Fix What’s Broken

170 - BagThink for a moment about all the ‘stuff’ you’ve ever brought.

From when you were a kid, to the age you are now – the clothes, the books, the home items, the magazines, the shoes, the electrical goods, the furniture, the carpets, the crockery, the mobile phones, the computer games, the cushions, the kettles, the deckchairs, the cars . . . everything.

Where are they now ?

Assuming you’re home isn’t some vast Indiana Jones like warehouse full of everything you’ve ever owned (how disconcerting would that be?), it’s safe to assume the vast majority of the things you’ve bought you eventually threw away.

Why ?

All those raw materials, all that energy used in manufacture and transport, all the water used to grow the wood or cotton etc, all the chemicals, all the packaging? None of it really thrown ‘away’ of course, there’s no such place, but landfilled in some home in the ground – several hundred tons of your own personal waste.

Why ?

Sometimes we just get bored or tired of things, sometimes things go out of style, sometimes we’ve just no further use for something, but it’s more than likely that a large percentage of the stuff you’ve thrown away, you got rid of because it was broken.

Just a couple of generations ago many of these broken things would have been repaired, once, twice or even over and over again – whether tables, clothes, shoes or tools. This attitude of scarcity, of material things being limited and valuable, is now largely history. In our throwaway society stuff is cheap – it usually costs less to buy a new one than it would to fix the old one, and certainly it’s a lot less hassle. Who has time to fix stuff these days ?

But taking the time and effort to repair things is making something of a comeback – from Amsterdam’s Repair Cafes (which are now popping-up further afield), to increasing numbers of writers and bloggers discussing it – check out My Make Do and Mend Year or The Case for Working with your Hands.

Some of this is down to austerity of course – we’re all having to get by on less money than before, and so feel more inclined to patch up our coat, or re-screw the table leg, than use the excuse to buy something new. But some of the popularity stems from an increasing awareness of the connection between our own wasteful, consumerist lifestyles, and the environmental and social damage being done elsewhere in the world to support them. We increasingly understand it’s hypocritical to bemoan global warming while buying endless replacement gadgets and stuff made in Chinese coal powered factories, or to feel appalled about poor working conditions or workplace disasters elsewhere in the world, while buying endless £3 T-shirts on the High Street.

Just to be clear – I’m as much a hypocrite as anyone else – consumption is so deeply woven into our society it’s not an easy thing to avoid.

This isn’t just a personal problem – we’ve built our whole economies on a model of never ending consumption. We need to maintain ‘consumer confidence’ or GDP takes a bit of a hit. The phrase ‘planned obsolescence‘, you might be interested to learn, was first used in 1932, in a plan to help end the depression by ensuring all manufacturers produced goods that were designed to quickly break – in order to stimulate and perpetuate consumer demand! They realised even then, that if we all simply stop buying new stuff we’re going to have to face some rather difficult consequences.

On the other hand the phrase ‘waste not want not‘ dates back to at least the 1700s, and suggests that if we were to waste less in the present, then we’d have more left for ourselves in the future.

Solving this dilemma – by ensuring resources are used not just effectively, but also efficiently, but without collapsing the economy, is one of the key challenges of sustainability. To achieve it we’ll need to develop a much more circular economy, making it easier to use and reuse materials – while at the same time decoupling economic growth from consumption.

In the meantime, as policy makers and economists wrestle with how to do this, I’ll keep fixing my 10 year old bag . . . buy less, mend more.


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What Do You Want for Christmas ?

158 - presentsSpam !

You might not realise it but every single day Next Starfish receives over 100 items of spam – either post comments, emails, fake tweets etc.

Despite my best attempts to automate and improve my spam filtering, processing all this junk communication takes some time to sort through, and no doubt as I go crazy with the delete button, I manage to accidentally overlook and delete one or two proper comments or emails – apologies if I’ve inadvertently nuked one of yours lately !

But this isn’t a post about my battles with the evil forces of spamalot.

