The Key is to Reduce
One of the ideas we stress here at The Center for the New American Dream is being a responsible consumer - someone who thinks critically about the full impact of what they are purchasing. The drawing above illustrates this principle by actually ranking the three R's - reduce, reuse, and recycle.
While all three work as a unit, a major part of sustaining our resources is being mindful about what we consume in the first place. Doing things like saying no to excess packaging, limiting the amount of printed materials we accept, breaking the bottled water habit, junking your junk mail, and staying conscious of the practices involved in creating what we consume.
Unfortunately, it can be harder to follow this principle as so much emphasis in our culture is on consumption. Even within the greening and sustainability movement so much information focuses on what to buy and what cool eco-goods are available, and not on using less in the first place, or making use of items we already have in order not to buy new things.
One of the ways to resist this impulse is to participate in Buy Nothing Day (BND) - a global meeting of the activist minds where beginners pledge not to buy anything at all, and those more involved with the message plan to take their message to the malls. Buy Nothing Day (which falls on the day after Thanksgiving in North America) is always a lightening rod for controversy. One of the reasons is that Black Friday has come to be known as the not to miss shopping day of the year. (How convenient is that?) And even in better economic times, BND was often denounced as a negative thing - after all, telling a large mass of people to stop shopping would be the death knell for our struggling economy, right?
Our resident economist Julie Schor explains:
Even if she didn’t cause the problem, can the heroic consumer can still save the day, as she has in recent recessions? Not this time around. Consumers can’t afford to be the engine of growth because they’ve suffered traumatic losses of jobs, incomes, creditworthiness, homes, and wealth, far beyond the experiences of other recessions. If the government were to give another tax rebate, it would most likely be saved, not spent. And if it were spent, a lot of that money would flow right out of the country, because so much of consumer spending is for imports. That’s especially true at the holiday season, when people buy apparel, footwear, toys, games, household items, and other so-called durable goods. A huge fraction of those items (in the 90% range for some of the categories) are now manufactured abroad.
In a stunning reversal of the reigning “free market” or “neo-liberal” paradigm, economists across the political spectrum have recognized this and are saying that the government needs to step in with big expenditures to put people back to work. They recognize that jobs, not consumer spending, are the key. Action on foreclosures, debt, and some other issues is also needed. But the system needs bold action from its biggest player, the Federal government, to instill confidence, stabilize demand and provide leadership.
So, let's keep the idea to reduce fresh in our minds this coming holiday season. As Schor and other economists see it, the best course of action will be for us to focus on stabilizing our own individual financial future - staying home for buy nothing day, re-evaluating what we already have, and brushing up our survial skills for the rocky economic times ahead.