Consumer choice is grand and is celebrated as a symbol of all that is good about industrialized western society: free will, individual expression and of course, freedom! The more money we accumulate, the wider our spectrum of consumption choices and the greater the possibilities to live life to the fullest … or so it may seem.
In modern society, a trivial task like walking into a grocery store to buy anything turns into a mind-numbing mental exercise involving navigating a maze of sugar-free, low-sugar, whole grain, grain-free, gluten-free, low-fat, high-fat, low cholesterol options. Where we come out at the end of the ordeal depends partly on what we actually wanted to begin with and how well we manage to tune out the distracting options that are presented. Our experience shopping for clothes, shoes, personal care products, gadgets and other everyday items is not so different. With the exception of choices that address the needs of people with allergies and health conditions, the majority of them serve no clear purpose. We have way more choices than we can realistically exercise in a lifetime, and we take comfort in the fact that these choices exist. Because, you know, maybe some day you’ll decide to buy that thing you don’t want now. But every time some light is shed on how mindless and damaging a majority of products we consume are to our health and the well-being of our planet, we get appalled and demand a better, more sustainable option, which consequently leads to more products – and more choices!
The question we really need to ask ourselves is why do we choose what we do? If each of us can honestly answer that question, we may be able to put our consumption habits into context. Ask yourself … are you really in control of your choices or do the choices control you?
We Need Far Less Than We Think We Do
The wonderful world of advertising has played a fascinating trick on us – it has convinced us that we don’t actually know what we need until we’re told we need it. Want to know why people start lining up at the Apple store days before a new gadget is released? They’ve been sold an idea, not a product, and finding a practical use for it is often secondary. Of course, some advancements in technology do fulfill important needs in our lives, but do we really need to buy the latest version every year or two?
We’ve all fallen prey to advertising that has managed to convince us that we really ought to be buying something because we might not be happy, healthy, entertained, informed or good looking without it.
If we actually paused to think about whether our choice to buy or consume something is actually tied to a need that existed before we heard of the product, odds are we will realize that most products create a need, rather than fulfill it.
Further, once we think we need something, we then want more and more of it, we want it cheaper and we want it now. Sweatshops and factory farms exist because we want more than we need and this irrational demand has trapped us in a death spiral of mindless production and consumption.
Do You “Know” What You’re Buying?
Every product sitting on a shelf, whether it is an innocent looking box of cereal or a leather jacket has a story behind it. The product was made of raw materials that in many cases are sourced keeping not only quality (hopefully) but more importantly, also price in mind. That’s just the reality of the post-industrial age of mass production and apparent abundance of choices. However, the consequence of this reality at a global scale is that compromises are often made, starting from the point of sourcing raw materials to production, packaging, and distribution.
Take food for instance. We can’t get through a day without it, yet most of us don’t spend any time trying to learn about the journey our food took to reach our plates. We participate (albeit implicitly) in a food system that is literally eating us into extinction. To make matters worse, 30 percent of all food produced in the world each year is wasted or lost and it’s people with the most money that waste the most. Of course, who has the time to think about this? Don’t multi-billion dollar corporations exist to solve such problems? That’s why we pay the Government taxes, right? Whether we like it or not, we can’t vote for change or buy change and sit back and wait for it to unfold. Change begins with us.
Why Less is More
An abundance of choice wouldn’t be a problem if our natural resources were limitless. Unfortunately, what appears to be a bottomless well is running out. The fact that we’ve also mistaken that well to be a trash can, has only further diminished our ability to extract anything from it. Industries shield the public from having to think about the moral and environmental consequences of their actions because people reach for their wallets quicker when they’re not obstructed by thought.
So what good are choices when they unwittingly make us abandon our ability to think freely and critically? The apparent abundance of choice is nothing more than an illusion and we’re finally in on the trick. As Socrates put it, “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
So let’s try something different for a change: minimalism. Buy less, use what you have and give away what you don’t need because when you buy you destroy when you reuse you sustain and when you give you rebuild. Try this and you may find that you are not only helping to make the world a better place, but you are, in fact, less stressed, have more time, more money, more opportunities to be creative, more space for others and new experiences.
Dare I say, you may even find that elusive thing called happiness.
Image source: Gita Kulinitch Studio/Shutterstock