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Consumption and a future of temporary ownership

How unsustainable is our consumption? According to a World Resources Institute report from a decade ago- and things have only gotten worse since- in countries like the United States, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands, our weekly consumption is equal to “300 shopping bags filled with materials”.

Even if you question global warming, our way of living has been deemed unsustainable on yet another level: we’re in global “overshoot”.

According to the World Wildlife Foundation’s Living Planet Report 2006, since the late 1980s, we’ve been running a planetary deficit and turning resources into waste faster than nature can turn waste back into resources. In 2003, we were overshooting by 25% and the UN predicts by mid-century our demand on nature will outstrip its regenerative capacity by 50%.

The report authors don’t describe the future when we’ve completely overshot our resources. But unlike with a national monetary deficit, we can’t just print more resources or rely on other countries to buy our debt. If we continue to overspend resources eventually we just run out, which for me evokes images of a bleak Mad Max scenario.

Of course, it’s not too late, but we need to rethink our consumption problem, and when I say we, I mean industrialized countries. According to the UN’s Agenda 21 report, the problem is our “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption”.

300 shopping bags of stuff per week

How unsustainable is our consumption? According to a World Resources Institute report from a decade ago- and things have only gotten worse since- in countries like the United States, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands, our weekly consumption is equal to “300 shopping bags filled with materials“.

Some of these bagfuls are due to our personal transportation and home energy needs, but that accounts for less than half of our total carbon footprint (40% in the US). All that stuff we buy- plus its packaging and the energy it takes to make it- equals over 150 shopping bags per person per week. I’m amazed we’re only in 25% overshoot.

What we buy is taking it’s toll and it’s not getting any better. When I talked to Gary Gardner of the Worldwatch Institute recently for a video about our consumption problem, he explained that even with population growth stabilizing or declining in some countries, nowhere is consumption going anywhere but up.

Perhaps one reason we continue to consume is because we are trashing our purchases nearly as quickly as we’re buying them. As Gary explained, “something like more than 80% of all materials we use today are used once and then thrown away“.

They don’t teach embodied energy in school

It has become easy to buy disposable. This summer I went to a friend’s for dinner and she pulled out a huge package of plastic cutlery even though we were eating at her home. When I hesitated, she explained, “I use these all summer. They’re so cheap at Costco.”

She’s a well-educated (in the traditional sense) liberal (in the American sense, as in left-leaning), but like so many of us, she still hasn’t moved beyond sticker price accounting. Perhaps she, like myself until recently, was never taught the concept of “embodied energy”: that is, the resources needed to make and ship a product. Or, in this case, the energy to drill for the petroleum and transport it to a refinery to make ethane which was heated into ethylene and propylene and catalyzed into “fluff” to make a polymer that was made into the plastic knives, forks and spoons that were shipped to Costco.

Without considering the embodied, or virtual, energy of a good, products remain cheap. It’s the same mentality that has us buying more clothes more often because they’re so cheap at fast fashion stores like H&M, Zara and Old Navy. Or buying just adequate, but cheap, furniture from Ikea because we can always buy new later.

What Jimmy Carter warned about consumption

Another point Gary brought up in our interview which surprised me, despite having heard similar studies before, no matter how much we spend and how much money we make, we’re not getting any happier.

“People [in the US] are more than twice as wealthy today as they were in 1957… but at the same time the level of happiness, the number of people who say they’re very happy, has been flat. So you have this strange anomaly where we’re richer and richer and yet no happier“.

If shopping has become our drug (retail therapy, etc), it doesn’t seem to be very effective. In the UK, a 2001 study by the Publicis group found that although income levels were at their highest point ever, over half of those interviewed had been depressed in the past year and “those who said they had been depressed were twice as likely to say that they had bought something later and regretted it“.

Somehow we just don’t seem to learn that we can’t find satisfaction in a purchase. Even back in 1979 US President Jimmy Carter was warning us to avoid this empty trap.

“Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

A one euro radio, plus headphones

Perhaps some of our shopper’s discontent stems from the lack of quality, or true value, in what we’re buying.

The pinnacle of low quality, cheap goods- dollar stores- are the second fastest growing channel of food, drug and mass retailing stores (after supercenters).  Over a third of all US households now regularly shop this way every month.

The European equivalent- Euro stores, and the like- are popping up all over Barcelona and most of Europe. And like their counterparts in the US, they’re filled with plastic everything: dishes, shoes, tablecloths, knick knacks and containers for your knick knacks in every size, etc.

Last year when I lost my portable radio (important for learning a foreign language), I wanted something fast without the hassle of researching a longer-term investment so I went to a euro store and for 1 euro, I purchased a plastic one, including earphones. I figured at that price I could always tradeup later. The maximum volume was so low that I could never hear over the street noise so it went into my desk drawer after one use.

Sales in dollar stores in the US exceeded $12 billion in 2001 (the only year I could find data). That’s 12 billion things, most of which probably stopped working or we never really wanted in the first place. But at $1 it’s easier to buy and decide later if you actually need it.

