I’ve moved more than 20 times in the last 10 years. That’s 20 nights spent wrapping plates and bowls in smudgy pages of newspaper, writing “FRAGILE” in block letters on the tops of boxes headed on an uncertain journey. Twenty days spent stuffing T-shirts and tights and worn-out flannel pajamas into suitcases that are always too small; more than 20 hours cursing my collection of purses and my love of shoes.
I’ve given thousands of dollars to movers and pushed the limits of friendship as childhood pals and new neighbors alike lugged armoires up narrow stairways and hoisted crates of books onto weary shoulders. I’ve carted my gear across the country twice and across the Atlantic Ocean four times. I know exactly how many blazers I own (six) and how many bundles of love letters I have from my college boyfriend — three, held tightly together with thinning rubber bands.
Continually packing and unpacking each of my personal belongings has forced me to take a clear inventory of my stuff. I own a lemon zester, 10 white tank tops and three sets of mismatched sheets. I have a DVD player, a computer and a multispeed blender. I also know that that’s quickly becoming good enough for me. After years of chasing happiness with a new dress or — even better! — a slim, shiny iPod or fancy pair of shades, retail therapy began to lose its palliative effects. When sliding on a new pair of boots clearly failed to deliver that requisite thrill, I accepted that it was time to reassess my acquisition of things. And as financial constraints continued to weigh heavy and environmental concerns became increasingly real, I found that I had more motivation than ever to think about what I buy before sliding that debit card out of my wallet.
Evaluating the needI started by examining my relationship with the word “need.” It’s an easy and careless dynamic — the kind that starts in a dark seedy bar after one too many vodka sodas and ends the next week with a heartless text message. I realized that I had lost sight of what I really needed. When I asked myself if I really needed that pair of colorfully striped knee-high socks, the answer was a cold and unfriendly “no.” I already have five pairs of knee-high socks. When I asked myself if I needed that stylish cherry-red throw rug, it was clearly no — hardwood floors are lovely. New headphones? Nope. The old ones are fuzzy, but they still work. The latest from my favorite author? OK. But I can get it from the library.
Continually refusing to give myself what I desired was initially no fun. But I was inspired. Sure, buying less would save money and lighten the load of my next move, but that was only the beginning. By infusing consciousness into my consumption, by questioning true need — I may need milk and eggs, but I certainly don’t need a sparkly blue turtleneck — I began to seriously consider what I was gaining from the purchase of each new item, whether it was a new belt or new car. Was it comfort? Convenience? Pleasure? An improved image in the eyes of my friends and family?
From there, I thought about what would happen to the things I bought after I’d had my way with them. I pictured myself floating in a sea of beat-up coffee tables, lamps and food processors. I spent one dark evening imagining the giant hunk of plastic that is my son’s Exersaucer — a gift from grandma — sitting for decades in an overflowing landfill (I gave that Exersaucer to a friend who recently had a baby and felt instantly better).
Examining the consequencesJust as I was determined to study the labels and origins of my favorite foods, craving an understanding of that which I would put inside my body (were those apples sprayed with pesticides? Were those cookies made with hydrogenated oils?), I dedicated myself to investigating the components of the products I hoped to purchase. I quickly noted that I felt better buying T-shirts made from organic cotton and soap and shampoo made with safe, natural ingredients. I would feel less guilty about these things once they left my home — landing in a pile of worn-out clothing or sliding down the drain.
Then I started thinking about the companies that make the products I want to buy. I wondered if they treated their workers fairly, if they considered the environment in their manufacturing practices and if they did their best to reduce the amount of packaging they used and the shipping distance of the things they made. I became increasingly possessive of my dollars, interested in giving them only to companies that were doing work I admired. And before sidling up to the register, I took a minute to consider the quality of the object I was about to purchase. Would the rain boots make it through more than one season? Would the cell phone last a few years? Could I repair the zipper on the jacket if it broke?
The final stage of my transition from conspicuous, unaware purchaser of unnecessary things to aware, awake, conscious consumer arrived during the holidays last year. When gift-giving season came around, I gave my wish list an upgrade, trading things for experiences. I asked for tickets to a show, a night out at my favorite restaurant or a contribution to my wanderlust fund. I discovered that I had less to carry home and more to put on the calendar.
Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.
Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.