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New Year's Resolution: Stop Buying Crap

J. Mijin Cha

Last year, in the midst of the holiday season, I pointed out that 90 percent of households have at least one unused item lying around and 70 percent have unused electronic items. It makes more fiscal and environmental sense to just not buy something, rather than buy it and not use it. Beyond that, reducing our consumption could help put pressure on decision-makers to start adopting alternative metrics that can better track our progress as a society and not just economic growth.

Currently, the health of our economy is measured by things like the Consumer Confidence Index. If the index goes up, it means consumers are more confidence about economic growth, which leads them to buy more things and spend more money. A decrease in the index is seen as a negative that indicates slowing economic growth and decreased spending. On the surface, spending is a good economic activity. Spending at local stores creates demand for products and services, which in turn, creates jobs. The problem begins when spending takes on an inflated role as a measure for a healthy economy. Then, the focus turns to increasing spending at all costs, regardless of whether or not it is sustainable for the economy and for the environment.

One big reason why spending alone is a poor measure of economic progress is that while people may be spending, they are spending money they don’t have. As Amy Traub wrote yesterday, unemployed Americans are increasing using credit cards to pay for basic household needs and accumulating debt levels that take years to pay off. These households are spending money, but clearly they are not doing well economically. Accumulating credit card debt is not good for households or for the larger economy. Relying only on consumption based indicators misses this distinction and provides a false sense of economic security.

Moreover, consumption-based metrics do not incentivize conservation. This reality is part of a larger problem with growth-based metrics. The only way to say we are doing well is to say the economy is growing but continued, ever-increasing growth is not possible. For one, we are already consuming resources faster than they can be replenished. If the rest of the world consumed as many resources as the U.S., we would need five planets. Two, as we’ve written about, growth does not equal progress. The relentless drive for growth may see an increase in GDP but is also sees increased income inequality, increased childhood poverty, decreased educational attainment, etc.

It may seem like a stretch to think that skipping the $0.99 bin is going to revolutionize the way we measure progress but it is actually a great first step. By refusing to increase consumption for consumption sake, we can get decision-makers to start looking at other metrics and make the argument for increasing progress, not just growth.

So, this holiday season, don’t buy into the “buy three get one free” promotions if you don’t need three, let alone four, of the item. And please, stop buying crap.