It’s a post about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

As you’re all such smart and perceptive people I’m sure you see where I’m going with this somewhat clunky analogy . . . that if we fill our lives with too much junk, we struggle to find the time or energy to enjoy the genuinely good stuff.

This is might be something to ponder as we approach Christmas. A time of peace and good will to all men – perhaps. A time of commercialism, excess and over-consumption – definitely.

It’s also a time of tremendous stress and anxiety for a lot of people. How do you feel if you can’t afford to buy your children any presents this year, especially surrounded by so much advertising ? What do you do if your children’s friends buy them Christmas presents and you can’t afford to buy them gifts back ? What if the neighbours, your colleagues, the boss or your distant relatives insist on buying you a present . . . it’s stressful not being able to reciprocate.

A colleague at work described a scenario he’d encountered where a middle class mother brought gifts for her child to give to their friends, only to discover their friends’ families couldn’t afford to buy gifts in return. Rather than have her child think their friends didn’t like them enough to return gifts, and to avoid causing embarrassment by explaining their friends families were too poor, she secretly bought gifts for her child and pretended they were from their friends.

Clearly this is madness !

Has anyone asked you “What do you want for Christmas ?”, this year ? Did you struggle to come up with a good answer ? Perhaps you have enough ‘stuff’ already ?

The personal finance adviser Martin Lewis argues that “we should all stop buying each other presents”. Not entirely – but only to buy them for close family.

I think I’m broadly on his side, and I think Big Bang’s Sheldon Cooper would also agree.

Less really can be more.

If you’re thinking about making a change in your typical Christmas routine, or perhaps your life more generally I recommend you spend half an hour listening to the two TED talks below, and perhaps another half an hour thinking about what they might mean to you personally.

Photo by metaphoricalplatypus via Flickr

Similar articles – Can Christmas Still Really Change the World ?, Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, The Year of Anti-Consumerist LivingThe Art of Giving UpBuy Nothing DayCleaning Out My Closet

Love Your Stuff

178 - StuffA lot of people will tell you modern society is too materialistic. That we’re all focused on our ‘stuff’ rather than what’s really important – including each other.

I’d like to suggest something different.

We’re not materialistic enough!

It’s not that we love and cherish our ‘stuff’ too much, it’s the opposite – we don’t value ‘stuff’ enough.

We use things once then throw them away. We replace things rather than repairing them. We don’t look after the things we own. We buy things we never use. We enjoy the thrill of shopping for and buying things more than the things themselves . . . all in all, perhaps we should give our ‘stuff’ a bit more care and attention?

I’m not the first person to say this.

George Monbiot wrote the same thing a decade ago, pointing out that most of us no longer bother to sharpen knives, or know how to fully work our various gadgets, let alone know where the various materials in our belongings has come from. The blog Stuff Does Matter has a similar message.

If we really valued our possessions, understood what had gone into producing them,  were more selective in buying them, took better care of them, tried to repair them when necessary – then as a society we’d certainly consume a lot less.

I also suspect as individuals we’d also decide we need less stuff and clutter in our lives.

The Science Fiction writer and futurist Bruce Sterling wrote that we can group our belongings into four categories:

1 – Beautiful things

2 – Emotionally important things

3 – Functional tools, devices and appliances

4 – Everything else

He suggests that we should have beautiful things, emotionally important things and useful things in our lives – it’s the everything else category he asks us to question and do away with. The writer Dave Bruno goes further, asking us to consider whittling our possessions down to, an admittedly arbitrary, 100 things or less !

A philosophy of simplicity and frugality is important if we’re to combat our mindless consumerism, but we also need a philosophy of good design, careful choosing, proper maintenance, repair and sharing.

