I want to live a sustainable life. Part of that means buying fewer things.
My children, on the other hand, want a ton of stuff.
I consider myself an environmentalist as well as frugal. It doesn’t feel like I buy a lot of stuff, but my daughter's room is overflowing with princess costumes and plastic heels.
How did we get here?
A few times per year my friend comes with a garbage bag filled with her daughters outgrown clothes and Disney outfits. It makes me feel giddy with joy. It’s like Christmas morning for my daughter. The miser inside me feels thrilled to have gotten all this free, used loot. Hand-me-downs feel a little more green.
That stuff is innocent enough, but then there’s all the other stuff that comes because kids simply like stuff. Especially stuff their friends have.
My son wants Pokemon cards because his friends have them. So we bribe him to read with Pokemon cards. Not perfect parenting, but effective.
They’re kids. They’re developing their identities, and sometimes they use stuff to do that. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. I’m not a parenting expert. But I do understand the need to fit in as a child.
There's A Story Behind Everyone's Stuff
I grew up with Swedish parents whose cheapness was notorious. For every school dance, I borrowed a dress from a friend. For prom I had my grandmothers dress from the 1940’s hemmed. It was beautiful and unique. But not the look I would have chosen for prom if I'd had the option of a new dress.
As an adult, I understand my parents didn’t mean to be insensitive to teenage girls drive to fit in. They were frugal and wanted to instill the same values in me. But I was embarrassed. I felt like a freak whose parents didn’t care enough to buy me a new dress.
That's why I bought my son two laser guns for his birthday, and my daughter got a plastic doll for Christmas. That's what their friends have, and now they have one more way to connect with their buddies. Those things mean more than the thing itself. They're a way to show love and foster belonging.
The Story of Stuff
Which brings me back to conflict.
You've probably seen "The Story of Stuff". It does a great job explaining the environmental impact of all our things.
Stuff comes from factories that cause pollution and climate change. It's made from crude oil and raw materials that get blown out of mountains.
Once the stuff is made it has to get where it’s going, either via giant ships or trucks that run on more oil. When we finally get that thing home, it comes in a box made from trees. Recycled trees maybe, but still trees. It’s probably wrapped in plastic. Again, oil.
That stuff eventually ends up in a landfill, which releases methane, a strong greenhouse gas. Maybe it gets recycled, but nothing about this is green.
The No Impact Environmental Movement
From this knowledge, a movement was born.
Maybe you've seen Rob Greenfield on Instagram or read No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. These guys promote a greener life through living without stuff. Beavan wrote about a year long experiment living in New York City with his wife and daughter while reducing their environmental impact to zero. The book is a powerful voice for living with less, but also a message on how difficult it is to live a truly sustainable life.
It's Not For Me
I support their message and love their stories.
But I can’t get behind the no-stuff movement. People are wired to be social. We want to fit in. I’m not talking about keeping up with the Joneses. I don’t want to drive the latest car model or have the biggest house. I like our cars paid off and my house small enough to find my kids in.
But appearances matter. What I wear makes a difference to how people see me, and how I see myself. The human experience is important. Wearing the same worn out clothes for years and giving up shampoo would not add any joy to my life. In fact, it would make me miserable.
I love my suburban life and I don't want to change it.
I think there are a whole lot of people who agree with me. People who want to live sustainably, but also want to keep their lives in tact. So if there's a movement that promotes sustainability through advanced technology, common sense environmental regulations, and conscious choices, then that's the movement I want to be a part of.
Here's What Works For Me
I don't live a No Impact life, but I'm always aware of my impact on the environment.
Before I buy a new thing I don't "need," I ask myself if I love it? If yes, then, will I love it in five years? 20 years? Will this bring joy, or will it turn into clutter? If the answer is joy, and I can afford it without compromising our financial security, then I often go for it. If the answer is clutter, then I walk away. The truth is, almost everything I think I "need" is just waiting to become clutter.
I have a different question for the stuff I buy for the kids.
Will they feel my love when I give them this thing? Will it increase their connection to their friends?
Impulses Versus Consciousness
I regret the stuff I buy when I’m guided by impulses. When I stop and ask myself if this thing will bring love and joy, it’s easier to make a good choice.
We recently added a deck to our house. I tortured myself over the decision. What’s the right material to use? What’s the greenest choice?
My husband and I eventually decided the greenest choice is the one that we will still love and use in 20 years. The deck we chose won’t need to be replaced or doused with toxic chemicals on a regular basis. It won't end up in a landfill in five years because it's falling apart or out of style.
Since the deck was put in we’ve eaten almost every family dinner outside. We talk or play with our kids in the yard when we’re done eating. The deck was a thing that created more love and closeness in our home, which made it a great purchase. That choice had a negative impact on the environment, but it was the right choice for our family.
Maybe one day all the stuff will be made from bioplastic in super efficient factories, delivered via the Hyperloop or electric drones.
Until then, ask yourself what you love. Go with that. Leave the rest.