Friday, September 7, 2007

Environmentalism vs. Consumptionism vs. Me

Went to Savers recently (which is a semi-national thrift store) and found myself terribly depressed by it. First, I've been thinking about the sheer amount of stuff people have. Nothing like watching college students move out of apartments, dumping half their belongings in the trash on their way out, to help you realize that not only do we accumulate, but much of that increase is junk. My Savers trip only reinforced that as, unlike St. Vincent de Paul's, a lot of the stuff at Savers is completely useless. Yet, people do find treasures at thrift stores and that's why I visit them -- the hope that I will find something neat. And I was looking for black frames for a decorating idea I have, but found only icky stuff. But where does the Savers reject stuff go? They shuffle things to other thrift stores (St. Vincent gives to Goodwill for instance) and when that fails, we ship it to Africa. I remember reading somewhere their plea to stop sending old computer equipment -- they had no use for our old equipment. The environmental mantras revolve doubly around "greening" one's buying and limiting one's consumption at the same time. And some go to excess in a way that suggests we should give up modern conveniences entirely to minimize our collective carbon footprints. Some interesting people are doing trial runs: a year without Chinese products, no impact man, the family avoiding toilet paper and many others. And I find this a bit absurd in that it fails to take advantage of the real advances we have made as a society in reducing our struggles to provide basic needs while highlighting productivity, whether it is commercial or artistic.

Yet most of us don't stop at purchasing merely basic needs, but invest and indulge in luxury goods: a new sofa (I've got my eye on one), yet another set of bags (I need a wristlet for very short journeys and a tote for brief trips around campus), more clothes (I realized my wardrobe is always lacking), books (well, I am a graduate student!), and the list goes on. While my asides are partially tongue and cheek, they also represent real buying habits (or at least buying plans...I don't have the budget for $3000 sofas). And I become torn between this ideal I have of spending and using less and the real desire for beauty and change that the consumer industry thrives on.

I've been quite inspired by Wardrobe Refashion a blog devoted to helping people reduce their new purchases by reusing, either from their own wardrobes or thrift stores or crafting items themselves. But I notice that frequently people replace their buying habits for new clothes with these new resources. Thus, while the impact is much less, reducing the travel span of clothing, we still haven't moderated our desires for new.

Thus my new mantra is becoming not "no shopping," but rather more ethical shopping: better quality, creative design, more precise fits into a coherent design sense (for my apartment, closet, etc), more awareness of the source -- and future -- of my clothing. So while I still maintain a strong presence and love for material culture, I'm hoping to start showcasing a more responsible attitude towards it as well! So where does this leave me? Still buying, but not in debt to that purchasing and looking at the larger picture while hoping that settles me for reducing some of my castoffs in a year or so when I move next.

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