If you need a bag to travel to work with every day then it makes sense to buy a bag that you love, is well designed, long lasting and ultimately worth repairing when it breaks. The same applies pretty much to all your other every day items – using well designed items will not only be more enjoyable and satisfying, but they should also last longer, and prompt us to take better care of them. Its an issue of quality over quantity. If you’re after suggestions to reinvent your personal possessions more thoughtfully there are a huge number of sites, groups and articles devoted to these  ideas – Everyday Carry, What’s in Your Bag, Good Design, The Verge, What’s in My Bag.

There’s obviously a balance to be struck – not mindlessly filling our lives and homes with more and more stuff and being more selective about the things we buy, but without obsessing fetishistically about them either.

If we get this balance right we can perhaps change our lives – progressively doing away with the unnecessary ’stuff’ cluttering up our lives, while finding the stuff that we do own and value being more useful, meaningful and enjoyable.

[More Ideas for ‘making a difference’ in my ebook The Year I Saved the World]


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Photo image used under Creative Commons Licence from denharsh, via Flickr

Curb Your Consumerism

When you’re next at home take a few moments to look around.

Why have you got so much stuff ?

If your home is anything like mine, you’ll have many many items you’ve acquired over the years which now comprise your ‘stuff’.

Why ?

Why do we buy so much ‘stuff’, fill our lives with it and keep so much of it around ? We don’t really need it all, surely ?

Many of us will also have yet more ‘stuff’ hidden away in cupboards, drawers, attics and garages . . . why ?

We’ve all got our own reasons of course, but applied to society as a whole this is not a trivial question.

The increasing rise of consumerism now largely drives the world economy – consuming energy and resources, and is both directly and indirectly responsible for many of the most urgent environmental and social problems in the world today.

It’s not even as if we’e any happier as a result. Survey after survey across the world shows that once our basic needs and sense of security have been met, having additional wealth and owning ‘stuff’ makes relatively little difference to our happiness.

Not to mention of course, that most of us are having to work harder and harder in order to afford our lifestyles, with stress, anxiety, depression, consumer debt, detachment, fragmented communities, weakening of societal institutions and even societal breakdown all potential consequences – so called affluenza, the societal symptoms of overload caused by the endless pursuit of more.

If we want to reduce the extent of consumerism in society, perhaps a bit more introspection and understanding of our own buying habits might be a good place to start ?

Psychologists tell us we buy for a variety of reasons, including: utility and usefulness, to indicate social status to others, to reinforce social status and identity to ourselves, and because buying stuff is enjoyable.

Many of us will appreciate the emotional rewards of shopping –  retail therapy. These are very real, and in some cases shopping, may develop into addictive behaviour – so called oniomania (literally ‘for sale’ madness), often driven by underlying feelings of status anxiety, lonliness and disconnection, lack or purpose or unfulfillment in other areas of life, for which the emotional highs of shopping substitute.

How can we curb our own consumerism ?

A few ideas:

1 – Avoid Temptation – Stop endlessly browsing the internet for the latest releases, fashions, models, gadgets. Try to avoid the adverts, product reviews, glossy magazine promotions. Don’t go window shopping along the High Street and avoid shopping trips with friends. Stop viewing shopping as a leisure activity.

2 – Substitute Other Activities for Shopping – Take some exercise instead, visit a friend, do something creative, go for a walk or watch a film/play a game/listen to music. Getting outside into nature, away from man made environments, can be particularly effective.

3 – Question Yourself - Ask yourself will it really make that much of a difference to my life ? What would happen if I didn’t buy it ? Am I buying this to make myself look good to others ? Am I buying this to make myself feel better ? Do I already have something similar ? Can I fix my old one ?

4 – Build in Delay – If you’re tempted to buy something, force yourself to immediately walk away from it – you’ll only tend to make the effort to walk back if you really want it. Tell yourself if you still want it in a day, a week or a month’s time then you’ll buy it then. Go window shopping without money or cards, so you can’t be tempted by impulse purchases.

5 – Remind Yourself - Try keeping a list of things you need, or really want, whether in the super market shopping lists or online wish lists – and stick to them. If money is tight take a copy of your bank balance to help disuade you from spending. Write yourself a pledge not to buy anything for a week, and keep it in your pocket or your wallet – or stick a reminder on your credit card!

