In Lieu of More Stuff

In the face of climate change and energy challenges, what creative ways are you finding to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? Send submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or via e-mail to Submissions become property of Orion.

Conscious Consuming is a nonprofit in the Boston area formed to help people get in touch with their values to better prioritize time, money, and material things. Americans are largely defined as consumers: we work long hours so that we have money to buy all the goodies we want. We now have a negative personal savings rate and less vacation time than any other industrialized country. We produce four to five pounds of garbage per person every single day. Consumption is the elephant in every living room, and most environmental organizations don’t want to talk about it for fear of alienating their constituents.

Somehow the ability to throw things away to buy bigger, better, newer models became a status symbol in our country, and buying secondhand or not buying at all became a vision of poverty rather than thrift or conservation. Yet most religious traditions advocate sharing over hoarding, community over commodities. Studies show that after the basics (food, shelter, clothing) are taken care of, human happiness ratings do not increase as wealth increases.

Conscious Consuming encourages people to really think about their core values and then align their buying decisions with them. We host free seasonal events in the Boston area to provide a discussion forum, often with a local speaker. In the last two years we have hosted Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American and The Overspent American; Josh Grobin from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood; and Mark Smith from Farm Aid. Our signature event, now in its fifth year, is Gift It Up, Boston’s only alternative gift fair. We invite area nonprofits to the fair, and participants come and make donations in a loved one’s name in lieu of buying more stuff. The concept keeps stuff out of the waste stream and allows local nonprofits to showcase and receive donations for their causes.

People come out of our programs supporting different things, but all seem to develop a more positive sustainability outlook. Whether through supporting local economies, fair trade, organic markets, the green economy, bartering systems, or buying secondhand, conscious consumers can make a difference.


  1. My, but how timely this article has proved to be! I was just getting ready to order a new wrinkle-free shirt from Land’s End at $49.50, plus shipping. Seriously. It’s real purty — lavender with white stripes. Would Make me look quite “Springy” around the office. But here’s my ethical dilemma: I’ve got about 15 such shirts, and the only thing wrong with four or five of them is that the collars ridges are wearing through. They look a bit frayed, which in my office environment, could make me feel unkempt — even a bit ratty.

    Is this not ridiculous? all my shirts are otherwise perfect, with the buttons and sleeves intact, and no ugly stains or big holes to make them unsightly. They do a fine job of covering the body, which is all a shirt is supposed to do, and they’d no doubt provide many more years of service before they fall apart altogether — which, one would think, would be the logical time for replacing them. And what about my neck ties? I own about 20, but haven’t worn them much in the past two years, since my office switched to business casual dress. This means, of course, that I have none of the big wide ties which are now “in style.” But according to whose idea of “style,” and for what reason? It’s this kind of absurd manipulation by the advertising and fashion industry that fuels a level of consumption that has very little do with human needs — but everything to do with human wants and desires, which are apparently infinite. By the way, I don’t consider myself a shopping addict, or an overly consumeristic person. I try to live green, and live on a small farm where my wife and I tend a big organic vegetable garden. But the materialistic culture we swim in influences us all, and it’s good for us to remind each other that’s OK to upt opt of the madness. More than we know, even small examples we set with our behaviors does have an impact — for better or worse — and the people around us.

  2. I struggle with the same issues. I have several perfectly good pairs of shoes, but they’re no longer fashionable or they’re getting a little worn. I have to remind myself all the time that what I have is enough. But I still look for shoes that are on sale.

    On a practicle note, while I was reading your comment, Tom, a possible solution for your shirt problem occurred to me – could you ask a tailor to turn your collars over to show the hidden side? That is, if there isn’t any fading that would make that problematic.

  3. The book Your Money or Your Life was influential to me. One of the main points is the idea of really assessing why one makes purchases, and reviewing their value…

  4. Perhaps our children will soon enough come to understand that the choice to “consume less” is the most efficacious and powerful thing any person in the “overdeveloped” world can do to preserve life as we know it and the integrity of Earth.

