Updated: Oct 31, 2020
Part 4 of my series on slowing down and being more environmentally friendly is about a super important topic: shopping! For once, I’m not talking about food. I’m talking about shopping for everything else, from clothing to housewares. Whether you’re a shopaholic or avoid purchasing at all costs, it’s a necessary part of our lives. The upside is that when it comes time to buy, we have choices.
The decisions we make around purchasing can vote for a cleaner, healthier earth, a more content sense of self, and a lifestyle of living simple.
Consumerism is a beast of a thing to fight against. Mindless shopping is deeply embedded into American culture. Think about the common acceptance of “retail therapy,” pressure to buy gifts for Hallmark holidays, and the insanity that surrounds Christmas shopping.
We all need to buy things sometimes. But when we regularly purchase without intention, we utilize resources, creating demand and therefore influencing supply and production. We create more waste, not only in packaging, but in the actual products themselves.
Textile waste, for example, has become a huge problem with the rise of fast fashion. One study estimates that 26 billion pounds of clothing end up in U.S. landfills each year (1). Like food, clothing doesn’t break down well in this setting. Synthetic materials have microplastics embedded in them, which can escape into the earth and water supply.
On a personal level, accumulating stuff can make us more anxious and unhappy. Clutter is said to contribute to anxiety (2), and more stuff inevitably equals more clutter.
Plus, shopping puts us in the habit of wanting, and wanting always leads to more wanting. As soon as we’ve replaced one thing with a nicer version, we see something else that doesn’t match that high-quality standard. By the time we’ve replaced everything with a better, newer version of itself, the first thing we replaced feels old and drab and the cycle of discontentment never ends.
As with any habit, the first step to avoiding unintentional purchasing is awareness. The way I see it, there are four main reasons why we shop. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shopping out of any of these desires, but I think it’s important we understand them, especially if living simple is our goal.
1) Because we need something specific.
This is the case if something useful broke, or if we need a tool of some kind. Everyone’s definition of “need” is different, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we generally know what is necessary. If you’re an avid rock climber and your rock climbing shoes are falling apart, I’d say you need a new pair. You wouldn’t starve or die if you didn’t get a new climbing shoes, but they’re a tool that facilitate doing something you love, and doing it makes you a happier, healthier human.
2) Because we want something specific.
We have an instinctual desire to be surrounded by things we consider attractive or valuable, which causes us to want things we find aesthetically pleasing. It may be a style of shirt that’s cropping up everywhere or a model of car. Whatever it is, we like how it looks or makes us feel, so we want it. A huge aspect of this desire is advertising.
3) Because we want something novel.
Our culture glorifies being busy, and this has gotten us addicted to novelty and constant stimulus. Things are moving and changing so quickly that a lack of novelty can feel stagnant. By buying something new, we can perpetuate the feeling of forward progression—aka busyness.
4) Because we want to feel good.
“Retail therapy” exists for a reason. Often when we’re in a rut or having a bad day, we’re seeking a distraction. Shopping is the perfect one. It can make us feel like we’re changing or improving ourselves in one easy swipe of a credit card.
We all have an idea of who we hope to be, and often an image of what that person looks like. The image may have nothing to do with the deeper internal change, but by altering our appearance to match the imaginary ideal, we feel like we’re changing. We feel like we’re becoming the person we strive to be.
Create Your Personal Definition of Minimalist Living
I feel compelled to repeat that there are extremes, and I’m not advocating for them. In one extreme, we shop mostly out of emotion: we want to follow a trend, want the feeling of novelty, want to feel good, want to fit in, etc. On the other side, we don’t shop, even when we need to replace something useful. Both are unreasonable.
In my eyes, the slow and steady way to live simple is to begin living a minimalist lifestyle.
Minimalist living (or living simple or slow living...whatever term you want to use) means paring down to what’s essential, to what you need and what makes you happy. It doesn’t mean purging all of your belongings or never buying new clothes again. It doesn’t mean not owning a bike because you could technically walk or take the bus. It doesn't mean living in an all-white home with nothing on the walls. According to the dudes who call themselves The Minimalists, minimalism means “living a meaningful life with less.”
It means being honest with ourselves before we purchase and asking the question, “Will owning this item improve my life?” Minimalism looks different on every single person, so make up a version that works for you.
