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Not buying it: 5 tips for buying less stuff

The world doesn’t have a recycling crisis, it has an overconsumption crisis. These words (by my friend Oberon, author of the book The Family Guide to Waste-Free Living) ring true to my ears. Sure, we need returnable packaging and reusable products and fixable items, single-use items that compost, products that are designed to last, and circular models that keep items in use.

But even this is not enough, at our current rate of consumption.

We* need to be buying (and using) less stuff.

(I say *we as a society and a global community, recognising that within this there are plenty of people for whom this does not apply: those that do not have the resources to buy what they need, let alone more than they need; and those who already conserve all the resources they can, as two examples.)

Buying less stuff sounds easier than it is, for many of us. It’s so easy to buy stuff, and there is so much (beautiful, clever, thoughtful) stuff out there to buy.

And we know about it because our screens show us all of this fantastic stuff, in the way of social media feeds, adverts and articles. We receive emails. We see it in stores, we see it in catalogues or flyers.

We don’t even need to have the money to be able to buy the stuff we see. Credit is freely available. Buy now, pay later.

In a world that makes it so easy for us to buy stuff, and makes stuff that is so desirable, it is hard to say no.

But if we want to live in a more equitable and sustainable world, we have to learn to say “no” more. A lot more.

It’s not the cool opinion, of course. The more attractive (and marketable!) option is to persuade us to buy a bunch of shiny ‘sustainable’ stuff and encourage us to feel good about our choices.

But we can’t consume our way out of the issues we’re facing as a society and as a planet.

So in the face of all this advertising and all these beautiful things, how do we buy less stuff?

Stem the flow of advertising

What we don’t know about, we can’t buy. The less adverts we see, the less we’ll be tempted to buy things.

  • Unsubscribe from all store newsletters. Everything is on sale of the time, products are constantly being upgraded and when you’re truly in need of something, you can go to them, rather than letting them come to you.
  • If unsubscribing from everything feels like too much, choose the companies you spend the most money with, or the companies you tend to buy stuff from that you don’t actually use. Or even just the ones you don’t buy from anyway. Every single unsubscribe means less adverts, and less adverts mean less temptation.
  • Install an adblocker on your laptop, desktop, tablet and mobile. I use Adblock Plus on my laptop and Adblock Browser on my phone. (Both are free.) They stop all those in-feed ads appearing in articles, and side bar ads appearing on computer screens.
  • When looking at online stores, use a private browser. That way you won’t be tracked. The store won’t ‘remember’ what you were looking at, and you’ll get less sponsored ads in your social media feed showing you exactly the thing you were looking at two minutes ago, trying to wear you down.
  • Put a ‘no advertising material accepted’ sticker on your mailbox, to avoid receiving catalogues. Get in the habit of putting unaddressed items straight in the recycling bin rather than bringing them inside. Anything that gets mailed to you can be returned unopened – cross through the address and write “not at this address, return to sender and remove from mailing list” on the packaging, and pop in the post box.
  • Unfollow pages, businesses and people on social media that spend most of their time selling to you.

Mindset matters

Honestly, mindset must be the hardest part. It’s very easy to talk ourselves into the idea of buying stuff, whether convincing ourselves that we “need it”, making the case that it’s a ‘reward’ for a difficult week, or just sheer stubbornness: “why shouldn’t I buy it?”

Needs versus wants

Distinguishing between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ can be challenging, particularly when the stuff is inherently useful. But useful is not the same as necessary.

One of the most useful questions to ask, is “did I go looking for this particular item to solve a problem I have, or did this product come to me offering to solve a problem I didn’t even know I had until I saw the product?

Example 1, looking to solve a problem.

“My coffee plunger leaks when I pour it, and drips coffee all over the kitchen bench and my shoes and drives me crazy every morning. I’m going to look for a leakproof, drip proof version that doesn’t make me want to scream at breakfast.”

(Of course, problems are subjective and what’s a dealbreaker for someone is simply a mild annoyance to another. That’s not our place to judge. My coffee plungers drips everywhere and it infuriates me every single time I make a mess, but not enough for me to actually replace it. That doesn’t mean everyone would put up with it.)

Example 2, when the ‘solution’ comes to you.

