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‘Tis the Season… to Stop Buying Crap

J. Mijin Cha


This holiday season, let’s all pledge to stop buying crap. Now, before you roll your eyes at another lecture on the evils of consumerism, hear me out. What I’m talking about is a pledge to stop buying things just to buy them, either because they are at a reduced price or because they have been well-marketed. A recent surveyfound that 90 percent of American households have at least one unused item lying around the house and 70 percent of households have unused electronic items. Instead of buying things and not using them, how about we just not buy them?

Here’s why it is important to break our addition to consumption: Consumption directly impacts the supply and demand cycle. Increased consumption leads to increased demand, which, in turn, is met by increased supply. If the rest of the world consumed at the rate of the U.S., we would need five planets worth of resources. Our insatiable appetite for buying things is destroying resources at a far faster rate than they can be replaced. And, we aren’t even using the things that we are buying.

Consumption is so deeply embedded into the fabric of the U.S. that our economic modeling is largely based around the idea. The health of our economy is reflected in measures like the Consumer Confidence Index andGross Domestic Production. The Consumer Confidence Index is an indicator of how confident consumers feel about the economy and the higher the index, the more confident they are about the health of the economy and the more they spend money and buy things, instead of saving money. Likewise, GDP increases when we produce more goods and services, which are consumed either domestically or internationally. We’ve written before about the failing of GDP as an economic measure because it doesn’t measure things that are good for the economy, such as home production, and counts production from natural disasters as a good thing while ignoring the harm that things, like income inequality, cause to the overall economy.

The Consumer Confidence Index is equally flawed. Just because people are willing to spend money does not mean that the money spent will benefit the domestic economy. Most of the consumer goods purchased in the U.S. are imported, which means that consumer spending leads to economic development in other countries and not economic development domestically. For example, even though clothing purchases have steadily increased since 2007, shipments from U.S. apparel factories decreased, as did the number of apparel jobs . People are buying clothes, just not clothes made domestically. This trend leads to decreased investment in domestic production and as disposable income levels fall, consumer spending comes at the cost of increasing household debt burdens. 

Finally, buying all this stuff is not making us happy. A large body of research has shown that consumption in and of itself does not cause happiness and, in fact, the consumption that does make people happier is that which increases social connections, like leisure activities or travel. In other words, what makes us happy is not buying things but spending time with other people.

So, deck the halls with boughs of holly that you already have lying around. It will save you money while keeping the holiday cheer.