When it comes to shopping, though, I think the key is the same for everyone: we have to break free of the cycle of consumerism.
One tool I’ve used to implement slow living and break the habit is the Distraction Cleanse. You can find the full explanation here, but long story short, I went 10 days without purchasing anything nonessential, which for me meant anything other than groceries or gas. I’ve done this a few times now and in every instance I’ve finished the challenge feeling more content.
Doing exercises in gratitude is another great way to slow down, simplify your life, and practice an antidote for a shopping habit. By appreciating the belongings we already have, we take better care of them. This makes them last longer, and makes us less likely to seek updated versions just to have something new.
We’ve gotten away from the idea of taking care of our belongings. The reaction now when a flaw emerges is to throw it away and buy something brand new. There’s one question that continuously pops up in my head:
What if we found as much joy in taking care of our current belongings as we do in purchasing new ones?
With that in mind...
Mend, Give, Recycle, Toss—In That Order
Like with food waste, the trash bin should be your last resort when it comes to getting rid of things.
For the objects you love, your first strategy is TLC. Mend or patch small holes in clothing. Sand and repaint furniture to transform it into a completely new piece. Repurpose if possible: old t-shirts can be cut up into rags. If DIY isn’t your thing, pay someone to do it for you; go to a tailor or a furniture refurbishing service. (Slow living doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself.)
If things are in decent condition but simply not your style, sell, donate, or swap. Sell to consignment shops, via Craigslist, or at a garage sale. Donate to thrift stores or nonprofits who’ve listed their specific needs. For furniture and appliances, ask around and see if anyone could make use of what you no longer need. For clothes, host a clothing swap with friends!
Sometimes things are simply beyond saving. In that scenario, try and find an appropriate recycling center. This can be particularly difficult for textiles, but I recently found out that Goodwill responsibly recycles any textiles they can’t sell in their stores.
If and when all of the above have failed, only then is it time to toss it in the dumpster.
Live Simple, Shop Simple
Let’s be real: sometimes we do need to buy things. But purchasing doesn’t mean we have to get caught in the trap of consumerism. Shop with intention and you’ll beat the system.
1) Think it through
Before you buy, ask yourself if the item is something you’ll use frequently enough to own. Could you rent it or borrow it from a friend? Is there a more universal or versatile version available that could serve two functions instead of one?
2) Shop secondhand first
If you’re looking for the most affordable, eco-friendly clothing out there, it doesn’t come from a magical unicorn brand: it’s clothing that already exists. When we shop secondhand, we reduce the resources needed to produce, ship, and market new clothing. It’s a good time to be a secondhand shopper too—with the rise of minimalism and Marie Kondo’s popularity, secondhand stores are bursting at the seams with incoming goods. Some actually asked people to stop donating because their stores were so full (3).
By shopping used, you prevent perfectly good items from prematurely going to a landfill. You also often find things that are way more interesting than what you’d find produced en masse. When it comes to furniture, it will be far higher quality, too.
Secondhand doesn’t just mean going to the Salvation Army. There are high-end consignment shops for furniture, clothes, outdoor gear, and more. I have a few favorite secondhand clothing and furniture stores in Denver that are my go-to. If you want to shop online, you have to try thredUP.com.
3) Shop from ethical brands
There are certain things that we want to buy brand new, either because we can’t find what we’re looking for used, or because it’s something we’d prefer someone else hasn’t previously used. In these scenarios, do your research. When possible, purchase from brands you know are contributing to a world you want to live in.
Most importantly, the first step to begin living a minimalist lifestyle is to do nothing. Use what you already have.
Then when it does come time to purchase, be conscious and intentional. Try and incorporate all of the above into your life and I promise you will feel more gratitude and contentment.
Benefits for your mind:
By breaking our addiction to consumerism, we’re breaking free of a cycle that will never make us happy. We’re able to find contentment and leave behind the anxiety that comes from an empty feeling of need.
I appreciate the things I’ve gotten secondhand because they feel like the result of a treasure hunt. Every time I sip tea out of a handmade thrifted mug, I’m appreciative of the person who made it and feel lucky to have their one-of-a-kind creation. Plus, when you get into the groove of thrifting, it can be super fun!
Benefits for your body:
First of all, you look bomb in secondhand clothing and your outfits are now completely unique to your style. Olivia Wilde agrees. #winning