Thursday, January 03, 2008

Making the least of the January Sales

So it's 2008 and we still haven't solved this wee problem of climate change. Who would have thought it?

This is a good time of year to think about such things, mostly because many people are feeling hard up and it is much easier to be environmentally-friendly when you're living on Queer Street. Indeed, as far as your British consumer is concerned, by far the most significant behavioural change an individual can make is simply to buy less stuff. Every single little thing we purchase required a certain amount of energy to produce and transport to us. And we have a lot of stuff.

Of course, nobody has a great investment in promoting this message and amidst the constant barrage of messages equating stuff with happiness, it may sound a little depressing.

Here in the West, spending money is a national past-time. It is quite extraordinary compared to other cultures and our own culture just a few generations back. People always wanted stuff, people always aspired to have nice things for all sorts of practical, social and psychological reasons and they always will. But that doesn't mean Epirucus wasn't right.

Is there any relationship between the stuff we have and our quality of life? Financial security is one thing, but that's quite different - and sometimes incompatible - with having a load of stuff. This culture of constant buying is not sustainable. Even if it wasn't for the small matter of climate change, it is not economically sustainable. And indeed, it's not psychologically sustainable; frankly, I think it makes us miserable. None of us have enough money to buy all the stuff we think we want. The last person who actually used the phrase "hard-up" to describe their financial situation is actually one of the wealthiest people I know. But they are hard-up in the Mr Micawber sense; lots of people owe money and feel that they can't afford things which they need.

, by the way, is my second-favourite Greek and people imagined that his household, intent as they were on a life of pleasure, was a place of orgies and hedonistic consumption (thus epicurean). In fact, having studied the matter in great depth, Epicurus hit upon what we really need:
"Of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship."
So there you go.

Anyway, Sage has given up buying stuff for New Year and many other bloggers - lead by Andrea at A peek inside the fish bowl - are participating in the Shopping Embargo 2008, giving up non-essential buying for the first two months of the year (a project I came across through Nna Mmoy Andrea, who has written a number of super posts about The Green Family).

I think this is ambitious and very much worthwhile, but as Sage pointed out in an excellent post, to be environmentally-conscious can sometimes be a little like belonging to a religious sect which can alienates those who feel they can't commit to the entire doctrine. Therefore, some suggestions about reducing the amount of stuff you buy, without making any solid promises or feeling that you're missing out:
1. Use the stuff you have. Often revisiting old stuff can be as rewarding as brand new stuff; books you haven't read and movies you've not seen in an age. If you enjoy the things you actually possess, you will have less desire for the things you haven't got yet.

2. Use is a much better measure than need when it comes to making purchases. The issue of need is very difficult to wrestle with, and one can end up feeling very guilty about the slightest luxury - at least I can. A far greater sin than having things you don't need is having things that you don't use. Nobody needs two dozen pairs of shoes, but if you have them and each pair gets an outing at least once every few months then that is far better than a person who has just two pairs of shoes and only ever wears one. One is wasteful, the other is not.

3. Share your stuff. I must say it is second-nature for me to consider who I might pass a book onto once I've read it before I actually buy it. Borrow stuff and lend stuff, and where appropriate, give things away. Don't be afraid to offer people the stuff you don't want; so long as you make it clear that you will not be hurt by their refusal. Otherwise sell stuff on eBay and offer things up on Freecycle.

4. Identify truly useless purchase. The magazine or newspaper you barely flick through, the cosmetic magic potion whose promises never deliver and so on. Make sure that the only things you buy out of habit are bread and loo-rolls. Or at least that sort of thing.

5. Beware The Radish Principle. This is when, in the summer, you want to buy some radishes to go in your salad, and at the supermarket you can buy two packets of radishes for the price of one. Only you don't particularly like radishes, it's not like they can be used up in any recipes you know of and so you neither need nor want the extra packet of radishes. Only they're free! Free radishes!

This is the kind of heart-breaking moral quandary I face in my life. I hope you sympathise. Point is that however cheap something is, it is not good value for money unless you actually want it.

Do you get the impression that all I ever spend money on is books and groceries? Hmm, not quite.


Anonymous said...

I went into Marks & Spencers yesterday, having been given some vouchers to spend, and thinking I might stock up on some exciting things like socks. It was my first venture into the sales and I was horrified! The place looked like a vultures had descended on it; clothes were strewn here, there and everywhere. Old ladies started elbowing me out of the way in attempts to get the cheapest underwear and in the end I started to feel claustrophobic and had to escape. It amazed me how materialistic and almost vicious people were being in their search for a bargain :( Definitely won't be going back to the sales again!