“That kitchen draining organiser rack in this sponsored ad is so clever! It keeps everything so neat and tidy. My own dish draining rack is usually quite chaotic, come to think of it…”

I saw an ad just like this, and the product was clever. But ultimately it’s more stuff cluttering up my place, and another thing to store. Plus the main reason my dishes create so much clutter is because of the volume. (Reusables = dishes.) A dish rack isn’t really going to solve the problem.

We’re much more likely to make better decisions when we actively try to solve a problem, rather than passively letting adverts solve problems for us, which blurs the line between ‘need’ and ‘want’.

Stew on your choices

A useful way to distinguish between needs versus wants is simply to wait, before making a purchase.

How long (and whether) you wait depends on what it is and how much you need it, but assuming it’s a non-emergency purchase, 30 days can be a good length of time.

Did waiting increase your resolve to buy it, and reassure you that this is definitely something that you want to buy, did you realise you could make do with something else, or did you actually just forget about it altogether?

And if you feel like you can’t stew on this choice, because it’s a limited time offer, a sale item, there’s only one left, etc etc, remember that this scarcity marketing is a deliberate tactic that companies use to make us buy stuff.

What would it actually mean and what impact would it have on your life if you waited and the product was no longer available?

Only you can answer that, but it’s definitely a question worth asking.

Find a new reward that isn’t stuff

If you’ve ever gone shopping to cheer yourself up, or bought yourself stuff as a reward for a difficult week, finding a different reward that doesn’t require shopping can be helpful. This isn’t about deprivation or going without so much as filling the gaps with something else.

As a starting point, switching from buying ‘stuff’ to buying consumables (artisan soap or fancy chocolate, for example) can help. We’re not breaking the habit just yet, but we’re shifting it to something that doesn’t involve the accumulation of stuff.

An alternative could be to use your need for a shopping “fix” to buy some pantry grocery items, and donate them to a local food bank.

But the best way to avoid stuff is to find other ways to make ourselves feel better that do not require shopping, or going to the shops.

Taking a walk, listening to a podcast, taking a long bath, going for a run, swimming, picking up litter, reading a library book, playing an instrument, baking, learning a new skill, or something else that brings joy and peace and a sense of satisfaction.

Challenge your ‘not buying it’ muscle

Habits get stronger the more we do them. If we’re used to buying stuff, it’s going to be hard to change gear. But the more we don’t buy stuff, the better we get at it.

One way to reinforce the ‘not buying it’ habit, especially at the start, is to take a challenge. You want to pick something achievable – not buying anything ever again is probably a bit extreme. You could try buying nothing, or simply focus on no new clothes, or start by working on buying nothing new (so second-hand items are allowed).

Or you could challenge your idea of ‘enough’ – for example by deciding to only wear 3 outfits for a month, or only cooking meals that require one pan.

  • Choose a challenge and set your rules, including any exceptions you want to include.
  • Choose a timeframe: do you want to try for a month? Longer?
  • Choose a reward for the end of the challenge that isn’t ‘stuff’ and ideally doesn’t involve spending. This helps rewiring your brain that buying stuff = reward. (You don’t need to only reward yourself if you’re ‘successful’ either – reward yourself for giving it a go.)
  • Did you want to challenge a friend to join you? It can make it more fun if there’s someone else to share the pain with, and there’s nothing like some friendly competition to keep on track.
  • Set aside some time at the end of the challenge to reflect. What worked well? What was hard? How did we feel? Were there any obvious stumbling blocks? What would we do differently next time?

If you struggle, cave in or make mistakes, pay attention to them. They are telling you how to do better next time. If your weakness is Fridays after work, fill that timeslot with another activity to stop you shopping. If you notice that social media encourages you to buy stuff, think about how you can change your usage to reduce this.

Accept that change isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

Change isn’t easy, nor is it a straight line. But buying less stuff doesn’t have to feel like going without. It’s simply shifting priorities. Making room for stuff that isn’t ‘stuff’.

Buying less stuff means less strain on resources (both the earth’s natural resources, and your personal bank account).

Buying less stuff means you can reduce your debt, or start saving for stuff that really matters.

It frees up the time you spent online browsing, and at stores, to do more enjoyable and meaningful things.

Less stuff more us means more stuff for others. It’s more equitable.

It keeps your house less cluttered. There’s less to sort, and less to tidy. And less to declutter when you realise all that stuff you bought isn’t being used.

