My house is littered with drawers of endless clutter, concealing the things we never use but might need. My grandparents are no different, refusing to abandon their stockpile of expired food. We just buy and buy addictively, as if our life depends on it. Everyone is like this, owning drawers that hide their idle things. After reading Mathew Baker’s Why Visit America, where excessive materialism is penalised, I wanted to work out why we felt possessed to own so many things? And what are the inevitable consequences because of it?
Through manipulation and financial dependency, capitalism has carefully crafted the narrative where the more stuff you have, the happier you’ll be. It’s primitive: more stuff = security = survival + happiness. Since China’s 1978 ‘Open Door’ policy, there’s been an explosion in mass consumption as the middle class and social media has grown. Initially, capitalism seems to benefit everyone, with its policies making a comfortable lifestyle attainable to the mass market. However, for a while, we’ve been producing more than we can consume. Between 2000-2014 society owns 60% more clothes, whilst keeping them for half the time. As a result, 75% of garments are sent to landfill as recycling plants struggle to keep up with demand. That’s just clothes, which alone take 20-200 years to decompose. If you include everything else you’ve ever thrown out and multiply it by 7 billion, it piles up fast. Plastic, which is used abundantly, takes 450 years to decompose. As part of decomposition, CO₂ is released. If too much CO₂ is released at once, it gets trapped in the atmosphere and slowly builds up a blanket, trapping more CO₂. This is what’s led to global warming as well as climate change, progressively destroying communities in recent years. If mass consumption continues, it’s clear how it’s going to end - yet there are no signs of it stopping. Capitalism’s grasp on society had provided two choices for the future: financial or environmental stability - regardless there are consequences to both, with the latter weighing more heavily. In the last decade, the waste from mass consumption has become such an issue that nations like China and Malaysia have closed their borders to waste imports. Our personal discontent that’s filled by shopping is now being reflected in the environment of non-Western nations, stagnating the health and prosperity of communities. While Westerns continue to live in excess, nations will continue to suffer as a result.
Capitalism thrives due to its fast-paced addictive qualities and the marketing of materialistic happiness. Adverts hone in on our personal desires, social pressure and the craving for status - all of which stem from our insecurities. Buyers don’t care about the product itself, but the benefits attached. This more evident than with the rise of ‘Consumptionism’: getting buyers to see the stuff they use/need frequently as perishables (e.g. fast fashion). Capitalism has us believe that consumption, materialism and a high income will add value to our lives, which isn’t true. A study found people earning $70,000+ per year don’t gain any psychological well-being from greater materialism. It’s even an elitist stereotype, with adulterous husbands and alcoholic wives depressed despite everything they have. Really, mass consumption only ‘fulfils’ the 1%, affording them power and freedom that’s untouched by society. For everyone else? Insecurities still linger and social pressure remains a burden - what a waste.
However, there is a way out. By 2050, if global consumption dropped by 60% (+ 95% in the West), the planet would easily be able to support 21bn people, all living the lifestyle equivalent to the Swiss in the 60s. That would mean absolutely no excess in replacement for a better quality of life for the masses rather than the few. It would mitigate climate change and remove financial privilege. This type of lifestyle in its extremity is known as minimalism. The media paints minimalist as radical tiny house living hippies, depicting their way of life as foolish. In reality, they’re far happier than everyone else, switching out stress for practicality. To me, minimalism reflects the same mentality as holidaymakers: you only take what you need. On holiday, I don’t take my whole wardrobe or laptop because I don’t need it, so why would I carry it around? It just creates a burden when I could be having fun - and that’s exactly what mass consumption does. Why do you need to buy more stuff if you don’t need it? All you do is clutter your home, waste money and destroy the planet… what’s the point? Patagonia’s motto is “buy once, buy well, mend” which is something society desperately needs to incorporate if it’s to last another 2000 years. But it’s hard. You can’t escape capitalism or consumption because it’s everywhere, but once you see how absurd it is, it’s easier to ignore it. For instance, in Why Visit America it reads “Our ratio was 9000:1. A grossly unhealthy figure.” That’s a lot of shit, but in reality, that’s most of our ratios. Yet, the only difference is we hide it away into draws, never having to bear witness to it. In my room alone I found I was over 500:1… and that’s just one room. Knowing this, I refuse to buy excessively and add to the pile. ‘What’s the point?’ I think, ‘I don’t need it.’ Instead, I save money for things that would actually make me happy, like travelling, rather than on a quick fix.
Overall, what I learnt was that having more stuff doesn’t make you happy. Instead, materialism is just a byproduct of capitalism, leveraging the rich and exploiting developing communities and the environment. I know we feel like we need stuff, but how can you need something you don’t use? Just shop smart. Invest in what you enjoy rather than things you feel obliged to buy. Only then will consumers truly garner the benefits of their purchases without unknowingly contributing to climate change. Either way, a 1960s Swiss lifestyle doesn’t sound like a bad alternative...
Written by Erin Botten @erins_setup