Part Four: Conscious Consumerism
In American culture, so much of our lives are dictated by a mirage – an image of what our lives “should” look like. According to Forbes magazine, the average American is exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements per day. Whether that’s via television programming or social media, the fact remains that we are being programmed to chase an unobtainable illusion. It’s no wonder that so many of us are unhappy and lacking fulfillment in our lives.
That gnawing feeling begins to feel natural and we seek to fill that emptiness with products – things, in hopes that it will make us feel something more akin to alive. So many of us become addicted to that small hit of serotonin we get when we buy something new. Ah, new – even just the word “new” brings about a feeling of fresh possibility with it.
It’s no secret that consumerism culture has gotten a bit out of hand. Think of Black Friday sales – we trample and injure people because we are so fixated on obtaining things. We place more value on objects than on our fellow human beings. And we wonder why objectification and using people like we use objects is such a prevalent societal issue.
The More You Have, The Less It Matters
In this materialistic world, we are constantly fueled by the need to acquire and own more things. Yet we are not materialistic enough in the true definition of the word that places importance on the quality and long-term use of the goods we are buying. We live in a society where material goods are valued for their symbolic meaning, perpetuated by advertising messages, and we buy these things in order to increase our perceived social status.
We replace truly profound meaning, fulfillment, connection, and purpose with chasing a temporary high by obtaining the new. As we examined in parts one, two, and three, we are convinced that buying things will make us feel better because that it what we have been programmed to believe.
However, if we look at what rampant mindless consumerism has done for us, it is clear that Americans and people all across the globe are unhappier than ever.
In examining our never ending quest for buying the next thing, we find that no matter how much we buy, it is never enough. We continue to consume more and more. Why is that?
It is because we don’t really want the product we are buying. What we actually want is what we think the product will bring to us – happiness, wholeness, fulfillment. So we do what we think will fill this internal void. We do what we have been programmed by advertising to do. We chase success, passion, and meaning in the form of stuff.
Yet no matter how much we consume, we continue to look for the next thing because none of the things we are acquiring can make us more whole, happy, and content people. Underneath all of the mindless consumption, it is the sense of wholeness and fulfillment that we truly want.
The Hidden Costs Of Unconscious Consumerism
If we take this issue a step further outside ourselves, we recognize that the repercussions of consuming in such a viral manner extend far beyond the individual. Exploitation of workers in other countries and the price our environment pays for the unsustainable production of cheap goods are things most of us don’t consider when we shop.
The concept of “fast fashion” is seen not only in the clothing industries but has also become prevalent in the home goods industry. The way we decide to get rid of items is no longer dependent on utility, but rather on temporary trends. Along the same lines of thought, consumerism is no longer driven by need, but by endless want.
What Americans and other Westernized cultures are not conscious of is how our goods are being produced. Do we think about the horribly mistreated human beings that are underpaid and exploited to make our wear-once-and-sit-at-the-back-of-the-closet clothes or our I-don’t-need-this-but-it’s-kind-of-sexy coffee maker?
If the exploited workers in developing countries is not enough to make the case, what about the rapid destruction and pollution of our Earth? The production of goods to meet the rising demands for them is causing a rapid increase in pollutant emissions, land-use, and deforestation, all of which contribute to rapidly accelerating climate change.
So what happens to the mountains of stuff we get rid of? What do we do about the social and environmental costs it took to produce those things?
The Minimalist Approach
The minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, bring an interesting philosophy that could be beneficial for all people to explore. They define minimalism as “a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom” on their website. Their documentary film Minimalism (available to stream on Netflix) covers their personal stories and how others got into living a life with less stuff and more meaning.
The film illustrates the typical American dream beginning in the 1950’s that has continued to evolve into what it is today – a high paying job with awesome benefits, a large house and luxurious car, 2.5 kids, a dog, and stuff to fill the spaces in between.
However, more and more people are now starting to realize they have complete agency over their choices. Our definition as a culture of what defines happiness and purpose is beginning to shift.
We are finally starting to define for ourselves what gives our lives meaning. Is it the objects in our lives that give us satisfaction or is it the company we keep and fulfilling work?
I’m not suggesting that everyone adopt a minimalist lifestyle, but it certainly can’t hurt to examine their mindset if rampant consumerism hasn’t worked for you. When we are trying to consume more consciously, the first thing we can do is get rid of clutter. Ask yourself, does this thing add value to my life? How do you feel when you look at a particular item?
If you can justify the value a particular item has to you personally, by all means keep it around. I have a collection of books that give me great joy and valuable knowledge that I would not get rid of. However, I also had a not-modest collection of shoes that brought me more stress than utility. You can probably guess which of these I decided to keep!
If there is no particular function of the item or emotional attachment, perhaps this item would serve another person better and can be donated to charity. It can feel like a loss when we are letting go of these things, but what a joy it can be to feel the weight of all these things being released!
Suddenly, we find ourselves feeling lighter and less cluttered by junk. As we clear the useless stuff from our lives, we open up space for more of the things that truly resonate with us. We give ourselves the opportunity to focus on what truly matters to us.
Consume With Intention
Ultimately, we choose how we feel and how we think. This is why awareness is so crucial! We cannot change things we are not aware of to begin with.
So my plea today is not to stop buying things and to take down consumerism, because let’s face it, that’s outrageous and unlikely, and quite frankly, I’m not ready to give up my attachment to my out of control wear around the house clothing stash.
Instead, I invite you to examine what false beliefs have been programmed into your mind by the thousands of images we are bombarded with on a daily basis. Thoughtfully consider which belief systems benefit you and what beliefs you’re better off without. After doing this, let the weeding process commence!
Before buying something, examine if the urge to buy a new item is due to necessity or compulsion. What is the intent here? What are we trying to accomplish by buying this object? We need to get in the habit of asking ourselves why we are engaging in a particular behavior.
Awareness is the what bridges the gap between the unconscious and the conscious. When we become aware of all the ways our minds are being manipulated and understand the part we play in the system, we begin to move from compulsive consumerism towards conscious consumerism.
It is easy to point the finger and place blame. Yes, there is a ridiculous amount wrong with the world – no one is arguing that. What we forget though is our ability to influence and create change within ourselves, and subsequently within our communities. These internal changes we’ve made ripple out into the world.
We must hold ourselves accountable for our thoughts, words, and actions! If we don’t like something, it is our responsibility to either accept it or change it. We each have the power to decide for ourselves.
Interested in this topic? Read Part One here. Read Part Two here. Read Part Three here. Share this post with a friend. Would you like to read more about consumerism in future posts? Let me know what you think in the comments section below!