As the noise over global supply chain disruptions crescendos, here’s one idea we should hear more from the news outlets: Let’s all take a step back and buy less stuff. Dialing back consumption for a while could be what the supply chain doctor ordered until everyone across the supply chain is caught up. It’s not only the planet that will thank us, but also countless people around the world whose souls are being crushed due to a crisis that is largely self-inflicted.
We all know that our insatiable consumer habits are leading to a collision course with climate disaster. But there are several reasons why the upcoming holidays should be a time to look inward and focus on those around us, instead of flinging our wallets and credit card numbers outward. Here’s a brief list to start, amplified by some of the best thought leaders on this subject out there.
Let’s start by being pragmatic.
Talk of shortages in the U.S. has reached hyperbolic levels. It’s not that shelves are bare: Let’s all take a breath and remember that we are not living in North Korea or behind the Iron Curtain of the 1980s. The problem is that the more affluent are accustomed to buying what they want, when they want — meanwhile, the millions of lower-wage workers for whom the pandemic was a life-upending event have had few options other than to get by with far less. The problem is that those of us who have been easily saving up cash, due to the fact that many of us had no choice but to stay home and spend less, now want what we want and want it now. Retailers are responding in kind, and therein lies a huge problem, observed Amanda Mull in The Atlantic.
“But what’s already a genuine crisis for people who work in the global supply chain could very well turn into one for all of us,” Mull wrote last week. “The manufacturing and distribution of necessities such as food and medicine require many of the same resources as the consumer economy’s various conveniences and diversions.”
Mull makes the analogy of the ingredients needed for making school lunches, a process that helps nourish millions of American kids. The problem festering at our clogged ports is that if a company that distributes pricier consumer goods (Mull’s example is hundred-dollar throw pillows), that company will probably have the means to pay for access in getting those goods out of ports and onto trucks — a level of access that a food distribution company, running on thin margins, will not be able to match financially. The squeeze is then felt by those very school districts in the quest to get those monogrammed throw rugs and pillows out to consumers who have the coin to snag them.
The bottom line is that we need to chill when it comes to our shopping habits, take a collective step back, and just let all those goods through. And, by the way, they are: Despite all the screaming and finger-pointing in the media that supposedly nothing is going through the ports, and whose fault is it, imports are surging. The value of imports arriving in the U.S. last month were almost 50 percent higher than they were in September 2019. And no, that figure is not due to inflation.
Since early on during the pandemic, TriplePundit has covered the human costs that are largely shouldered by low-wage workers. Even if the worst of this crisis is behind us, many workers are still suffering due to our unquenchable demand for things.
Count many truckers among those who currently have no choice to buy less stuff. The trucking of products in and out of ports is a punishing one, a process that doesn’t pay by time spent or miles driven, but by truck loads. Business Insider’s Grace Kay recently chronicled what many truck drivers are going through in Southern California. Many queue up, waiting as long as eight hours at a time, only to risk being told there are no shipments with which they can drive away.
“Some drivers say the industry has a reputation for negative paychecks, as independent contractors are typically responsible for about 90 percent of trucking expenses, including leasing trucks and paying for fuel,” Kay wrote earlier this month. “If they can't deliver at least one load per day, then they can't pay their bills — much less turn a profit.”
It’s not a cliché: By the raw numbers, Americans, compared to the rest of the world, are addicted to shopping. Sure, we could simply buy bamboo or wooden toothbrushes instead of plastic ones and buy synthetic moisture-wicking clothing that is made out of plant-based fibers instead of those derived from fossil fuels. Such a tweak in buying habits isn’t tackling the consumption problem, however.
“Shopping, by this logic, is a sin, one that Americans can’t live without. Well-intentioned consumers have tried to do the next-best thing: Shop sustainably,” Terry Nguyen of Vox wrote last month. “But sustainable shopping is still ... shopping. It’s an oxymoronic act that makes us feel good about the things we buy. True sustainability requires reducing our consumption (and, likely, the country’s economic growth), not through buying ‘greener’ products.”
Depending on the source cited, consumer spending comprises about two-thirds of the U.S. economy. Across the pond in Europe, that figure is just over 50 percent. One could argue that lower consumption across Europe explains the continent’s relatively slow economic growth over the past few decades, but an economy dependent on buying cheap goods from abroad also means less long-term investment in new, next-gen technologies. And as a modest rebuttal to the point Vox’s Nguyen made earlier, there are other avenues to long-term, sustainable economic growth other than consumer spending.
“Long-term, sustainable growth doesn't come from going deep into debt to buy stuff we don't really need,” Allison Schrager recently wrote for Bloomberg. “It comes from technology and innovation, where we come up with new products and better ways of doing things.”
“I have everything I need right here. And if I've learned anything from how my mom spent the money I gave her, it's that money can buy a lot of snowmobiles, but it can't buy happiness. So it's about how you live your life. You know, doing what makes you smile. And being here, getting to hear your stories over the past few years, even the scary ones, that makes me smile.” – Twyla Sands of Schitt’s Creek explaining to Alexis Rose why she never disclosed her $46 million lottery winnings, Season 6, Episode 13.
It's true: There is no shortage of research concluding that buying things may give us an initial rush, but that feeling wanes quickly. Shopping is its own form of insanity, as in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
“There are many reasons [for shopping], of course, but one is that we purchase things to make us happy. Certainly, that's the message transmitted to us in most advertising,” Matthew Smith explains in Psychology Today. “But even if our purchase makes us happy initially, the feeling rarely lasts. Soon enough, we are off to buy something else before long.”
It was not that long ago when our evenings were spent telling and listening to stories as Twyla had described. In fairness to those who are hooked on shopping, as is the case with many addictions, quitting cold turkey may not be the most realistic path.
Hence the suggestion to not buy things, but experiences. True, an experience is not completely stuff-free: We’re still technically buying things, whether it’s booze at a tasting room, a meal at a restaurant, or gas to get us to that fun destination or open space.
But there are two immediate benefits to buying an experience. First, you’re investing in memories, which buying stuff won’t necessarily allow. Second, the chances are high that you’re helping a small business recover from a rough 2020 and 2021 — and that is reason enough for a commitment to simply buy less stuff, one that should make you smile.
Image credit: Bing Hao via Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.