When you buy less, you can buy better. The reason I can afford to buy ethical and sustainable items, when I actually need them, is because I buy less overall. Buy less, choose well, make it last.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you struggle with resisting the urge to shop? Is there anything in particular you have a weakness for? Are you a master of not buying stuff? What are your secrets? How has your relationship with shopping and stuff changed over time? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Community Dishes (to Borrow and Bring Back)

I love it when a plan comes together. This one has taken rather longer than I intended, but finally, it is ready to go. Which means, I can tell you all about it. Introducing the Community Dishes, a set of reusable crockery, cutlery and glassware to borrow and bring back, free of charge.

Why? Because…

It means less waste. Less plastic wrap, less plastic utensils, less single-use disposables, less stuff in the garbage and less litter.

It means less stuff. Less people nipping off to the Swedish furniture store to purchase a huge set of glassware / plates for a one-off event that then languish in the sideboard for years until they are horribly out of fashion and can’t be given away.

It means growing community. Helping people connect with their neighbours, share what they have and consider re-use before purchasing new.

I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the project, and how it works.

The Community Dishes Project – Who, What and Why

Have you ever been to an event where the cutlery was plastic, the plates were disposable and the coffee cups were non-recyclable takeaway cups? Me too. Yes, it is frustrating. Yes, I wish they used reusables too.

The Community Dishes project aims to make this easier for event organizers and hosts to choose the reusable option.

There are plenty of reasons why people choose disposables. Sure, laziness might be true in some cases and lack of knowledge around the plastics issue might be true in others, but I believe most people want to do the right thing. Sometimes, the limiting factors are time and money.

Solutions need to be convenient.

Borrowing large numbers of items is tricky. Most people don’t own party-sized amounts of crockery and cutlery, and borrowing a handful here and a handful there is a logistical (and time-consuming) nightmare.

Hiring is an option but small organizations and community groups can be priced out of this.

I wanted to find a solution, and the Community Dishes project is exactly that. A kit of crockery, cutlery and glassware that can be borrowed for free.

Disposables are viewed as cheap and convenient, so for a solution to be workable it needs to be cheap and convenient too. The Community Dishes kit is free to borrow. Yes, it does need to be washed up and returned clean, but the goal is to make everything else (the borrowing, using and returning) as convenient as possible.

There’s 50 each of cutlery, side plates, bowls, mugs, water glasses and large drinking jars. (There are no wine glasses as wine and liquor stores often provide free glass borrowing services.) The kit is packed into boxes similar to those used by hire companies for ease of transport and storage.

The crockery, cutlery and glassware is catering standard, white, and matching. Catering quality is slightly more expensive upfront, but less prone to chip, crack or break – and doesn’t change style or colour with the seasons as high street homewares brands do.

Whilst it might have been lower waste to fossick through charity shops, experience has shown me that caterers and coffee vans prefer to use standard vessels whose volume they know, and finding matching sets would be a struggle. Also, I wanted it to be as easy as possible for breakages to be replaced with matching stuff.

The funds to establish the kit were provided thanks to a Keep Australia Beautiful (WA), Community Litter Grant.

Community Dishes – How Will It Work?

In theory, anyone can borrow the Community Dishes kit. In practice, because it relies on trust and goodwill to ensure the items are returned (and clean), it needs to stay local and with a community focus. To begin, the word is being spread via the local Buy Nothing Groups, and also the various Perth Transition Town Network groups.

The administration of the kit is run by volunteers (me).

The plan is to record all the borrowing, and count the number of items reused and disposables avoided. In this way, we can measure the impact.

The plan is also to learn from the wins and successes and mistakes of this project, and use this knowledge to create a simple project template, so other people might be able to replicate the idea in their own communities.

It’s hard to talk too much about how it will play out as it’s early days, but by Christmas day 490 items will have been used and reused. That’s potentially 490 pieces of single-use and disposable packaging refused. By this time next year, the numbers should be well into their thousands.

I’ve put together a simple website (which I published yesterday) with some more info about how the kit works and what the project hopes to achieve. You can find out more at communitydishes.org.

There’s still some fine tuning to do, in particular with signage, record keeping, and logistics. The important thing though, is that the dishes are out there, being borrowed and reducing single-use disposables and litter.

I’m excited about the potential, and look forward to sharing more as the project finds its feet. I’d love to see other projects like this one spring up, and hope that the lessons I learn will help others.

Less waste, less stuff, and growing community.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Is there anything else you’d like to know about the project? Do you have your own experience with similar projects? Would you use something like this, if it was available? Anything else that you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!