Want to save the environment? Buy less stuff!

A few weeks ago I wrote about my realization that I have too much Stuff. For two decades, I had been a willing participant in our consumerist culture, buying books and magazines and video games and compact discs and George Foreman grills. After twenty years of this, all I had to show for it was a mountain of debt and a home filled with Stuff.

Recently, Kris and I have been working to purge our Stuff. While we've discarded some of it as trash, we've also managed to sell some of it. We've donated some of our Stuff to charity. We've given other Stuff to friends.

At first this was painful. Then it became appalling. It was shocking to think that I'd paid tens of thousands of dollars to buy this Stuff, and then paid even more in interest fees. Now I'm casting much of it aside, shipping it off to a landfill.

This has made me realize that Stuff has more than just a personal financial cost. Every time I buy something, it has an impact on the world around me. When I buy a new kitchen appliance, for example, there's an environmental cost for the manufacturing process, for the packaging, for the transportation, and for the marketing. By reducing my role as a consumer, couldn't I help myself and help the environment? Here are five strategies that I've developed to help me accomplish both goals at once:

  • Reduce your consumption — buy less stuff. Such a simple notion, yet so powerful. The less you buy, the less money you spend. When you buy less, you're also reducing your environmental impact. Buying fewer things means a little more money in your pocket, and a little less pollution in the world.
  • Reuse the things you have. Last week, Amanda encouraged us to get value from the things we own. Before you buy a new computer game, ask yourself if you're finished playing the last one you bought. Before you buy a new bicycle, consider taking your old bike in for a tune-up instead. If you currently buy disposable diapers, disposable razors, or paper towels, consider switching to re-usable alternatives.
  • Recycle the Stuff you no longer want or need. If you replace your 1996-era 19″ Sony television with a new widescreen model, don't set the old TV out in the trash. Find another home for it. Put it on Craigslist. Set it outside with a “free” sign on it. If you really want to save money, place yourself on the other side of the equation: look for Stuff that people are getting rid of. You can find nearly everything you need for much less than you'd pay new. You just need to know where to look!
  • Embrace imperfection. We like the things we buy to be perfect. But that perfection comes at a price, both financially and environmentally. Learn to look beyond the surface:
    • Hand-crafted goods may contain minor imperfections.
    • Organic fruits and vegetables often have visible blemishes that do not affect the quality of the food.
    • The things you find at garage sales and thrift stores will often require mending.

    All of these flaws can be disconcerting at first, but in time you may find yourself wondering why they once bothered you.

  • Pursue quality. I used to buy a pair of $3 gardening gloves every spring because I didn't see the sense in spending more. They'd work fine for a couple months, but by the end of the summer, they'd be worn to pieces. Then one year I bought a $15 pair of gloves. I haven't bought another pair since. We often assume the least expensive option is the best way to save money. That's not always the case. Quality items usually have a higher initial cost, but the total cost of ownership can be much less than a cheaply-made equivalent.

These rules can be difficult to follow — I've been working on some of them for years. Most of the time, I still think like a consumer. But because it's important to the environment, and because it's important to my bottom line, I'm willing to keep trying.

More about...Frugality

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
67 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
AnnieJ
AnnieJ
12 years ago

You have a good point when you say to “pursue quality”. I tend to be the one who will buy the cheap item thinking I’m saving money, while my husband is more likely to spend a little more to get something that will last a little longer. Value is not just a bargain price, it’s a balance of price, quality and longevity.

I’m glad I have him around to help find that balance.

Amanda D
Amanda D
12 years ago

I too grew up believing things only cost what the price tag said they did. It wasn’t until I learned about the psychological burden of too much stuff, the untold costs to the environment or marginal workers & the subliminal need to use money to meet emotional needs that I began to view material objects in a new light. This new perspective on money had also heightened my awareness to monitor what messages I allow to enter into my thought process. I now view television, especially the outlandish ads or over-the-top shows, with more cynicism and contempt for their blatent… Read more »

Let's Discuss Money
Let's Discuss Money
12 years ago

You’re absolutely right. As I’ve got older I have found myself buying less rubbish and not wasting money, which is good, but my problem is that I just can’t throw anything out, and I just end up hording all this stuff I don’t need around the house and in the loft.