    If consuming less occurred collectively among individuals in the human community who are conspicuously over-consuming, as my generation of elders is doing now, then this sustainable behavior could make a huge difference, one that really makes a difference. It could help the family of humanity save itself from its unhealthy, obscenely increasing and soon to be unsustainable per-capita over-consumption activities.

  5. This article is indeed very timely!last weekend I hepled my son move, it was an interesting experience to say the least. All day I was moving boxes and stuff into a more modern leased place. The most interesting part of the exercise was moving the contents of the garage which was full of another families stuff! a relative who had moved out of country and not expected back. Talk about not letting go of stuff. I am preparing for my own move into a passive solar home 1400 square feet one floor no stairs, no closets, no large storage rooms, and one bathroom. from a house with a basement full of mostly my stuff, a packrat of 40years of adultlife, a garage mostly full of my stuff, and a main floor with a modest collection of couch, chairs, tables, kitchen utensils etc. I read your money or your life over ten years ago, a life changing book for me aside from all my stuff (raw materials and tools. Yes I have my collection of “gazing guss pins”. The coming move is already allowing me to re-think what is important a good resource for this is a book called “It’s All Too Much” by Peter walsh. One of the most enjoyable times in my life was a two week cycle trip I made with my son about 10 years ago, we lived out of the pannier pags and really enjoyed our surroundings in the Rocky Mountains in Western Alberta. We had shelter food and transportation.

  6. “Want more, desire less” sums it up best. The less we crave and needlessly consume, the better off we ALL are. I committed at the beginning of 2007 to consume less in as many ways as possible and I’m simply amazed at the excess I’ve been able to shed from my life. I’m “re-gifting” whenever possible (often met w/ a very positive response) and have virtually stopped buying all non-essentials. There is so much less clutter in my life and closets, more in my savings account, and best of all my conscience is lighter knowing that my consumer habits are helping to ease the burden of our overburdened planet.

    What I’ve been amazed by most, though, is that the less I consume, the less I desire, and the happier I feel. Ironically, I have a much greater sense of “abundance” than ever before and I’ve never bought or spent so little.

    There is beauty and healing in simplicity and I hope that as a culture we begin to embrace simple living as a way of life. The survival of our planet depends upon it.

    To end with another quote: “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

  7. In response to Tom’s dilemma: First, find someone to turn those collars – it really isn’t difficult and would not only cost much less but would save buying another shirt. Then think about all the still good shirts you already have. You can only wear one each day and you already have more than enough good ones for a week. Finally, donate all those ties to a quilt group – they can make a usable quilt out of them.

    Lindy in AZ “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”

  8. Some people like only the newest and the best. It used to be called conspiuous consumption, now I hear the phrase is resource enhancement. Get these people to hear what you say and progress has been made. But I think you’re fighting a lost cause. There will always be greedy oblivious self indulgers who believe what they want and care for nobody else. They never have ethical dilemmas when it comes to safisfying the latest whim. How to reach them? Often they invoke Tradition to justify what they do. As the woman I know who when reminded that wood fires aggravate asthma, exclaimed that she was a tradionalist, as if it was not only a justification, but a good and proper one. What to say? If we do not share the resources of this little planet we will all die fighting.

  9. If you like this article I will recommend the book “Deep Economy” by Bill McKibben. More is not better, at least not for those who have their needs met. What about community? We need to question our basic economic goals of growth, and change our minds.

  10. I was adopted and reared by an extremely frugal mother, herself a young bride, and Rosie the Riveter during WWII. She learned to do without much for most of her adult life. And during the frenetic house building and baby boom post-war expansion of the 50’s she taught me to salvage, reuse and recycle; long after everyone else was ‘consuming’ on the lay-a-way plan.

    So now, when I see yet another $$Dollar$$ store open, filled with brightly colored ‘theme’ geegaws, piled row upon row, all perfect, all cheap, all made in China, by the struggling Rosie of modern times. I always wonder what those factory workers must think while they glue speckled faux plastic eggs in a circle for an Easter egg “wreath” (huh?) or wire miniature fuzzy foam bunnies and bears to pencil tops (at least the pencil is useful). I am betting they cannot even imagine what we do with this junk that pays their wages. And every few weeks the colors change, the shapes in plastic change, and they are gluing hearts or pumpkins or ugly santas onto something else. What a waste of their lives, and native talents to sit indoors all day, making this crap to be shipped to us, briefly toyed with by children, or hung on a wall, then casually broken, or just tossed into the garbage bin for Wednesday pickup. It only cost a dollar.. get a new one, a prettier one, next year.

