How my leaky fridge highlighted a much bigger issue.
“If it's a Samsung, I don’t know if I can repair it. Read the model number of your refrigerator to me.”
My heart sank. There was water on the floor, and this was the third phone call I’d made to find an appliance repair service.
Fortunately, my relatively recent GE refrigerator wasn’t manufactured by Samsung, and repairman Richard made an appointment to fix it a few days later.
While he chipped away the ice build-up, he talked about the changes during his 50-year service history. He was disgusted by the increasing number of models he could not fix because they were made poorly. Like so many other products, the units were made to be replaced, not repaired.
He scowled, “The blame lies with the consumer as well as the manufacturer. We price shop and demand cheap goods. So, they give us cheap goods, and now we complain.”
We Love To Buy Cheap Stuff!
When we become overloaded with it, we pay even more money to get rid of it.
It’s not just an appliance industry problem. It applies to cars, houses, and the clothing trades as well, just to name a few.
I have lots of first-hand experiences seeing excessive amounts of clothing from my years of helping clients organize their closets. (It's interesting to me that that's the activity most often associated with hiring a professional organizer, even though that's rarely the full picture of what clients need.)
In my own shopping, I remember the first time I shook out summer T-shirt at an Old Navy store and was both impressed and disgruntled by the flimsy fabric. It was noticeably more lightweight than the previous year’s offerings. The tissue-thin material looked comfortable but clearly wouldn’t survive many launderings, and the price sure didn’t reflect the thread count reduction. I wondered if it was more evidence of the trend toward reduced quality. It was.
Why Do We Buy Shoddy Goods?
In part, it’s what’s available to us.
But we’re often unaware of how we’re coerced into buying too much by slick marketing techniques that rely on our consumer psychology. Advertisers know more about us than we realize about ourselves. This knowledge is used to craft messages that appeal to our sense of economy, regardless of the actual product quality.
What Richard said highlighted the irony of this cycle of our buying habits informing marketing, which drives design and production, which supplies what we can buy, and we buy it because it's what's offered.
No matter what the item, there’s a common thread in all of it: We’re distracted and manipulated by the allure of something shiny or new.
Four Reasons We Buy That Have Nothing To Do With Utility
We’d like to think our devotion to lower prices is just our attempt to preserve our wallet contents. But we buy for many reasons.
It’s our devotion to the sight of the newest fashions that momentarily pique our attention.
It’s the reduction of the fear of missing out on the next best thing.
It’s the enjoyable dopamine spike we get from the thrill of the chase (aka shopping), and the admiration we might receive when wearing something fashionable.
It’s the pride we feel when we think we have found a bargain, which in itself drives one to buy more than needed.
There is nothing wrong with any of these reasons unless we spend money we don’t have, try to shove it into spaces that don't exist, and have no idea what happens to it when we’re finished with it.
Yet, we spend even more time and money buying ‘earth-friendly’ reusable grocery bags, hiring organizers, and blissfully ignoring the basics of our unsustainable consumer culture.
What Happens To Your Stuff When You’re Finished With It?
Like cars and appliances, there are systems in place to reuse and recycle clothing. They’re also similar in that values decrease dramatically the minute you leave the store or open the shipping box.
We feel good when we see photos of mountains of scrap metal that we know will be reused for appliances and cars. It's evidence of our ingenuity.
But did you know about the mountains of unusable clothing? For example, watch this short BBC video that describes how fifteen million pieces of used clothing arrive in Ghana every week.
15,000,000 pieces every week. (For comparison, Pennsylvania has approximately 13 million people.)
Much of it is unusable for anything.
Like our electronic waste that poisons children and families that recycle our castoffs in India and other developing nations, we feel virtuous about recycling. Yet, we have no guarantee that it will be done safely.
That figure doesn’t even allude to the true costs of what it takes to manufacture, package, and ship items worldwide.
You’re Taking the Fun Out of Shopping!
Good, that was part of my intention with this post. But my real purpose is simply to highlight some areas of consumerism you might not have considered.
What Can We Do?
First, avoid the guilt of the chastised buyer.
Cars, appliances, and clothes wear out. We need to buy things. Yet, we can be smarter shoppers for the sake of the environment and our well-being as thoughtful and responsible adults.
Educate yourself. Look at the products you buy and find out if, and how, they’re recycled. Remember, even if they’re listed as recyclable, that process itself may be highly polluting.
Buy used. You’ll benefit your local thrift store staff and keep stuff out of the waste stream for a bit longer. Reused items are often better quality than new, which is how they lasted so long.
Buy better quality. Note that I didn’t say more expensive, for many costly items are also poorly made, made almost irresistibly enticing by marketing.
Buy less, use less. Turn off QVC and other media that continuously push your “acquire” button. Turn on music, sing to yourself, walk, call someone, watch a movie. Whatever it takes to get the sale voices out of your head and body long enough to hear yourself think.
Reuse. Cut up old clothing for cleaning cloths, tie up lanky plants, or line an animal bed. If you're really brave, use an old tote for groceries. Or is that going too far?
Resell. Sell your unused items online or through a consignment. Don’t expect much return on your money or labor, though. Like your grandparents’ brown furniture, there’s not a big market for it, and you’ll only earn a tiny fraction of what you paid for it. If you’re selling online, remember to factor in packaging and shipping time, and fees.
Donate. Donations create jobs and income. If they’re not sold by the entity you gave them to, they’ll be donated further, resold as clothing, or processed into fiber for many uses.
Be aware and responsible about what you donate. If it’s not in great shape, or you wouldn’t buy it yourself, don’t tax the recycling system further with unsaleable stuff. Goodwill and other charity resellers don’t want your trash.
In this Next Avenue article, you can find tips for how to donate your unwanted clothing. But no matter how well-intentioned you are, they may end up in a landfill anyway because they were never intended to last.
HALT! This may be the most important on the list. When you feel an urge to splurge, think about what you’re experiencing. Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?
Are you bored? Avoiding something else?
Sometimes just knowing that is enough to change your next action.
Richard left me with more than an invoice.
He fixed dirt-clogged fridge drain tube and told me I hadn’t contributed to the problem by a lack of maintenance.
“Life is messy. There’s even dust in freezer air.” (Well, if that’s not as equally depressing as the rest of this post.)
Pogo wrapped it up neatly, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
That's both an observation and a gift, for once we name a problem, we are on our way to a solution. If we want one. Nzambi Matee’s plastic brick project is an inspiring example. I can't wait to see what she does with discarded clothing.
I’ll leave you with these five thoughts.
~ Do the best you can with what you have.
~ Rely on your creativity to do more than click a buy button.
~ Think before acting.
~ Buy less. Buy smarter.
And the most important? Master you.