Nick
Nick
12 years ago

Your argument that you can simply buy less stuff and save the environment may have one flaw. Is it not simply delaying the inevitable? You may buy stuff at a slower rate but you still are purchasing and using items, thus generating waste. The only way I see for this to be solved is not through individual initiatives but through internalizing the true cost of an item. If you went to the store and bought an item and paid for both the cost to create (manufacturing) and the cost to recycle the item then you would be pre-paying for the… Read more »

Jay Andrew Allen
Jay Andrew Allen
12 years ago

We went through a mass de-cluttering when we moved from Seattle to OK. I believe I threw out about half of our posessions. And we still have some more in our home that we could trim.

Not only is de-cluttering good for the environment – it’s good for your peace of mind as well. I’ve noticed myself feeling far less distracted since ridding ourselves of our extraneous crap. I have less things to pull my attention away, less goods to maintain, and less to clean.

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
12 years ago

(don’t enter this comment, because I wouldn’t enjoy the prints as much as some people)

I like the tension between embracing imperfection and pursuing quality. Both are important, but you have to know when to do which. And sometimes quality has imperfections…such as a good quality piece of furniture with a scratch which won’t be seen and brings down the price. Or a great winter coat which just needs a new lining but can be bought for $5 at Salvo.

Baker
Baker
12 years ago

After reading all of your entries about purging I decided to follow suit. This was my first real weekend off of work with no plans in months. My wife and I spent almost the entire weekend going through our belongings. I threw out old unusable clothes and broken items that had been hanging around. I filled 4 garbage bags full of junk, and have 5 large garbage bags and 4 boxes of clothes and infant toys to be taken to goodwill. I managed to fill to boxes of books I really didn’t need and had lost any interest in holding… Read more »

jasonn
jasonn
12 years ago

“If you replace your 1996-era 19? Sony television with a new widescreen model, don’t set the old TV out in the trash. Find another home for it. Put it on Craigslist.”

This is exactly what we did! Craigslist has helped me a ton the last time I moved and it’s great to be able to help other people out and give these items a new home. Had I not listed the TV on Craigslist, it probably would have eaten up storage space as I’m not exactly sure the best way to dispose of large electronics like that.

Gnashchick
Gnashchick
12 years ago

Ever try freecycle? Don’t buy it – see if someone else is giving away something you want. You don’t want it? Give it away. I have had nothing but good experiences with my local Freecycle mailing list. I have been participating for about six months. It’s been great fun and an easy way to give away things I no longer want. For example, we recently replaced an old ceiling fan with a fixture that took CFL bulbs. I posted the ceiling fan on Freecycle, and within 15 minutes had three people respond to my email. Within 5 hours, it was… Read more »

J Griffin
J Griffin
12 years ago

You mention that “Kris and I have been working to purge our Stuff.” I’d like hear more from you (or your readers) on getting your spouse or S.O. to join in the purging.

I’ve been on a simplicity kick for nearly a year now, slowly going through boxes of junk and discarding, selling or donating 99% of what I’ve across. My wife, however, seems to have a much stronger attachment to the piles of stuff accumulated over the years.

So, have you got any gentle tips or dirty tricks for weaning someone off of their Stuff?

Charles
Charles
12 years ago

I am a HUGE proponent of craigslist. My wife and I moved to Portland, OR from the midwest about a year ago and it has been a vital resource to us. In the past year, we’ve bought a stove/oven, pool table, futon, guest bed, even chickens from local people for amazing prices! And not only that, in an effort to purge our own possessions, we sold a Nintendo 64, PS2, Macintosh G5, and most recently, two chickens (all of which gave us a higher profit margin than ebay could have). It may not be useful resource for consumers in every… Read more »

Kim
Kim
12 years ago

There are other costs related to clutter: just this past weekend I read a real estate article written by a property “stager”. She said something to the effect of: “clutter eats your equity”. So in effect, you are decreasing the appeal/value of your property in the eyes of buyers if you have piles of junk. Also, I have read that clutter can affect your “thinking”. Something along the lines of it is more difficult to think clearly if you live in clutter.

