging (or broken toasters, or old microwaves), they don’t decompose; they sit in landfills or the ocean.

“A lovely statistic they were trotting out a couple of years ago was that by 2050 the mass of plastic in the oceans will be greater than the mass of fish. It’s pretty disturbing. And of course that plastic is mostly plastic that was used to wrap consumer products,” said Van de Wetering.

One potential solution to our over-consuming is the third R: recycle. The good news: you can recycle pretty much everything that’s made of paper, plastic, or glass. You can also donate your gently used clothing and household items to donation centres (think Value Village or MCC for us Fraser Valley folk). And according to Recycle B.C.’s 2017 report, 174,942 tonnes of recycling was collected, and Recycle B.C. stops at 1,390,000 homes throughout the province.

The bad news: only 38 per cent of B.C. residents are aware that Recycle B.C. exists. So, while 174,942 tonnes of recycling sounds like a lot, it’s likely not. And Recycle B.C. doesn’t take clothing, furniture, or household items.

One cool, albeit challenging, alternative to our consumer-based society is the zero waste movement, which is exactly as it sounds: you remove anything from your life that causes waste. (Note: “remove” does not mean throw out. “Remove” means recycle, donate, or repurpose.) You use reusable mugs instead of getting paper cups at coffee shops, you take your own containers to the grocery store and fill up in the bulk section whatever you do, don’t buy plastic water bottles. Yes, it takes a conscious effort to live this way.

But that’s what Zero Waste Canada (ZWC) and other online initiatives are for. ZWC is a non-profit that helps people you guessed it reduce the amount of waste they produce. They hold events, run campaigns, and have a list of educational resources on their website, all in order to bring awareness to the growing consumerism and waste problem we’re facing.

Think about it: what would UFV look like as a zero-waste campus? The cafeteria would have to overhaul all their products, switching all containers to compostable models; students would need to bring their own containers if they wanted anything from Fairgrounds; the bookstore would need to ban all plastic from their products.

But zero waste isn’t for everyone. In fact, it isn’t for most people, and that’s okay it takes a lot of work (especially for an institution as large as UFV), and the result is that you’ll likely miss out on a lot of things you enjoyed before. And that, according to Van de Wetering, is the worst thing you can do when trying to promote a greener planet, and may do more harm than good.

“Frankly, asking people to significantly decrease their quality of life in order to protect the environment is a total nonstarter. It’s necessary, but it’s the absolute political kiss of death.”

Talking about reducing shopping and, by extension, lessening the waste we produce isn’t about selling all your belongings and refusing to buy anything ever again. In fact, Van de Wetering believes reducing waste shouldn’t impact your daily living much at all.

“We still can enjoy a reasonably high quality of life while still protecting the environment. I think that’s the end game. I hope it’s possible and I hope we do it. But we’re not all going to move into yurts and eat nothing but wild rice for the rest of our lives.”

Maybe not, but there are things we can do: find healthy coping alternatives that don’t involve shopping, focus on relationships and experiences over things, use reusable over plastic when possible, educate ourselves. Reducing our consumption and waste doesn’t have to be a challenge, but it is something that needs to be done.

Yes, think of the changes you make as saving money and reducing waste. But also think of it as doing your part to keep the Earth clean, of swapping stuff for connection, of making a difference. Consumer society saw a spike at the end of the Second World War, and 75 years later, we’re continuing the pattern; but we don’t need to. In some ways, consumption is necessary, but overconsumption is a multi-faceted problem. As students and as the next generation, it’s time we analyze our buying habits and ask ourselves the question: “Do I really need this?”

Image: Mikaela Collins/The Cascade

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