Regaining Control over Consumption: Reasoning and Tips

Do you have a junk drawer that’s filled with things you don’t use but have kept for some reason? Or perhaps you’re despairing over your bursting closet or the number of follow-up items you need to buy for your new gadget? If you’ve ever experienced any of this, chances are you’re trapped in a shop-spend-consume cycle. 

A lot of us are. It seems as if we’ve outsourced our decision-making skills to algorithms and apps that tell us what’s new in the market and why we need to own it. There’s an invasive pressure to buy new things today, many of which contribute to the climate crisis, turn entire countries into garbage dumps, and influence the gap between the rich and the poor.

There’s a dichotomy in existence today — while one section of society finds it difficult to swear off consumption, it’s a default state for another section. Consumption is inherently tied to privilege and is often a stand-in for displays of status. That’s not easy to break in the matter of a day or a year. However, it is very much well within our reach to rethink day-to-day consumption on a societal and individual level. And it’s critical that we get better at distinguishing between want and need. 

Mindless consumption hurts humans and the planet

Today, it takes us the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to absorb our waste and provide the resources we exploit. We use more resources than the Earth can generate in a year to feed the shop-spend-consume cycle. 

Cultural forecaster James Wallman calls it “stuffocation”: the environmental impact, destruction of species, and mental health pathos that comes with our new problem of not scarcity, but abundance. It’s a state of being trapped in a vicious cycle of working, spending, and consuming that operates at a relentless pace. Mindless consumption involves purchasing goods in excess and often on impulse, without paying attention to its life cycle or socio-environmental impact.

It doesn’t help that our daily environments — physical or online — constantly bombard us with the Next New Thing and the easiest way to get it. As shipping times get faster and ads get more predatory, we’re slipping deeper and deeper into this cycle. But the anxieties of modern life are only fuelled by mindless consumption — and we’re poking holes in our planet’s resilience at the same time. 

A fact that slips our collective consciousness regularly is this:

The pleasures of much of our consumption are fast forgotten, but the costs are slow and will be felt by generations for centuries to come.” — Vox

In contrast to eroding planetary boundaries and testing the Earth’s resilience, individuals can spark collective action in the right direction.

Tips to regain control over consumption

1.   Take a public stand

According to Julia Steinberger, a professor of ecological economics, it’s important that people voice their dissent against certain types of consumption. In an interview with Vox, she says, “It’s about making this way of life more visibly unacceptable.” This is key considering a lot of consumption—and the forces that perpetuate it—depend on the influence of friends, peers, and celebrities. By subverting that status quo and supplementing it with the resource-responsible actions listed below, the more privileged members of society can use their reach and influence to slow things down. 

2.   Try to miss it

It’s worth taking a closer look at our daily or monthly purchases — how many of them are made out of habit or routine? Quite a few, we’d wager. This is a miniature shop-spend-consume cycle that runs on autopilot. To break out of it, it’s worth trying to miss it. 

Consider letting some of your regular buys run out before you reorder them impulsively. You might find that you don’t miss some purchases that you thought you would. On the other hand, you might feel the lack of certain purchases very keenly. “Trying to miss it” helps individuals separate wants from needs and make mindful purchases instead of auto-pilot ones. 

3.   Focus on enjoyment rather than ownership 

A lot of consumption is fueled by the need to claim ownership of something, whether that’s a new car or a new book. A mindset shift can help understand that to enjoy something; you don’t need to own it. In fact, there are plenty of structures that already exist to double enjoyment without ownership — like the library or the car rental agency. Consumption sparks more consumption which perpetuates the cycle. By taking joy from the thing itself rather than the ownership of it, we take one step closer towards breaking the shop-spend-consume cycle. 

4.   Understand the loopholes set by pro-consumption businesses 

Companies are well aware that looking too deeply into the hidden costs of consumerism can drastically impact their profit margins. To that end, we’re often unconsciously falling into traps set by companies to simultaneously assuage our green instincts while also not stopping the consumption cycle. On an individual and societal level, it’s worth educating ourselves such that we spot these traps before they ensnare us. Here are some examples of such loopholes:

  • Greenwashing: unsubstantiated claims and misleading information about how a company’s product is environmentally friendly. 
  • The lesser of two evils: Positing one solution as better than another visibly environmentally unfriendly one, where the real right choice is not to choose any of them. 
  • The front-end farce: Recycling bins at popular fast fashion stores is an example of this. It makes consumers feel good that they’re doing something for the environment but doesn’t provide information about where the clothes from thousands of recycling bins go.

The right question to ask in the face of all this is not what to buy or from whom to buy, but whether to buy at all. 

5.   Explore the Experience Economy

According to James Wallman, experientialism is the more sustainable gateway to happiness, status, and identity that we often try to gain through material consumption. It advocates quality over quantity. Indeed, we’re already seeing a lot of individual and collective changes in this direction. Companies and governments are expressing an increased interest in the emotional and physical wellbeing of people. Businesses are investing in society and the environment through tree planting, transparency, and fair wages. Fewer and fewer people are intrigued by what you have; more and more people are interested in what you do.

The experience economy does have its caveats and red flags. Still, its intrinsic idea might help us break out of the consumption cycle: value your time and money, and spend it directly on the source of joy and higher quality of life, rather than the middlemen like new products. 

The final word 

Regaining control over consumption is much easier said than done. It will take several simultaneous overhauls on everyone interlinked in society — consumers, businesses, brands, governments, and inter-country relations. However, there are many benefits to choosing intentionality over consumerism that we can’t afford to overlook. We save more time and money for purchases that we need and experiences that increase our quality of life.

Material consumption gives with one hand and takes with another — but it’s not too late to throw a wrench in the works and substitute the spokes with both environmentally sustainable consumption and non-material consumption where possible.