Kristina Richardson
Kristina Richardson
12 years ago

Everyone can make a difference! If you are passionate about stopping global warming and the environment you should check out this website http://www.nvisioncfl.com . Changing to CFLs is a great way for individual people to really make a difference! You should also check out this site http://www.youtube.com/user/helpourworld for more ideas on how to help our world!

Vik
Vik
12 years ago

I’ve always been a “collector” kind of person. This may have something to do with how much time I spent at my grandparents’ house growing up… They’d lived through the Great Depression & saved darn near EVERYTHING. Recently, I’ve started becoming more aware of how much STUFF (aka clutter) we have. I’m starting to think more about buying things. Do we NEED it? Is there a place to PUT it? I hate throwing things out, so Freecycle has been a great discovery for me. But we’ve got a lot of things that I don’t want to just *give* away, but… Read more »

Louise
Louise
12 years ago

Another benefit to thrift/recycling is that you don’t have to worry so much about how your spending habits affects the trade imbalance. I buy thrift store clothes almost exclusively and as a result I don’t worry when I see that my clothes are made in China. Instead I know that I supported a local business – usually a charity – with my purchase.

Maitresse
Maitresse
12 years ago

For quite a while now my rule has been to consider where I will put something, and how I will maintain it, in addition to how frequently the item will be used. Everything we buy costs us, not only money, but a piece of our lives. First there is the time we spent to earn the money to buy the thing. Then there is the time we spent shopping for it. And finally there is the time and money spent maintaining it. How many people ever consider the latter? And on the question of quality, there is the whole discussion… Read more »

Lucky
Lucky
12 years ago

Another “R” that should be included is “Repair.” My wife and I have a crockpot that has seen better days, but is still essentially functional. One of the plastic feet broke off, and the temperature selection knob broke off. One day, after propping up the crockpot on a measuring cup and fumbling with the shaft for the temperature control, I declared that we needed to get a new crockpot. About five minutes later, I had a revelation: I could trim a cork down to size to use as a foot (readily available at your local hardware store, or in a… Read more »

Esther
Esther
12 years ago

So I have been trying for a few years to cut back on non-essential stuff… and having to move every year or every other year (I’m a student) has definitely helped with that. But one problem I keep running into is family. My family loves to buy me STUFF. They don’t generally care if it’s useful, to them it’s the thought that counts and the gift is a gesture of their love etc etc etc, especially because I live far away from them. I’ve tried explaining to them that I’m trying to cut back on accumulating stuff, and also all… Read more »

April
April
12 years ago

I think of your “pursue quality” suggestion as my personal “shoe rule.” One of my college roommates taught me that it was okay to buy more expensive shoes because they tend to last much, much longer than the cheapies I’d been buying. I now buy only one or two high-quality pairs per year (if that), and they last a good long time. It’s a great philosphy for me – it’s easier on the environment & easier on my brain (less clutter in my closet and less need for the continuous buy/throw out cycle), and I try to apply the idea… Read more »

Lane
Lane
12 years ago

You said: Before you buy a new computer game, ask yourself if you’re finished playing the last one you bought I’ve done this for the past three years, but not in the most ideal way. I play City of Heroes (a MMORPG). In the past three years I’ve only bought one other computer game (Civ IV) but have been paying the monthly fees ($15/month) for CoH, which equals about one new game every three months. That said, the company that makes CoH has been continuously introducing new content, which I justify is equal to a new game. Now, I won’t… Read more »

