Need versus want is a concept that we’ve talked about a great deal at Postconsumers, but what about need versus impact? That’s an equation that we haven’t touched on. However, as we all acknowledge the relationship between our culture’s addictive consumerism and the environmental crisis, we think that it’s an equation that requires adequate attention. While we’ve always taken the position that knowing how to say “no” to a purchase that you don’t need but do want is a skillset that we should all have (though we’re not implying that you shouldn’t buy something that you simply want if it fits your definition of “enough for today”), we also think that saying no to something that you need because of its social or environmental impact may be a skill that we all want to begin to acquire. And what better time to think about this than Earth Day month?

Reviewing Need Versus Want Briefly

We’re taking a moment to stop here and talk about Need Versus Want just in case you’re not familiar with the concept. The idea is that there are purchases we need and purchases that we want, but that we’re not always clear (or honest with ourselves) about which is which. You may truly need a cell phone to get by in today’s world, but do you need an iPhone or do you simply want an iPhone? There’s nothing wrong with wanting an iPhone and buying it because you want it, but the choice should be conscious. You know that, despite it being excess consumerism, you’re probably going to buy it anyway. And that’s fine, as long as you think through that you’re doing it. Ultimately however, the only real way to begin to reduce symptoms of addictive consumerism is to start to say “no” to purchases that you simply want rather than need.

The Next Level: Need Versus Impact

However, in the current world, there’s a second level that this line of thinking needs to go to. That line of thinking is balancing your need for something with its social or environmental impact. You may need a new cell phone, but what impact on the environment is that having? What impact on social justice and fair labor practices? All of this matters when you make a consumer purchase given how much the consumer machine drives society in the current era. But it’s not as simple as Need Versus Impact, because if you truly need something then, well, you need it. So what do you do next to remain consumer conscious while also fulfilling your need?

Step One: Quantify the Cost

By cost, we don’t mean the cost of the item. We mean the cost to the planet and its people of purchasing the item. Truly do your investigation and quantify it. How much waste is being generated to create what you need? Are the workers being treated fairly? Is the large corporation that ultimately makes it one that you can at least stomach supporting? Before you know the real impact, it’s nearly impossible to take the next steps.

Step Two: Research Alternatives

We’re not suggesting that you research alternatives to what you need. We’re suggesting that you research alternative brands or places to purchase it that will align with your beliefs and goals about the planet and its people. We’d like to suggest that you start with the Buycott app. Not only can this app help you with your initial research, but it can also help you find alternative purchases that still meet your need while also hopefully supporting your beliefs.

Step Three: Minimize Waste After Purchase

From making sure that you recycle all packaging and the like to making sure that you properly dispose of any items that you were replacing, consider the full life cycle. For example, if you were buying a new cell phone because the old one didn’t have a feature that you needed, you can always donate the old phone to Hope Phones. Just because you made a purchase that had an impact on the world, it doesn’t mean that you can’t minimize that impact.

We need to buy things. For better or worse that is the way of the world. But finding the satisfaction of enough, being a conscious buyer, and doing the equations of want versus need versus impact in your head prior to a purchase can make the world a better place. Take the time to slow down and be mindful of your purchasing habits.

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Photo Credit: Raychel Mendez via Flickr