Less Stuff, More Happiness
November 2010
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How to Transform the Modern Shopping DilemmaGifts

As winter holiday shopping inexorably nears its peak, the last weeks of the year are often the most frenetic. We’re bombarded with advertisements for gifts of all kinds, caught between doing good for the people we love and thinking that surely there’s a better way than trudging around like beasts of burden, crossing hazardous parking lots and navigating crowded malls in search of a satisfying end to the seasonal buying spree.

We wonder: Will the gifts we spend our time and money to buy really make anyone happy—or the world a better place?

What if we could reinvent shopping every day of the year? It turns out that it’s possible to simplify our shopping, while at the same time making it both meaningful and green, including purchasing gifts that will do the most good every time they are used.

On our way to realizing this ideal solution, it helps to understand the origins of the modern shopping dilemma. To begin, we must ask ourselves why we respond to marketers in ways that perpetuate mindless socioeconomic trends.

From Producer to Consumer

Americans experienced a major paradigm shift in the early part of the 19th century with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Basically, we changed from an agrarian economy, in which most people produced what they consumed, to a manufacturing and services economy, in which people are mostly just consumers.

According to the online Encyclopedia of Earth, the present-day “worker as consumer” worldview was fully entrenched in the United States by the 1920s, when the labor movement stopped advocating a shorter workweek to instead focus on securing better wages and working conditions. The goal was to guarantee more buying power for workers, so that they could purchase more than just the necessities of daily living.

After World War II, this idea got a boost from economist Victor LeBeau, who in 1947 declared, “Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

It’s perhaps not coincidental that, “Our national happiness peaked in the 1950s,” as related by Annie Leonard in the compelling video The Story of Stuff, just as television began spreading the new philosophy of what Leonard calls “work-watch-spend.” We work to make money, then come home and relax as we watch television. On TV, we see ads that let us know that we could do and be a lot better—if only we had the right product. So, we begin to feel less worthy, go shopping and buy that product that we hope will make us do/become/feel better, and the cycle repeats.

Today, shopping has become firmly entrenched in the American lifestyle. It is used as an antidote to boredom, a substitute for socializing and a quick fix for a disguised emotional need.  We continue doing it even when we’re aware that we are buying things we don’t need and can’t afford. The more aware among us also understand that all the stuff we buy and store, and cause to be manufactured and distributed, creates a negative impact on people’s lives and the environment—which leads to even more stress.

Stuff versus the Right Stuff

Among the reasons that it’s possible to make shopping different today is the dawning of conscious awareness about the impact a product has through its entire life-cycle, from raw resources through ending up in a landfill or recycled. Daniel Goleman, whose books explore emotional and social intelligence, has tackled this topic in Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.

“Ecological intelligence,” he explains, “lets us apply what we learn about how human activity impinges on ecosystems so as to do less harm and once again to live sustainably in our niche—these days, the entire planet.”

Goleman advocates that we take our role as consumers seriously in three ways: 1) Get the information and know the ecological impacts of the things we buy; 2) Favor the eco-friendly improvements that companies make to their products; and 3) Share that information. Widespread individual support for sustainable alternatives, says Goleman, “That’s what’s going to give it the magnitude that can actually shift market share.”

On websites like GoodGuide.com and StoryOfStuff.com, we can check on the product lifecycle of everything from cosmetics and bottled water to the electronic gadgets we might be considering as holiday gifts. It’s bound to be a balancing act, unless we elect to forego shopping altogether.

For example, for an e-reader, Goleman counsels, “You’d need to drive to a store 300 miles away to create the equivalent in toxic impacts on health of making one e-reader—but you might do that and more if you drive to the mall every time you buy a new book.”

Goleman hopes that such information will lead us to make informed decisions by using our buying power to show companies the direction they need to take to meet a growing, enlightened demand. As we enthuse to our friends about how well the naturally scented soy candles on our holiday buffet table performed, they might also seek them out, and then tell others. Friends might want a fair trade tablecloth of their own when we gather around one at a dinner party and explain how paying fair wages helps improve labor conditions and supports the local economy of the artisans’ village in India.

Concludes Goleman, “As market share shifts, all of a sudden within companies, the grounds of the debate shifts, because now, doing the right thing is synonymous with capturing market. Doing good is the same as doing well.”

Cultivating Feel-Good Shopping Simplicity

Duane Elgin, author of the landmark Voluntary Simplicity, observes, “Simplicity that is consciously chosen, deliberate and intentional, supports a higher quality of life. In reality, it is consumerism that offers lives of sacrifice, whereas simplicity offers lives of opportunity.”

Although every holiday celebration requires some sort of shopping—even for the most voluntarily simple lifestyle—a new outlook can put our time and money where it does the most good for everyone—including us. In Less Is More, authors Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska detail the types of simplicity thinking that can streamline our shopping and make us feel good, as we do good. Here’s a synopsis:

UNCLUTTERED. Less stuff translates to a more peaceful, serene home environment. Instead of buying a knickknack, why not get creative? Paying for an hour of a home-staging expert’s time to give a friend or family member’s abode a fresh look—using their own things—achieves the aim of effecting change without adding stuff.

CIVIC. Giving money to civic organizations helps the broader community and can simplify gift-giving. Comments Leah Ingram, author of Suddenly Frugal, “I recall my daughter’s long-ago first grade teacher telling us on back-to-school night that she didn’t need any presents at the holidays, and instead, would we please buy board games for the class. That was a specific request that I respected and answered. Had she said that [a specific charity] was her special cause, then I could have made a donation in her name in good conscience.”

FRUGAL. Spending less for things we really don’t need can result in more money saved for the really important things, such as a long-desired vacation that broadens our horizons and helps improve a developing nation. We can also experience the joy of providing unforgettable experiences that enrich loved ones’ lives—perhaps a New York City family reunion taking in the sights and culture, or a weekend skiing the fresh powder of the Rockies. Making special plans close to home can also be instilled with the joy of a special occasion.

BUSINESS-ORIENTED. Business-oriented simplicity leads us to seek more meaningful alternatives to tchotchke-type gifts for employees and colleagues. Gift certificates to locally owned, green restaurants, health spas and other conscientious retailers and service providers help support local communities while honoring business associates and making shopping meaningful—and simpler—for us.

SOULFUL. Less time spent shopping also translates to the option of devoting more time to beneficial activities that enhance our authentic selves. Special moments spent taking a walk in a quiet park, autumn garden or another natural setting provide a gentle way to step away from holiday craziness and de-stress.

When we know that the time and money we spent shopping have not only pleased the recipients, but have also done good in the world, it places our efforts in a new and brighter light. “As we get away from materialism,” sums Urbanska, “the focus for Christmas and Hanukkah can return to its real spiritual meaning.”

Judith Fertig is a freelance writer in Overland Park, KS; for more information visit www.AlfrescoFoodAndLifestyle.blogspot.com.