Sunday, 28 April 2013

Part 5: 90% Stuff continued

I am trying to get my head around measuring how much stuff I ‘consume’ and how to reduce it to 90% of the average American’s consumption. How much stuff do we consume in the UK and how do we compare? I am struggling with the measurement of this, because counting money spent would be the simplest, but does that really equate to stuff?

For instance, if I were to stop at McDonald’s and buy a Happy Meal, it comes complete with a crap plastic toy that amuses kids for about 3 minutes. Sometimes these toys come with tiny batteries to make them flash, sing or beep. If you want to dispose of this toy safely, you are supposed to remove the batteries first. Has anyone else tried to do this? They were never designed for the batteries to be removed, and I have resorted to using a hacksaw on occasions. (This must contravene some EU regulations surely?)

What I’m trying to say is that some stuff, like the McD toy, comes for free and is completely useless. Yet significant amounts of energy and raw materials have been used to produce it, it has been transported long distances and is in no way re-usable or recyclable. Compare this to my favourite jumper which was rather expensive, because it is a fair-trade item that was hand-knitted in Nepal (yes, still not local), with 100% wool, and it will keep me warm for years, until it is worn out, when it will go to be recycled. More expensive still was my bike, but by using it I save fuel, get exercise, have fun and if I keep it maintained it could last for decades. When I give up cycling or get a new bike, it will be sold second-hand and could continue to be used and enjoyed.

How can we measure stuff based on the amount we spend alone, when there is so much more involved than that? I have decided to monitor our stuff for a month by keeping a photo record of everything I buy. This won’t include food stuff and toiletries which I am dealing with separately, or work purchases. Already this is an eye-opener, and it is making me consider much more, whether it is really necessary and if there are alternatives, such as buying more things second-hand instead. I will post the full compilation on the 1st May.

I like the idea of buying second hand clothes. The original owner is responsible for the resources used and pollution created, so in theory I can buy them with a free conscience. Some of my friends and my eldest daughter find fantastic outfits for next to nothing in the second hand shops and online, but I am not good at it. Firstly, having spent the last 20 years shopping with young kids in tow, I avoid any shops that require hunting through clothes for the correct size. After a minute of standing still, my children become bored and then start playing hide and seek in the clothes rails, or start whinging. This diverts my attention and raises my stress level, so I will undoubtedly leave empty-handed. Nowadays I get some free time without kids, but it seems too precious to spend shopping.

Secondly, I am not an average size which cuts down on choice. With a bunch of clothes from different outlets the sizes can vary and everything needs to be tried on, regardless of what the label says.

I am not bothered about fashion or having lots of different outfits. I would rather buy something new, that I like, is good quality and is a nice fit, and then wear it until its only good for rags. This way I really get my money’s worth. Young children’s clothes are often outgrown before they are worn out, so there is much more potential for ‘hand-me-downs’. I look for fair-trade and organic items, but apart from the expense, they are not easy to find in larger sizes or for kids.
Meanqueen has some money saving tips on her blog Life AfterMoney, one of which is that she always wears mens pants because they are designed to last far longer than womens. It is definitely true that mens clothes are designed to be much more hard-wearing. Good news for my shopping averse husband, who’s clothes seem to last him decades ;-)
Other than clothes for me, I get given a lot of second hand stuff, from cookbooks to tennis rackets, knitting needles, kids clothes, jigsaws and garden tools. Also some things we have had the opportunity to buy secondhand, for instance cars, our sofa, printers, computers, mobiles, and books. With the all the internet sites for selling unwanted goods, this is so much easier and very popular now. But where we excel is not buying things in the first place. Well, maybe ‘excel’ is too strong a word, but I think we are quite good at this.  

Rule one is if you don’t go shopping, then you don’t buy anything. If you do have to shop then make a list and try to stick to it. I will only buy furnishings and furniture if my partner is with me, because I like to buy something we agree on. Of course he hates shopping for furnishings, so that cuts out a lot of spending opportunities. Kids toys is an area where I used to take care, especially when they were younger, selecting toys that would last, can be shared and could be added to, like lego, board games and a climbing frame (after 16 years I gave it to my cousin for her children!).

Reducing the amount we spend on stuff by 90% seems incredibly hard. It isn’t just a matter of cutting back. To achieve anywhere near this reduction will involve some lifestyle changes. Changing the way you shop, determining what your true needs are, minimising what you need, re-using items, sourcing secondhand goods, buying things to last longer, maintaining what you already have, sharing where you can and making things yourself, are all going to be necessary to achieve such an ambitious, but necessary, target. Hmmm....

Checkout why this reduction is so necessary here.


  1. I was once persuaded by the grandchildren to visit McDonalds, not a pleasant experience! I feel that fast food places like this should be boycotted because of their ethics, packaging, unhealthy food and the brainwashing of young children with gifts, who perceive McD as a good place to visit.
    The family of a blog I've Just been reading (Frugal in Norfolk) spent several years living on wartime rations, this included clothing and other non-food items.

  2. I am lucky that my kids have grown up and aren't that fussed about McDs anymore. Going on longer journeys by car is a difficult time to avoid it. The kids get bored and they know that there will be plenty of McDs along the route to stop at.

    I do agree with you in principle June, but they are so convenient when you have hungry kids (or grandkids). I will check out the Frugal in Norfolk blog. Thanks.

  3. Find a pleasant place to stop and have a picnic, you could even take cold home-made burgers if that is what they want!!
    McD is taking over the world! It is now in countries where most ate a healthy diet and it brings with it all the unhealthy dietary western influences. I think this is similar to the issue of powdered milk sold in third world countries.