Mary
Mary
12 years ago

I used to get calls from local charities looking for donations every couple of months. Sometimes I had STUFF for them, sometimes I didn’t. Now I have started calling them every month. Bit by bit, a lot of crap I don’t want is leaving this house. I have the debris of 20 years — including a lot of stuff my ex-husband failed to clear out before he left — in the basement, and while some of it will have to be hauled out by commercial junk collectors, most of it can go out to charity or the garbage. It’s not… Read more »

lm
lm
12 years ago

JD, this article reminds me that I want to recommend the book “Not Buying It” by Judith Levine. I originally heard about it from an interview with the author on NPR during Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I think it’s a very good read and deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone concerned about personal finance, the environment and our modern culture. The book is really not about saving money, nor is it specifically about the environment. It’s about a woman and her partner who decided to only buy “essentials” for an entire year. Basically, they rejected as much… Read more »

Daniel
Daniel
12 years ago

We often assume the least expensive option is the best way to save money. That’s not always the case. Quality items usually have a higher initial cost, but the total cost of ownership can be much less than a cheaply-made equivalent. This is exactly why I hate Wal-Mart and avoid it as much as possible. Wal-Mart sells cheap crap, and that’s exactly what it is – it is cheap, and it is crap. I would much rather buy fewer things, and have good quality things that will last, instead of cheap crap that needs frequent replacing. Fortunately, my wife shares… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

Like many others who read GRS, I’m trying to be more conscious about my acquisitions, and to simplify my life. But sometimes I do wonder about the macro-implications of the simplicity life style. If everyone — or even a lot of people — begin to really live in a less-consumerist way, there would be large economic effects. When people eat out less and purchase fewer items, what happens to those who work in retail and in food service? There was a real fear among the political class after 9/11 that people would stop buying things and that there would be… Read more »

Jeanne D
Jeanne D
12 years ago

How ironic to read this as I have been preparing to sell a lot of my “must have it” stuff in a garage sale this weekend. Just today I priced one of those foot spa massager things. I literally HAD to have this, spent $35 on it, and used it once. It has been sitting in a box in the closet ever since. So, now I’ll hopefully sell it for a buck or two this weekend.

My Shoestring's2Short
My Shoestring's2Short
12 years ago

My grandmother taught me that buying cheap is expensive, and I have seen that throughout my years as a consumer. The first time I saw this was when I bought a cheaper package of crayons. I’ve been loyal to Crayola ever since! I have learned to watch for sales (40% off the already discounted price at Sears) where I can get good quality clothing in my larger size for a very good price. I don’t necessarily get the variety of choice – but the advantage is that it isn’t as difficult to make a decision. For example once there were… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

My consuming less stuff act this week was to purge my bookshelves of several paperbacks I accumulated in college and taking them to the used book store. They gave me $12 in store credit in return, and I bought a used copy of “Your Money or Your Life” (per this blog’s suggestion!) and “The Cosmos” by Carl Sagan and a few scifi paperbacks for my boyfriend. We ended up spending another $1.60 on top, but all in all it was a great deal!

Tired
Tired
12 years ago

You know, I think as Americans we are often pushed to buy crap, and when the economy tumbles there’s always somebody who accuses consumers of not buying enough. This is an attempt to make frugal people trade their dollars for goods. This is what I think: 1. We have far, far too much cheap crap from other countries, countries with horrible human rights records (*cough*China*cough*). If we didn’t buy that stuff on a large scale and everyone scaled back, we would cut the flow of money to countries that are doing some very not-nice things to their neighbors as well… Read more »

lm
lm
12 years ago

elisabeth, that is a very good point. and something that the book I’m plugging didn’t get into enough. she focused a lot on the negatives of consumerism and the personal and environmental effects, but not enough on the positives.

it’s so hard to figure out what are the “best” choices. but I think it’s something when you at least try to figure them out.

Manda
Manda
12 years ago

It’s too bad I didn’t know about the toll clutter can take on your life 4 years ago before I registered for mountains of stuff for our wedding. I’m glad that I was raised to donate things we no longer use. I get a warm feeling knowing that something I can’t use any more is getting use from someone somewhere. After seeing the amount of stuff we’ve hauled out of our house lately I’ve started trying to make better decisions about what we do buy. Quality has a higher value that I need to take into consideration.

