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.

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