This post is by contributing blogger Daniella Svoboda Schmidt, an experienced public school master teacher, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in engaging others in the positive power of food citizenship through The Thinkatarian Food Club. She currently lives in Germany with her husband and son.
For many years, I shopped as a pastime. Although I mostly enjoyed clothes shopping, I rarely passed up deals, no matter what was for sale. I felt a special euphoria from sweeping through clearance sales, bagging incredible bargains by timing my purchases just right. Even if the item was not something I needed, a low price could justify almost any purchase. My collection of stuff expanded and filled the house, and then spilled into the garage as I exercised my consumer power with gusto. Shopping gave me great pleasure, and I was helping the economy. It was like retail therapy with a side of citizenship! I often bought things at 70%, 80% or even 90% off. How the store could afford to sell top quality, brand-name products at such discounts was something I never chose to think about for very long. The less I personally paid for the item, the better the deal was for me, and that was what mattered.
Watching The Story of Stuff, a 20-minute animated video, narrated by Annie Leonard and made by FreeRange Studios, radically transformed my understanding of my consumerist hobby. I always had thought of my shopping as relatively innocent, especially when compared with other obviously destructive hobbies, like off-roading or endangered species hunting. For most of my life, I viewed a purchase as simply an exchange of money for a product. But, I had never before thought about the entire lifecycle of a product, and certainly I had never made the obvious connection that all of my things came from somewhere else—not just from the store, but if traced back far enough, from the earth itself. And eventually, all of my purchases would return back to the earth. What an epiphany!
This was a sea change for me. The Story of Stuff helped me to realize that my carefree consumerism was far from trouble-free as I had thought. Suddenly, I realized that the production and purchase of each and every product was not a simple transaction between me and a friendly cashier swiping my credit card. My things had a hidden secret life that I had never stopped to investigate before. In the video, Leonard explains the basic materials economy, from extraction, to production, to distribution, to consumption, and finally to disposal. Beginning with this basic framework, she fills in the missing elements, helping the viewer to make the connections between this rather clinical textbook definition of how products are made, to the realities of the limits of materials, the role of government and corporations, and the people, animals, water, and the planet that are often negatively affected by this solely profit-driven system. Watching this video opened my eyes to the consequences of my shopping hobby and empowered me to take up my own personal responsibility for my consumption.
After watching The Story of Stuff, I think carefully—very carefully—about what I buy. For me, though this video is filled with hard-hitting realities, the most sobering fact that sticks in my mind is that each purchase we make has an unseen trail of waste seventy times the size of the product. Nothing has ever stopped me so cold from making an impulse purchase as when I remind myself of this fact. It helps me to immediately consider if my prospective purchase is a “want” or a “need.” Now, when I do decide that a product is something I really need, I search for the item secondhand first, by browsing online or in my local secondhand shops. It feels so great to know that by purchasing secondhand I am saving 70 times the resources of buying a new product. And more often than not, in the time it takes to track down the item I would like to purchase, I realize that it was not actually something I needed in the first place.
When I have no other options and must buy something new, I do research on the company ahead of time to see if they offer fair working conditions and/or produce organic or natural products, by consulting websites like Green America's Shop and Unshop and Responsible Shopper pages, or Ethical Consumer's Buyers' Guides.
Now that I am committed to being a conscious consumer, I have found great joy and satisfaction in living simply and lending, borrowing, sharing, gifting and trading things with friends. Many resources have recently popped up to instantly connect people who want to buy, trade, or give away secondhand items on the Internet, such as Ebay.com, Craigslist.org, or Freecycle.org. And here is a list of 50 other websites that can help sellers and buyers connect. So buying used items has never been easier.
Make no mistake, I still enjoy shopping, and I love a good deal. But now I embrace the real deal: the bargain that is not only a great buy for me, but is also fair for others. And in this shopping quest to find the real deal, I have saved so much money, delight in the community created by sharing among friends, and get an even bigger rush knowing that I am making an enormous positive difference by being a conscious consumer. Now that is a real deal!
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