MaxHedrm
MaxHedrm
12 years ago

This is something I really need to work on. I joke that I bought a house cos I ran out of room in my apartment. Alas, now the house is over run as well. I was good in one regard recently. Instead of buying a new couch, I found a nice one in near perfect condition on Craig’s List. Now I just need to get rid of the old stuff. :^/

Curtis
Curtis
12 years ago

My wife and I were just having this discussion too. We’ve owned three houses in our 5 year marraige, a 102 year old farm house, a 30 year old piece of junk and our newly beloved 85 year old city home. After living in a 1970’s home,I’m convinced it won’t make it 85 years like our current house, and this one will easily last another 85. Plus there’s no beating the charm and charachter of the 12″ baseboard, french doors with beveled glass, built in china cabinet and slate roof. Plus, we have been able to drop a car from… Read more »

CHB
CHB
12 years ago

Another interesting angle to examine the “stuff” problem is from the American culture of gifts. I’ve always felt comfortable giving and receiving small, humble, homemade gifts but have recently been bombarded with the gift issue in my workplace, where there constantly seems to be a shower, birthday, or “holiday” requiring a gift exchange, and it seems an unwritten rule that a $20 gift is the norm, despite our relatively low salaries. If I don’t buy something obviously nice and new, I feel that I’m being a selfish cheapskate – but if I continue to spend the $20 minimum roughly once… Read more »

Robin
Robin
12 years ago

I agree with all the people who love craigslist. As a newly married college couple, my husband and I didn’t want to spend a lot to furnish our apartment. We used craigslist and our college classifieds and found a lot of great stuff. As far as “quality vs price,” I think you can go too far either direction. I definitely like to have nice stuff, but you have to decided if it’s worth it to you personally. For example, we paid $400 for our bedroom set, used, including the matress. It looks practically new, and nice, but it’s not what… Read more »

Luke
Luke
12 years ago

One way to avoid purchasing items is to learn to make them yourself. My future wife likes to spin and crochet, it is usually pretty easy to get some wool from a local farmer or in our area there is a wool coop that processes wool from local farmers. So she supports a local business, has something to do in the evenings and gets useful things; hats, purses, blankets etc. I also have learned a lot from my father, he is a farmer and carpenter, after a big ice storm there were a lot of downed trees, he has processed… Read more »

mjh
mjh
12 years ago

In my teens and early twenties I collected several thousand books (yes, I read them all too). They looked fantastic on the shelves, and earned me a reputation as an intellectual. But over the years the stress of moving, which I did at least once a year, started to get to me. The books became a millstone. One particular move, on a rainy day with no friends available to help, was particularly trying and led to minor depression that prevented me from settling into my new place for several weeks. And now, I’m in the midst of several years of… Read more »

LisaZ
LisaZ
12 years ago

@AnnieJ: Me and my husband are the same way. It’s good to have someone around to balance out the frugality in me (and the compulsive spender in him! 😛 ) As a kid, my mom used to help me and my sister grow our own produce. It was not only less expensive, but it brought many memories and was a learning process. Also, growing your own fruits and/or vegetables makes you more environmentally aware and helps you feel more connected. I suggest everyone to have a garden, whenever possible. If you live in an apartment, grow your own herbs in… Read more »

FinanceAndFat
FinanceAndFat
12 years ago

Yep, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know why it took so long to figure out that I don’t need to buy all of the ‘stuff’ that I see on TV or the Internet. I didn’t know that money should be saved and not spent. I just had no clue! I was being ‘normal’, but normal when it comes to finances is not a good thing. Trying to live a more simple life feels so much better and hey, if it’s good for the environment too, then all the better. The real question is how do we get the message… Read more »

ben
ben
12 years ago

Buy less stuff works in so many ways. Not only do you help the environment, but you end up with more cash. Then you need less space to house/store all that stuff. Later you don’t have to repair/replace or think about that stuff. Someday you won’t have to throw it out.

dimes
dimes
12 years ago

Another strategy: Live like a nomad. Nothing helps you to judiciously purge clutter (or to refrain from acquiring it in the first place) like the knowledge that you’re going to be moving and taking it with you, but that a lot of the extra stuff will either be lost or broken. Easier than replacing it or bothering with insurance companies is simply never buying it in the first place.

