Some of us are fortunate enough to stay in our comfortable homes, with all our things, during this unprecedented time. Since the pandemic began, we’ve had the impulse to stock up on goods that we feel may be needed in a crisis. Personally, I’ll never understand the toilet paper thing, but completely identify with stocking up on wine. Our stockpiling necessitates making room for all the extras, and since we’re stuck at home, why don’t we get organized too! This is where it should dawn on us that we have created another type of prison of our own making.
Our self-incarceration isn’t caused by the virus, it’s caused by all our stuff. Right now we can’t get away from it and maybe it’s driving you crazy. Now that we have the time to think about it, how much time do we spend shopping, buying, organizing, moving, dusting and getting rid of what’s no longer needed? Personally, I’ve spent entire weekends going through boxes in the basement or the garage that are filled with things collected and either never or barely used. Our consumption habits are consuming our time, money, and lives.
Here are some hard facts that point to our how our consumption habits have gotten this way. The average American spends 2 ½ hours a week shopping. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s 20% more time than we spend exercising. It’s not just time spent, but how much space this stuff requires. Compared to 50 years ago, our houses are more than two times as big and we buy twice as much. In addition, we are adding or replacing things at a dizzying rate. According to the short film The Story of Stuff, the percentage of goods we buy that are still in use 6 months after purchase is 1%. Yep, one lousy percent. We also have less leisure time than we did 50 years ago. This might be because we are spending our time working so hard to afford our big houses, and all our things. It also happens that during this same period, our happiness has tanked. We don’t have time to pursue more pleasurable things like interacting with each other, being in nature, enjoying a hobby, or learning something new.
So why are we doing this to ourselves?
Part of it was by design. After World War II, business leaders and the Eisenhower administration wanted to get the economy back on track. They came up with the idea to make consumer goods the backbone of the new economy. The idea of planned obsolescence took hold; where products are designed to breakdown or become obsolete. That’s why your grandparent’s washing machine lasted their whole lives, and ours barely make it through our kid’s elementary school career. Also, industries use perceived obsolescence to make you buy new products and throw out the old ones. Who wants to be caught in wide legged pants when skinny jeans are all the rage?
The other component is our culture. While some could blame advertisers and savvy marketing to get us to think we are not good enough, our teeth aren’t white enough, our stuff isn’t new enough, it’s also a combination of societal pressures that keep this myth going. First, our stuff gives us a feeling of security. If having a few things that make our lives more efficient or safe or protected or healthy, then twice as much is twice as good. That feeling of anxiety and insecurity is precisely why people start to hoard in times of crisis such as now. Also, we think our things will make us happy. If only we had a certain house, car or phone, our lives would somehow be that much more fulfilled, and we would be live better, problem free lives. The truth is, that even if we are lucky enough to be able to get those desired items, they most often only bring temporary happiness if any at all. Finally, we use things to try to define ourselves and our place in the world. A fancy car impresses your coworkers, a name brand purse makes your friends jealous, or a big fat diamond will help you compensate for the envy you feel about your Instagram friend’s travel posts.
All this damage we are doing to ourselves by this way of living is miniscule compared to what it’s doing to the environment. Obviously, the creation of all this stuff takes a large amount of energy and resources and creates a lot of pollution. We are cutting down our forests and digging up our earth just to throw something in the landfill after 6 months of using it.
But don’t despair! More people are realizing this can’t work anymore and are changing the way they buy and use things. Companies are stepping up and creating circular models that self-sustain and create no waste. Some industries are moving towards more sustainable models, and most importantly, you as an individual are starting to demand better practices from brands. So, while we are forced to stay at home, perhaps we can take this time to realize all the good things we’d been missing out on in our pre-COVID lives. Maybe we can break out of our prison of stuff and start a new normal that is more sustainable and makes us a heck of a lot happier.