At the beginning of the semester, my professor challenged the students in my Ecological Economics course to an optional assignment: go one week without purchasing anything other than food and school supplies. I would consider myself to be fairly thrifty to begin with; I try to cut down costs where I can and usually only buy things when I need them. So, thinking that this challenge would be easy, I confidently walked to the front of the class and wrote my name on the chalkboard alongside about 20 other students.
I found that I was able to make it through the majority of the week while strategically avoiding the temptation to buy. I turned down an offer to go to the mall with my housemates, I avoided the poster sale at all costs, and walked downtown instead of taking a cab.
But when it came down to my more habitual purchases, I had a harder time holding myself back and I began searching for ways to justify my spending. A latte at Starbucks to get my caffeine fix between classes… that’s basically food, right? Paying for cover at the bar on the weekend… all my friends are going so it is hard to say no. Spending $20 on drinks at the bar… okay, time to reassess.
When my professor checked in with us the next week to see who had made it through, I was ashamed to say that I wasn’t one of them. In fact, most people were not able to go a single week without buying anything for one reason or another – a slightly depressing nod at how consumerism has embedded itself into our lives.
Even though I did not necessarily “win” the challenge, I still have a feeling of success that stems from a subconscious shift in my mindset. After spending just one week in September actively turning down opportunities to buy, two months later I still find myself analysing whether the value that each new purchase would add to my life supersedes the economic and environmental toll it creates.
While I cannot necessarily speak from experience, saving money when you’re young is probably one of the best gifts you can give to your future self. Cutting out small expenses now will make it easier to save up for big purchases in the future like a car, a house, or even just a weekend getaway.
When broadening our perspective to a macro level and looking beyond the personal benefits of spending less, the environmental gains are pervasive.
A 2015 study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology found that household consumption accounts for over 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, and between 50 to 80 per cent of total land, material, and water use. This study also highlights that about 80 per cent of these emissions occur fairly far back in the supply chain, during the excavation and manufacturing stages. As much as we would like to think that we are saving the planet by putting our take-out containers in the recycling bin instead of the garbage, the sad reality is that the damage has already been done before each product gets into our hands.
Imagine how different our lives would be if we only bought what we actually need. Think about what our homes, oceans, and landfills would look like, and how our priorities would change. Our world runs on consumption, so waking up to an economy that revolves around something other than buying more stuff seems like an improbable reality in our lifetime. What will it take to make this change?
I understand that not buying anything at all is not a very realistic way to live. Urbanization has caused us to become sufficiently disconnected from the cultivation of our own food that most people would not have the skills to thrive in a completely self-reliant environment. Instead, an easy and immediate course of action we can take is to become a smart consumer. To me a smart consumer is someone who is in tune with what they buy, where it comes from, and how much of it they consume. Here are some of my tips on how to become a smart consumer:
Buy locally and buy seasonally. Consider the amount of miles your food has travelled to get to your plate, and the amount of emissions generated as a result. Buying local food not only has a significantly lower environmental impact, but it generally is fresher, tastes better, and it supports local farms and communities. In Ontario we are especially lucky to have abundance of farms who supply us with delicious food year round, but not enough of us make the effort to take advantage of them. Queen’s students – interested in buying local but not sure where to start? Check out Rooted Foods Co.
Every so often it is nice to spice up your wardrobe. Instead of heading to the mall, next time check out your local thrift store. While it might take a bit more time to hunt down something you like, vintage stores won’t break the bank and they give old clothes that would have been otherwise thrown away a new home. Alternatively, shop your friends’ (or parents’) closets! One of the best parts about sharing a house with seven other girls is being able to have access to their wardrobes. Make the most of what you already collectively own.
A common misconception is that natural products do not work as well as their synthetic alternatives. There are many great brands out there that work just as well while exposing your skin, and the environment, to fewer chemicals. Some of my favourites include Green Beaver, Lush, and Aveda. Another tip is to invest in multi-purpose products like coconut oil which can be used in countless different ways. From make-up remover to deep conditioner to cooking oil, coconut oil truly is one of the best trade secrets. Finally, monitor your use. We tend to use a lot more than we really need. Some of the most common culprits include shampoo, toothpaste, and hand soap.
To finish things off, I would like to challenge you to say bye to buying. See if you can go one week without buying anything other than groceries and school supplies. If you cannot make it through the week, at least take a step back and look at your consumption objectively, and try to kick your bad habits to the curb. The planet and your wallet will thank you.