Consumerism is the new religion of the developed world.  Feeling blue?  Go buy something, they tell us, you’ll feel better.  Already happy?  Great, go celebrate by buying something else. Advertisers sell shopping as a hobby, a pastime, like playing tennis. And when your garage gets full, and there’s no place to park the car, no worries… for a small monthly fee you can rent a storage unit.

But with all these possessions, are we any happier? It sure doesn’t seem so.  Social scientists now tell us that experiences, not possessions, make us happier over the long haul.  Pretty, shiny things quickly lose their luster, especially when the bill arrives.  Too many possessions seem to own us, rather than the other way around.  Could we be happier with less?  That seems likely.  Do we have a moral obligation to consume less, so that future generations may know a few of the luxuries we take for granted?  I say we do.

Image by bchow (source: Flickr)

We need a new religion to replace consumerism, but anti-consumerism seems so, well, negative.  Hard to rally folks for that. Besides, we want to be for things, not against them.  And it’s not very realistic to buy nothing, sometimes we really do need a product.  So, our new philosophy should not be called anti-consumerism, because it is not only about being against buying things.  Instead, it is about making very deliberate and conscious decisions about the things we do buy.  Let’s call it ‘conscious consumerism.”

Every purchase we make helps somebody.  Somebody make money from us.  Who do we want to help?  Some purchases we make—far too many of them—hurt people.  Most of us don’t really want to do that.  So, what we really want to do is to use our purchasing power to help the most people and hurt the fewest.  By hurt, I don’t mean that the losers in these transactions may need our money more, or put it to better uses, though that certainly is a possibility.  No, some products cause real harm.

For instance, when we buy gasoline made from oil pumped in places we never see, like Colombia, or the Niger River Delta in Western Africa, we are buying a product which has contributed to the destruction of an environment upon which people and critters rely to live. These far-off forests and rivers were felled and fouled, many of the critters died, and the people are hungrier, sicker and poorer for it.  That’s a stark example, and oil companies are not fundamentally worse than many other industries that make the things we buy.  We get the benefit of the shiny new product, and somebody far away gets the pollution.  Justifiably, many of them are highly pissed off.

When those pissed off people in far-off lands take up arms to protect their world or take a piece of the action, consumerism becomes a national security issue.  We should form a department in the Pentagon or the CIA to study whether buying less stuff could reduce the amount of fighting in the world.  We could probably save billions.

Recently, well-meaning folks have attempted to put a price on the “carbon-content” of a product.  This is a useful start to measure sustainability.  Corn-based fuels looked like a winner until we added up the total energy input to grow the crop and make the fuel, and compared that to regular oil, then it didn’t look so good.  But things can get way more complicated than that.  For instance, which is more carbon friendly: the big-box store-bought, organic-factory-farmed lettuce 6-pack, shipped 800 miles by rail and then 80 miles in a new, ultra-clean diesel truck, or the farmer’s-market-bought lettuce that came 100 miles round trip in the farmer’s clunky old truck?  That calculation might be a lot closer than you think.  So, embodied energy is a key concept of conscious consumerism, but there is more to it than that.

Many years ago, the trade unions and others sounded the call to “look for the union label” or by things Made in the USA.  This comes back to “Who do we want to help?” People need jobs.  These days, a lot of them are our neighbors.  Most of us would prefer to create jobs that pay a decent wage, and don’t kill the people doing them or desecrate the places they live.  That ultra-clean diesel truck was likely built by well-paid American workers in a clean, well-regulated factory.  Sure, overseas production may have raised thousands of people out of abject poverty, but poor people don’t necessarily win when they leave their families and their hard-scrabble villages to work 90-hour weeks in a polluted third-world slum.

The localvore movement takes that concept a step further.  When you buy something made locally, you certainly are helping the local yokel who made it, and if that’s different than the one who sold it to you, then there’s two happy neighbors.  The farmer with the clunky truck may not employ that many of his neighbors, but he probably treats them better than the factory farm.

When you buy stuff at the local big-box store, your neighbor got a job, but that job is probably not as good as owning or managing the local hardware store or nursery, and some of the profits on your purchase left your town to points unknown.  They may have went to somebody you would like if you could just sit down and have a beer with them, but you will never know that for sure.

So, conscious consumers strive to buy products made in countries with strong protections for workers and the environment, and if we can put our neighbors to work, so much the better.  American trade unions can’t afford TV ads any more.  So many American manufacturing jobs went overseas to countries with low wages and weak protections in the so-called “race to the bottom.”  What we need is a race to the top.  As conscious consumers, we can demand that.

We can’t know everybody who is helped or hurt by every purchase, and trying to figure that out may drive us crazy.  If all of us stop buying things altogether, because it’s just too hard to do that mental calculus every time, then economists tell us the world as we know it will crumble.  Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.  Maybe elements of our manic capitalist system are indeed too big to fail.  But saving them may mean consuming all of the resources on the entire planet.

Big business controls just about everything these days.  They control the extraction of resources, the manufacturing of products, and the transport of these products to your town; they’ve always controlled that.  Now they control much of the retail outlets.  Now they control banking and finance, and the mass the media.  With the media firmly in their grip, they are working hard to control our government.  Some say they already do.  Getting our government back is a top priority these days, but folks are not necessarily connecting that concept with where they shop, who they’re paying for their mobile phone service, or who’s growing their food.  We need to wake up to that connection.

About the only thing we can control, every day, is how we spend our hard-earned money.  If we spend it wisely, consciously, helping the most people and hurting the fewest, maybe we can take back our government, put our neighbors back to work, and clean up the environment.

Guest post by Bob Horowitz (anti-consumer advocate). You can read more about Bob on his new blog
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Lead image source: stock.xchng