6 – Timing is Everything – Don’t go food shopping when hungry and don’t go shopping for gifts for yourself when feeling a bit down and in need of a ‘pick me up’. Don’t leave gift shopping for others till the last minute. If you’ve decided to go to the shops to buy something, arrange another appointment shortly afterwards, so you won’t be tempted to shop for longer.

7 – Listen to Your Emotions - Be mindful of any emotional conflict you feel when shopping – desire versus guilt. We can sometimes struggle to resolve this conflict by still buying, but compromising on what we buy, perhaps getting something cheaper than the thing we really want. It might be better to buy the thing you really want, and make a deal with yourself you’ll really look appreciate it, use it and look after it, and not buy anything else for a while.

8 – Combat Your Status Anxiety – The more you learn about status anxiety, how it affects us all, and how we often compensate by ‘purchasing a ‘lifestyle or persona’ – the more self aware and empowered we’ll become.

9 – Compare Your Life with the Poor, Instead of the Rich – It’s easy to compare our lives with those of the rich and famous, convincing ourselves we need the latest look, style, gadgets, holidays etc. Perhaps if we were more familiar with the lives of the poor, both in our own country and around the world, we’d be more appreciative of what we already have, and want less.

10 – Consume Collaboratively – If you still absolutely have to have it, perhaps a better alternative is to buy it collectively and share it. Buy and assemble a toolkit with your neighbours, buy films/games/books with family or work colleagues and share them. Perhaps try one of the many online collaborative consumption websites.

Similar articles – Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves, The Year of Anti-Consumerist LivingThe Art of Giving UpCan Christmas Still Really Change the World ?Buy Nothing Day, Cleaning Out My Closet

Photo by uberculture, via Flickr

The Year of Anti-Consumerist Living

A guest post by Robin MacArthur, a writer, mother, and one half of the indie-folk duo Red Heart the Ticker. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Shenandoah, and Orion Magazine. You can read more of her work on her blog at Woodbirdandthensome, or listen to Red Heart the Ticker

A few months back our friends Doug and Erika announced that they were challenging one another to a year of buying-nothing-new.

They posted a link to the rules of a social and environmental movement called “The Compact” initiated and named by a group of friends in San Francisco. The Compact is not extremist; one can buy food and anything necessary for one’s health or safety, essential supplies such as brake fluid and toilet paper, anything second hand, and even download music and keep one’s subscriptions.

Radical but not insane.

I thought, briefly, about joining them. But I excused myself by (quietly) proclaiming that I’m not really much of a consumer, anyway; that I haven’t bought a pair of new jeans in two years; that I can count on my two hands (literally) the number of things I’ve bought new for my two-and-a-half year-old daughter during her lifetime; that it wouldn’t change the world, me not buying the little I do. Plus, I said, also quietly, I have a penchant for buying myself the occasional pretty thing. Don’t I deserve that?

Then, yesterday, I came across an article in the current issue of Orion magazine by Scott Russell Sanders entitled “Breaking the Spell of Money”. Sanders argues that in order to fix our economy and our environment we need to break our cultural mythology of wealth. He writes: “Money derives its meaning from society, not from those who own the largest piles of it. Recognizing this fact is the first move toward liberating ourselves from the thrall of concentrated capital. We need to desanctify money, reminding ourselves that it is not a god ordained to rule over us…We need to see and to declare that the money game as it is currently played in America produces a few big winners, who thereby acquire tyrannical power over the rest of us as great as that of any dictator or monarch…and that the net result of this money game is to degrade the real sources of our well being.”

Liberating ourselves…desanctifying money…tyrannical power…well being. Those words chilled me.