Radio Clare

Anonymous said...

OMG, the radish principle! HA HA HA HA

Yeah. Guilty. Fortunately, I am a cheapskate, so it really only happens with art supplies, and I am getting better about it. Or maybe it's just that I'm chronically out of cash with which to indulge even in bargains, and yes that would be because of the number in which I have already indulged.


And then I make it all into stuff, and the stuff gets ordered and shipped to people all over the world -- or at least the western hemisphere, so far. But the stuff makes people happy, and I like to make things that make people happy, even if it is only a very shallow kind of happiness, just basically being pleased. So I'm rooting for different types of energy, personally, ones that don't create nasty greenhouse gases.

This is still very good advice, though. Even if there were no environmental cost to buying whatever the heck we wanted whenever the heck we felt like it, there would still be other issues like being the sort of people who don't take other people for granted, and this can only be preserved when the work of other people stays special to us, and this can only happen when we can't just order up whatever we want and throw it on the pile when it gets here. You know what I mean?

Anonymous said...

Yes, good points. I agree. And I had a lot of hte same reservations last year (when, instead of forswearing shopping, I made a list of specific purchases I was going to try not to make). And really, even this year I am likely to slip, and that's ok because for me this is about thinking more carefully about what it is I want to buy and why I want to buy it and whether or not this thing I am looking at is really going to fill the need or want I have, or if I have only been conditioned to believe that it will. If that makes sense.

I was actually stunned (and pleased) when I looked back at last year's embargo and realized how many of those little changes had stuck, and become habits; which is why I'm doing it again.

Frankly if I can even just get through two months without buying a new book, I will be very proud of myself.

Mary said...

hehe, Radish Principle. The other side of it is when Steve and I are too ill/knackered to cook and order pizzas. Just the pizzas costs £18. But if we order the premium choccy ice cream (£3) too, then we've spent over £20 so we get £4 off so the total bill is £17. I promise, hand on my heart, not a scrap is wasted.

I get really cheesed when people talk about how poor they are "because we've had to take one of the cars off the road, and we're only having one holiday this year, apart from Easter in Devon and that doesn't count because it's in the UK..." but I've got to admit that even in the times when I've been 'poor', I've still bought things I didn't desperately need. Like orange squash and teabags, instead of just drinking plain water. Not essential, I could have survived perfectly well with just plain water, but teabags and orange squash made things that little bit more palatable. Everyone defines their needs differently. I suspect that at least a couple of people doing this 'shopping embargo' are still going to buy, in their groceries, stuff that another person would regard as fripperies - and that the person doing the regarding would buy things which the regardee would see as useless.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I have no intention of giving up my pizza and ice cream. :)

Sage said...

Thanks for the link - I always assume that if I have no comments it means nobody's reading anything!

@Mary - I agree that needs will be defined differently. I can forgo bought pizza, but I will have fair trade tea every day, all year. So long as we all cut down on buying, and be a mindful when we're out shopping, it'll help a little.

Anonymous said...

Yes, use what we have. I would wager that anyone who is blogging doesn't even know all the things he or she has, much less use them all.

The Goldfish said...

Clare, to be honest I haven't ventured into the January Sales for years; I find it so chaotic and you really have to be up for a lot of hard work if you want to find a bargain that you really wanted in those circumstances; there's so much on offer, all mixed up and so many people.

Sara, I think your point about non-environmental issues is an important one; who is making all this stuff? And are they making it in reasonable conditions? We can't investigate every product we buy, but consumerism does raise these issues.

Andrea, yes that does make sense. I guess the embargo might work like a diet for someone who is unhappy with their eating habits; afterwards, they've hopefully learnt better habbits even if they don't need to be quite as strict all year round.

Mary, I honestly believe that, however we approach these issues, we have to try to solve them without compromising quality of life. Unless you were struggling to afford enough protein and carbohydrate to survive, I wouldn't consider teabags a luxury. :-)

Sage - I read every single post you write, and I did think that was a very good post which I shall undoubtedly return to.

End of M., yes, I'm quite sure.

MsAmpuTeeHee said...

Love the post. I'm working on this, too.

Have you seen "The Story of Stuff" yet??

Elizabeth McClung said...

This might have been meaningful and good had I read it BEFORE my trip to Seattle for the Post-post Xmas sales (the get everything 50% off last price kind of sales) - now I think you can just put me in the socialist/we are all a village prison - which I won't mind that much because I don't need to shop for the next X months - how about I promise not to buy any more stuff for a few months starting NOW; which is a promise I have a slightly better chance of keeping.