There are many ways in which the institution of consumerism has changed the way we view “stuff” and our relationship with it (though we even cringe a bit at the use of the word relationship in this context). There aren’t very many instances where this change is for the good, but there is a scale of exactly how bad these changes are or aren’t. One of the most significantly bad changes, in our opinion, is the way in which the institution of consumerism has created a world in which we view so many of the material things we purchase as disposable. In addition to the environmental and financial dangers of this belief, there is also a danger of it infiltrating our emotional and mental state. Today we’ll take a look at the development and reality of this belief structure change.

The Shift to Disposable “Stuff”

There was an era, and it honestly wasn’t that long ago, where when you purchased a product you saved up for it and you purchased it with the idea that you would have it for a long time. Potentially you would even pass it down in your family. In a worst case scenario, at some point after years of use, it might make its way to a garage sale or flea market. Think about the items you buy these days, including things that once were almost certainly going to be long-term use items: dishes, bedroom sets, pots and pans, major furniture, even cars. Do you now even consider whether there will be longevity in those purchases? Chances are what is driving you to buy them is a temporary element such as a trend or design or your choice to give a room a “new look.” The idea that you’ll still be using the same couch twenty years from now, let alone ten, is likely an idea that makes you cringe rather than smile. And all of this perception of “stuff” as temporary or disposable has an impact on the environment, your wallet and your mental health. But we’ll talk about that later.

Why Did the Disposable Notion of Stuff Become So Important?

Glossary Definition: Addictive Consumerism

What is addictive consumerism?

We don’t want to sound like conspiracy theorists, truly, but it’s hard not to follow the money here. If you only buy one thing every ten to twenty years, how will major consumer corporations remain profitable? Not to mention how will big box retail outlets remain profitable? There are a number of elements that come into play here. The first obviously is retail manufacturers. They need to continually grow product revenue. To continually increase product revenue, you need to do two things. The first is expand awareness of your product, and the second is to generate repeat purchases from existing customers. If what you buy lasts you for twenty years, why would you buy a repeat item? So creating the idea of trends, hot items, or social status by “newness of stuff” helps those corporations to remain profitable. The second element here is the role of big box stores.  The essential revenue model for big box stores is to make up in the quantity of sales what they lack in the quality of the dollar value of an initial sale. That means they need to control how cheaply items are produced, which means less quality per product, which means that you need (or want) to replace it sooner.

The Negative Impact of the Disposable Notion of Stuff on the Planet – And Your Wallet

We probably don’t need to lay this out for you because we know that you are intelligent people, but this article wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t. The growth of the disposable notion of stuff has a hugely negative impact on the planet. Firstly, as a giant generalization, when you produce something more cheaply, it is usually safe to say that you are producing it with materials and practices that are less eco-friendly in general. That’s not to mention the well-documented human rights issues of how workers in developing nations are treated in order to produce products ever more cheaply. Finally, from an environmental standpoint, in addition to materials and practices that aren’t good for the planet, the more “stuff” we produce, the more “stuff” ends up in landfills. We already know that increasing landfills are having an increasing impact. But that’s not stopping us from continuing to generate, use and dispose more and more and more.

There’s also a financial impact. Believe it or not, and we will not add it up for you here, if you did the math of all of the money you spend buying cheaper, more disposable things multiple times against what it would cost you to buy one good thing and hold onto it, you’d be ahead with the one good thing!

There’s Also an Emotional and Mental Cost

For better or worse, how our relationship with stuff goes can also impact our relationship with everything else in our lives. So as individuals, when we begin to see “stuff” as disposable and short term, the mental impact and comfort level with commitment also begins to creep into other facets of our lives, professionally, personally and even physically. The most noticeable manifestation of this is the growing trend away from marriages and long-term commitments. What may be the most distressing about this is that the mental connection with commitment started with how we view possessions and stuff, and it started there because the nature of addictive consumerism is to create a relationship between stuff and emotional fulfillment. Once individuals begin to embrace the idea of emotional fulfillment through possessions and then simultaneously relate that to continual “stuff” upgrades and purchases, the inevitable next step is a transference of those thinking structures and even neural connections to real life relationships.

What are we essentially saying here? That we actually passionately think that if there’s just one element of postconsumerism that you want to work on as part of your plan to better yourself, learning to separate, identify and choose whether or not to think of “stuff” as disposable is a great starting point. It’s not entirely as complicated as working on separating emotional attachments from stuff and it has real tangible benefits for your wallet and the planet as well as your mental state. It’s also easy to get started by simply taking the time with each purchase to evaluate how lastingly you’re viewing it and if you need it!

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Photo Credit: David Goehring via Flickr