Sanders goes on to quote Victor Lebow, a retail analyst who wrote, in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction [and] our ego satisfaction in consumption.” Sanders continues by saying that, in the West, consumption has become compensation for whatever else might be missing from our lives, such as meaningful work, intact families, safe streets, a healthy environment, a nation at peace, leisure time, neighborliness, community engagement, happiness, and “other fast-disappearing and entirely vanishing boons.”

By this point I knew I was in.

I thought back to my initial reaction to the pact. Sure, I don’t buy much new stuff. But how much to I relish the limited buying that I do? How much do I equate that buying with self-love? How giddy do I become? And fanatic? And confused, and slightly crazed? I realized, reading Sanders’ article, that my resistance to “the Compact” proved that I am, by no means, immune from our cultural materialistic (and corporate-imposed) fetishizing, that my resistance was a sign that my own sense of spirit and ego is, indeed, entwined with consuming, at which point I walked outside and told my sweetheart we were in. No buying anything new for an entire year. Starting next week.

The Wiki for The Compact outlines the movement’s goals:

1. To go beyond recycling in trying to counteract the negative global environmental and socio-economic impacts of U.S. consumer culture, to resist global corporatism, and to support local businesses, farms, etc;

2. To reduce clutter and waste in our homes (as in trash Compact-er);

3. To simplify our lives (as in Calm-pact)

It also lays out the rules:

“Members of The Compact are only allowed to buy underwear, food, and health and safety items such as brake fluid and toilet paper. During their one-year vow the Compact members must shop only at second hand stores. They can also barter or simply share with each other for goods they want. Members of the Compact frown upon material consumerism. However, they are allowed to use services such as movies, theaters, museums, massages, haircuts, and music downloads.”

As I said earlier, this is a radical but not undoable pact. It is not like the sensationalist carbon-zero activists who refused to use toilet paper or take public transportation for a year. It is, instead, a very simple commitment that many of us, without much sweat, could (and can) do. I, for one, am most interested to discover the subtle ways in which it does (or does not) affect me. What will I learn about my own desire? About my attachment to materialistic things and the act of consumption itself? And what are the unexpected, positive outcomes? Already it has brought our household a sense of purpose; this unobtrusive but publicly assertive statement about values is a way to make not-having an active state as opposed to a passive one. A way to affirm and recognize one’s impulse towards simplicity as a choice rather than a result of circumstances.

And it excites, also. When I was a kid I rarely bought new clothes; thrift stores were the treasure troves of my life, a cheap and environmentally friendly way to get my materialistic buzz on. Our household frugality also encouraged creativity and resourcefulness; if I wanted a certain kind of bag, I made it. If I wanted a new bed, or doll house, or desk, I convinced my dad to help me build one. It’s a kind of resourcefulness I want to teach my daughter, and re-teach myself as well; it encourages us to be creative with our materialistic impulses and to alter our aesthetics to match our environmental and social beliefs, rather than having our aesthetics determined by a corporate society we proclaim to hate.

I’m not swearing off buying new things forever—I enjoy and plan on, in the future, supporting my local businesses. But for now I want to learn how to accurately differentiate between wanting and needing. I feel inspired by the challenge of making next winter’s Christmas presents and scavenging thrift stores for a raincoat for my daughter. And I’m excited to discover how the pact will (or will not) effect our family’s holidays, finances, time, productivity, levels of satisfaction, relationships and happiness.

I have always believed that limitations make us happier people; that the cause of so much of our cultural angst is the limitless possibilities that flower before us at every turn. This will test that theory. I may end up in tears in late winter, crooning after some pretty, spring-escent, aqua-colored dress. But for now I can say this: that since committing, my life feels simpler, saner, more purposeful, more clear, more directed, more exciting, more integrity-filled, more youthful and more free.

Why on earth would I trade a few things for all that?

To join us in this pact, or find out more, visit - The Compact

Similar articles – The Art of Giving Up, Can Christmas Still Really Change the World ?, Buy Nothing Day, Top 10 Anti-Consumerist Must Haves

Photo by Miguel Virkunnen Carvalho, via Flickr