  11. I try to follow the old adage that less is more. The more “things” we purchase, the more upkeep and headache to maintain. Coming from the real estate profession, storage is a major concern for most home buyers, Why? To store their “things” which will never see the light of day again.

  12. ALL: Every living thing on this planet.

  13. Great stuff.. This ending spree has to stop somewhere. More often that not, this is what curtails a much brighter financial future.!

  14. Amen to the hoped-for end to conspicuous consumption!

    I’ve been continually stunned ovder the years by what is “expected” by society.

    – we are fortunate to have a modest-sized house in a land of McMansions. Over and over, we’re asked “when are you going to expand?”

    – we own a well-kept, well-running car that suits our lifestyle perfectly, 2002 model. Question: “When are you trading it in?”

    Let’s try to have what we need, share what we don’t and give when we can.


  15. What I’ve been amazed by most, though, is that the less I consume, the less I desire, and the happier I feel. Ironically, I have a much greater sense of “abundance” than ever before and I’ve never bought or spent so little.

  16. Dear Friends,

    Our planetary home is filling up with more and more unnecessary human stuff. Human mass is replacing biomass. Solid waste is piling up. Pollution is increasing. The Earth’s climate is being destabilized by the gigantic scale and skyrocketing growth rate of human overpopulation, overconsumption and overproduction activities worldwide.

    At least to me, it appears the human community cannot keep growing in the unbridled ways we are now because the gigantic current scale and rapid expansion of human activities in the wondrous, finite world God blesses us to inhabit could become unsustainable soon. What worries me most is that many people do not yet even see what we have before us as a formidable predicament, let alone its forbidding and growing magnitude. From my humble vantage point, many too many leaders who do see the huge global challenges {climate destabilization is one of them} that could soon be confronted by the family of humanity have chosen not to speak of them, but to remain electively mute and in denial. Although I am an ageing old worry-wart whose sight is failing and faculties are diminishing, it is necessary for me to fulfill a “duty to warn” by reporting that I see the potential for a colossal, human-induced ecological wreckage looming on the horizon.

    Hopefully, I am mistaken.



  17. When I left with my daughter and her children to relocate her family to New Orleans this past December, I left on loan to an unemployed friend my digital camera (I almost exclusively use my phone to take spontaneous pix), my portable DVD player for when he is with his kids and my dremel tools so he can continue repairing things he already owns. Some of my other friends thought this was awfully trusting of me to leave these items with someone who doesn’t have a stellar reputation. First let me say that the DVD player was an odd gift from my ex husband and I rarely use it (I watch movies on my laptop), the camera as I stated is rarely used and is my father’s hand me down, and yes I do use the Dremel frequently, but the co-op lapidary shop I belong to has a half dozen I can use. So is the risk versus reward of sharing my excess in balance? I think sharing is more important than owning. The more I adopt this attitude the better people treat my loaned items and when something gets broken or lost I chalk it up to life. C’est la vie.

    Living with a minimum of trappings and a lowered attachment to consumer items has left me a more open heart and lighter as I travel through our pre-apocolyptic world.

    If you have heard all the noise about the limits on luggage in traveling ask yourself how well we would fair in a MadMax world where you only have room for a backpack for food and water and can’t bring all the so called must have luxuries of our modern existance. I am living out of a backpack and one small duffle. I started with four bags and have donated my way from California to New Orleans cutting my needed items in half. I have left behind books, clothes, a pair of good tennies ( I still have another pair with me) to underpaid hotel staff who were always appreciative. I secretly wondered if they knew it was me who benefitted the most. The only “souvenirs” I bought for friends and my son were regional spices and local wild honey from down the road where we are in Belle Chasse, LA. I assure you they will be welcome gifts for my loved ones.

    Less is truly more.

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