A storage lifestyle

We’re buying more and more things and as proof that we don’t really need them, we’re not even keeping them in our homes.

In the US, even though the average home size has continued to grow and the average family size has shrunk, 1 of every 11 people rents storage space, an increase of 90% since 1995.

The self storage- or mini storage- industry seems to mirror our growing consumption problem. The entire industry only began in the late ’60s in a few garages in Texas, but today, 11 million Americans are renting space. It’s become an integral part of some households or what Diane Piegza of Sovran Self Storage calls “a segment of the population that has truly embedded storage into its lifestyle.”

Everyone needs a place to hoard

It’s an industry that’s capitalizing on all of our unnecessary purchases. One storage company in the UK advertises space for “even dad’s unused multigym” and an Australian firm comes right out and calls a spade a spade: “Got junk. Who hasn’t? Free up the spare bedroom, shed or living room and get more space.”

The industry is making money- $22.6 billion per year– off of our love of buying new. A Kent, England firm suggests storing “your last years wardrobe” with the addendum “don’t worry we have big units for this purpose!”.

No one even raises an eyebrow at the fact that their customers are renting “homes” for their clothes. Instead, prospective clients are encouraged with lines like: “everyone needs a place to hoard” and reassured that there is space “to store household goods, toys and electrical equipment, or recreational and gardening equipment”, everything from “archives to armchairs, brushes to beds, candles to chairs”.

Six artificial Christmas trees

When the New York Times took a look at just who was using all this space, they found people like Dee Dee Whipple with her 400 dolls, 46 boxes of Christmas decorations and 6 artificial Christmas trees and about $4,000 per year in storage payments.

Perhaps this may seem extreme, but even those of us without storage space are being consumed by our consumption. According to a Boston marketing firm, the average American spends 55 minutes per day looking for things they know they own but can’t find. And while four in five new homes have multicar garages, most two-car garages have one or no car in them.

We now have so much stuff that we need professional organizers like Dana Korey who is paid to ask clients questions like: “Do you really need another aromatherapy candle? You could light 10 a night and still have enough for two years.”

A new shopping checklist

Whether we’re considering a purchase of a candle, shoes or a new mobile phone, perhaps it’s come time to begin to ask ourselves more questions before we buy.

Instead of just asking, “can I afford this?”, if we start asking “where will it fit in my home/wardrobe?”, perhaps we will spare ourselves some of the let-down we feel when our purchases don’t deliver the satisfactory rush we had been hoping for (not to mention sparing the resources that went into their manufacture).

We can also ask ourselves whether something is an investment or gratification.

Gary Gardner suggests we try to focus on doing most of our consuming in the former category: “That is, I’m putting out an expenditure that’s going to give me returns over time and it’s going to help me be a better person. I’m going to learn to play the piano, for example, learn a language or invest in a local charity.”

Gary also suggests sharing your stuff: like toolsharing and carsharing programs. While these might be impractical or unavailable for some of us and for some things, another type of temporary ownership is to continue to buy, and sell, secondhand goods.

Free your things from storage purgatory

According to David Nissanoff, co-founder of upscale auction site Portero and author of Futureshop, with the rise of eBay and online auction sites, we’re moving from an “accumulation nation” to an “auction culture”.

For Nissanoff, buying used and re-selling means a more sustainable consumption without sacrifice: “Temporary ownership means just saying no to second-best and letting yourself reach for the things that will thrill you over and over again-guilt-free.”

Of course, online auctions incur transportation costs and no product is free of initial production costs, but the concept has merit. Perhaps if we keep our stuff moving instead of letting it sit in storage, we can give it a second, third or ninth life.

Recently, I’ve been considering a new laptop and my husband is encouraging me to go for a new Mac with the new operating system. But I’ve been poking around online and there are so many used models that need a new home.

To my husband, he sees the brand new models as simply an extra couple hundred euros. To me, with my embodied energy goggles on, the new versions look much more expensive.

Knowing that to manufacture the average PC requires ten times its weight in fossil fuels as well as the intensive use of heavy metals, I have ceased to see the price tag without it’s accompanying production and disposal cost (e-waste from computers causes toxic contamination of rivers, groundwater and indoor dust).

While secondhand shopping can’t eliminate some of these costs, it can ensure that our resources are being thoroughly used and can cut down on the number of new products made.

In order to reap these benefits, we must continually free our old stuff from storage purgatory so it can be used again before it’s too late.

As I write this, I am feeling guilty about a desktop I unloaded on my sister a few years ago. It’s perfectly good, but not right for her so it has been sitting in her basement. The longer it sits and becomes archaic technology the more likely those still good resources will go unused. Ah, I’m feeling very guilty. I’m writing her an email now…

I’m back. She just posted it to our classifieds section. If anyone in the Seattle area looking for a fully-loaded Mac G4, it’s edit ready and it needs a new home.