4 Ways to Start Being a More Thoughtful — and Sustainable — Consumer

A woman with tattoos shopping on a local market picks up a potted flower plant and carries fresh groceries in her plastic free reusable bag.
Photos courtesy Penguin Random House
Getty | Dougal Waters
Photos courtesy Penguin Random House
Getty | Dougal Waters

Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac are the authors of The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. The following excerpt has been adapted from the book — scroll to the bottom to listen to an exclusive audio excerpt.

Most of us would admit that our relationship with consumption (purchasing, using, and throwing away) is trapping us, but has become so embedded in our psyche — to the point of being almost instinctive — that we cannot let go.

Much of what we buy is intended to enhance our sense of identity. Particular brands of clothes, soap, cookies, televisions, and cars are designed with a customer in mind, their attributes carefully cultivated by the consumer goods companies that sell the products. Identity and consumption keep moving closer together. In the UK, for example, the average person consumes more than 65 pounds of clothes every year, equivalent to about five loads of laundry. These purchases are driven mainly by the fact that fashion trends change each season. These cycles, by their very nature, require us to clear out our closets regularly and hop back in line for more clothes.

Today, consumer goods companies spend a great deal of money to make sure we remain stuck in the consumption cycle. Their marketing and advertising budgets are enormous. In the United States, the price of one 30-second advertisement during the Super Bowl was more than $5 million in 2019. What is more, billions of products are intentionally designed to become obsolete, fueling even more economic growth as we strive to replace them. Single-use plastics are the epitome of that, but obsolescence — the process of becoming outdated and discarded — is designed into almost all consumer goods. Warranties for certain products rarely go beyond three years because the product is likely to break after that period. And often a new item costs less than the replacement part. New software updates won't install on old computers, meaning those too must be replaced. The list is endless and depressing. As a result, the practice of mending, repairing, and restoring is becoming a dying art.

If you're interested in lessening your own footprint and breaking free from the consumption trap, here are three easy ways to start rethinking your relationship to buying more, more often:

1. Reclaim your idea of a good life.

Consumerism is the prevailing definition of a good life: you are in perpetual pursuit of the almighty upgrade, whether it is to your phone, your clothes, or your car. But rather than meeting our needs, buying things in order to achieve a sense of satisfaction or belonging can become addictive and lead to self-doubt and confusion about our very identity and life direction. Consumerism traps us into thinking we can purchase personality. Moreover, it eats up our mental space and creates a constricted view of the world, one in which our value and identity are built upon the proliferation of disposable waste. Psychological studies have shown that mass consumption creates a bigger and bigger hole in our lives that we keep trying to fill. As we consciously or unconsciously attempt to consolidate our sense of identity through curated buying habits, we drive the engine of mass consumption faster and faster, bringing ourselves ever closer to the edge of disaster. Despite all the ways culture is pushing us in the direction of blind consumerism, we can start to intentionally push back. We can develop the mental discipline to resist the imperatives of consumerism. We can change our consumption habits, and vote with our money for products that are sustainable.

2. Become a better consumer.

In the short term, we can improve matters by changing our consumption patterns within the system. Not all purchases are equal. Buying high-quality clothes made from organic cotton that will last and be handed down is different from buying cheap, disposable items that end up in landfill after a few weeks of wear. If you have the option, make more educated decisions about the products you do need to buy. Buy from companies that are public about their values, have made commitments to sustainability, and are part of organizations that certify they are following through on their pledges. The impact will be significant.

3. Vote with your money.

Most important, eliminate waste. Apply the old-fashioned adage of reduce, reuse, recycle. When we need to buy things, our choices should be informed and enlightened.

4. Dematerialize.

Consider how we made the change from vinyl, cassette tapes, and CDs to downloading or streaming music. Technology in many instances now allows us to do without material objects while still enjoying the services that they provide. Less can be more. In the near future, even individual ownership of cars may cease to exist as the dominant paradigm; the transportation we need might be offered by shared vehicles, probably self- driving and certainly electric. One day, consumers may come to define themselves not as owners of products but as stewards of systems of service delivery. Already the world's largest provider of overnight accommodation (Airbnb) owns no buildings. The world's largest provider of personal transport (Uber) owns no cars. This shift from ownership to stewardship will fundamentally change our relationship to consumerism. We can help accelerate it by engaging with it and welcoming it with open arms.

It has been said that the most important things in life are not things. If we can learn to recognize what is enough, we might also move beyond the mindset of consumption and ownership, consciously avoiding the forces that feed that mindset. We can begin to appreciate that with a different approach to life, our capacity for happiness will increase and that our drain on the planet will dramatically slow down.

Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres & Tom Rivett-Carnac, narrated by the authors.