Matthew
Matthew
12 years ago

I’m really trying to embrace a more minimalist philosophy now, and I’m happy that technology is converging to make it easier. I really enjoy listening to music, and I feel that it’s the proper thing to do to buy the music I want. Stores like iTunes and AmazonMP3 (only the DRM free versions, thank you very much) help me get the music I want without physically cluttering up my space. As soon as I’m out of debt, I want to get a scanner to start digitizing documents. I think that with some good scanner presets, it could be a really… Read more »

Karen
Karen
12 years ago

As well as Freecycle I’ve become strangely addicted to http://www.swapshop.co.uk (presumably there are similar non-UK sites). We haven’t bought a computer game in six months. We’ve just traded them in each time on Swapshop. We get more games this way and only pay for postage. When I feel like shopping I can simply use up the stored points on Swapshop.

We’ve also tried to resurrect some of the wartime spirit of ‘Make Do & Mend’. The satisfaction of repairing cushions, cheese graters and transforming old clothes has been bizarrely huge.

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

Im not so sure that reducing consumption will better the environment. If we took this to the extreme, and everyone in the US reduced consumption, the economy would contract.

Now maybe that’s a good thing because too much junk is produced and there’s too much conspicuous consumption.

Eric
Eric
12 years ago

We recently bought a house so fighting the urge to go to Lowes and buy a ton of stuff but we decided to buy only what we need and buy quality stuff. So far it has worked out for us.

sandycheeks
sandycheeks
12 years ago

It can be really easy to donate your used goods. I must be on some list because I get calls very regularly asking if I have any donations. Different organizations come to me to pick up the items and leave a tax receipt on my doorstep.

Laura
Laura
12 years ago

Our small one bedroom apartment has way too many things. We try to justify it by saying it’ll be needed when we buy a house (a goal we have for next year). I’m realzing that we can at least start by throwing out old magazines and giving some of our books a good home. We don’t use many of them anyways, they are just taking up space on the bookshelf, under the bed, on the desk, etc.

Well, time for Craigslist!

Jon Morrow
Jon Morrow
12 years ago

JD, Just thought I would chime in with a few more tips: Find a different leisure activity – Many people accumulate stuff because, to them, shopping is a leisure activity. You feel like unwinding and getting out of the house (or office), so you go to your favorite specialty store and walk around, thinking you’re just going to browse. Then you end up in the checkout line with an armload of stuff. The best solution is to find a leisure activity that doesn’t include shopping. Stay out of the store and you won’t buy as much. Move into a smaller… Read more »

bk
bk
12 years ago

Another great example would be to keep up the maintenance on your car to keep it running fuel efficiently. Also, buying used cars can often be better for the environment assuming the car is still fuel efficient. It is one less old car that is headed for the landfill and one less new car that needs to be manufactured.

Ellie
Ellie
12 years ago

I love the idea behind thrift stores and goodwill. I don’t feel the need to spend big bucks on an outfit when I could buy an all most identical one for a third of the price or less. I recycle all my water bottles and keep refilling them until they get to be unusable and then recycle them. I drive a fuel efficient used car and buy very few new things.
I feel as though if we all took a few less shopping trips a year it would have a major impact on the environment.

DC Portland
DC Portland
12 years ago

Some of the posters have taken a swipe at the 800 pound gorilla. The success of our economy is measured by how much stuff we all buy and consume. If we buy less, we chance harming the economy, whose success is measured by GDP and consumer behavior. As people concerned with financial health, we don’t want the economy to stumble (or crash) as a result of thousands (maybe millions) of citizens deciding that they have had enough with stuff. But, the reality is that the economy WILL stumble (or crash) if these changes in consumptive behavior occur. The 800 pound… Read more »

shares