Thursday, 18 April 2013

Part 4: 90% Stuff

I am getting my thoughts together on ‘stuff’. This is what I call consumer goods, that is all the products we buy, give to others, horde and feel that we need or must have. The Story of Stuff gives a quite clear introduction into the environmental effect of all this stuff, and I would recommend watching it and getting your kids to watch it. It is really tempting to classify all ‘stuff’ as useless junk, and whilst some of it is, it also includes things like books, tools, clothes, bikes and computers. In my mind these things are essentials, so how do you tackle reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ we buy by 90%? In fact how do you even start to measure it? 

There have been some rather good photographic accounts recently. The first is an amazing photographic project based in China and displays peoples belongings laid out in front of their home. Looking at what people own in other parts of the World really puts a perspective on our own belongings. The other project The Poverty Line is photographing how much food you can buy on the poverty line of each particular country. This is an excellent visual comparison and very clever, as it manages to compare countries in a way that shows the different cost of goods in those places. So for instance in China food is cheap, whereas it is very expensive in Japan, so you need a lot more money to survive in Japan than in China.  

Sharon Astyk in her book ‘Depletion and Abundance: Life onthe New Home Front’ talks about how she tried to reduce her families environmental impact by 90% of the average American. I rather liked how that looked, so I’m looking at the differences here in the UK and how we could achieve that kind of reduction. Sharon equated the ‘stuff’ by how much she spent, so reducing spending by 90% should be the same as a 90% reduction in stuff. As food, transport, electricity, heating fuel and water are dealt with separately, I am not going to include them in the calculation of spending on consumer goods.  

This is one area where you may think there is an advantage to being poor. I mean if you have little money to spend, then what you have goes on essentials and isn’t wasted on frivolities, right? I don’t think this necessarily holds true. Advertising tries to tell us we deserve a better life, and that this face cream will make us more beautiful and life so much happier, or using that aftershave will give you the David Beckham appeal, or wearing those branded trainers will make you into somebody special. There was the scandal that I will never forget, of Nestle selling expensive baby milk powder to women in countries where there was no clean water supply. Women were changing from healthy, free, breast milk to powdered milk made in unsterilized conditions, leading to an increase in infant deaths. Of course the powerful advertising made it seem healthier for your baby and what parent wouldn’t want the best for their child, whether you could afford it or not? In short we are all being exploited to some extent.

Erica who writes the North West Edible Life blog, has written a useful post called ‘Occupy Your Brain (Why you don’t really want whatyou want)’. She talks about value-based spending and how advertising influences what we spend our money on. She has a nifty and very simple table to help us think about what we really want when we buy things. The ‘What I really want from my purchases chart’ makes you consider why you want something and what problems or feelings you hope to address with it. The outcome is that what you really want may not be what you think you want. For instance the bookshelves I ‘wanted’ for my cookbooks, well actually what I really want is a tidy cupboard and some menu plans. If you feel any big purchases coming up, then try working through her chart first. It only takes a few minutes and you may be surprised by the results.

There is still a lot to say about stuff, so I will continue the theme of 90% stuff in another post.

1 comment:

  1. I do like this post Judy. A few years ago I decluttered the whole house to get ready for renovating, and since then, have thought really hard about what I let into the house. I hardly buy anything now that isn't children's clothes, or something pertaining to finishing the house, such as paint. I love it! But then, I hate shopping. I love Erica's thoughts on ways to change our thinking about buying. So often, a purchase is just an easy way to solve a problem. But not always effective..