Ahhh, The Friday After Thanksgiving, the day that everyone in the US is thinking about one thing: shopping. The day that more than 200 million of us will spend about $50 billion on sales that are “too good to pass up” or stuff we “can’t live without”.
And this is a good thing, right? The President is always urging us to shop more and he is ably backed up by the thousands of ads we see daily. Our friends are major motivators too, always looking at us like we’ve gone mental just because we don’t have the new iPhone or we’re wearing last season’s shoes.
Shopping makes the world go round. It keeps the economy healthy. It makes us happy. It’s win win win!
Actually, Shopping Kind of Sucks
There’s a cost to all this shopping that is much bigger than the $199 you plop down for a new iPhone (and I’m not talking about the horrendous monthly data fees).
Everything we buy is precisely packaged and priced to be attractive to our consumerist eyes. Where it comes from, what goes into it, and how it’s made is carefully hidden. No one wants those considerations getting in the way of our decision to buy buy buy.
I’m asking you to let those thoughts in. Today, before you whip out your credit card to take advantage of some once-in-a-lifetime deal, think.
What Is This Made Of?
In the case of a cell phone a staggering number of raw materials – like nickel, gold, copper, zinc, cadmium, coltan, and hundreds (yes hundreds) more – go into the finished product.
Many are extracted from mines that turn once pristine natural habitat into a barren wasteland. The toxins and emissions from mines often end up poisoning air, water, and soil.
Mining for coltan, which is in just about every electronic device you can think of, is quickly killing off the Mountain Gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National Park.
Lots of the other raw materials in cell phones are toxins, like phthalates and brominated flame retardants. This type of toxin degrades so slowly that they move through air, water, and soil, finally collecting in the fatty tissue of animals (that’s you and me) causing cancer and other fun diseases.
How Is It Made?
Manufacturing uses up natural resources, emits toxins and greenhouse gases, and poisons waterways and soil. Greenpeace estimates that around 70% of China’s fresh water is polluted and the pollution is linked to textile manufacturing. So yeah, your new clothes have an impact too.
Of course, enormous amounts of fossil fuels are also used in manufacturing. One report I read estimated that the fossil fuel it takes to make one cell phone is 800 times the weight of the finished product.
Where Will It End Up?
Once your brand new toy is no longer shiny and the latest operating system has forced it into obsolescence, what happens to it? Ideally, it would be refurbished and reused, or at the very least recycled.
In reality, around 100 million cell phones are thrown away every year in the US. Of the ones that aren’t just gathering dust in junk drawers around the nation, fewer than 20% are recycled. The rest are sitting leaching their toxins into our soil.
How to Stop Shopping
When everything and everyone we encounter is telling us to shop, shop, shop, it can be damn hard to stop, even knowing how what we buy impacts the world. Here are a few more ways to slow down that impulse.
- Don’t buy anything that only has one use. If you’re looking longingly at a popcorn popper, an ice cream maker, or a wristwatch, think about what else you already have that serves the same purpose. Like a true revolutionary, why not make popcorn in a pot on the stove? It tastes delicious every time.
- Before you buy anything, ask yourself (and answer honestly): Do I need it? Do I love it? Can I afford it? If you answer “no” or “I don’t know” to any of these questions, delay the purchase. It’s amazing how little time it takes to go from “I totally need this” to “what the hell was I thinking?”.
- Instead of buying, borrow. If you’re doing a quick project in your backyard that requires a special tool, see if one of your neighbors already owns it. Yes, go and meet your neighbors! Also, don’t forget that there’s this special place called the library that will loan you stuff for free.
And what about the sheer joy shopping brings to you? If you’ve been salivating over the delights of Black Friday all year, I leave you with this: studies show the anticipation of shopping provides more pleasure than the actual purchase. So why bother?