Maybe I’m getting old, but it feels like many things just aren’t built to last anymore. Planned obsolesence, which is a business strategy to have things fail and encourage consumers to replace them, seems to be real phenomenon. In addition, we have endless items available to us as consumers that are virtually disposable – super low cost, easily accessible and so cheap that you’re happy to buy without thinking, even if only to use once or twice. Sometimes I think things are just too affordable.
Even if something doesn’t break, we feel compelled to replace it in time anyway. Marketers employ sophisticated techniques to convince us that new is good and old is less desirable. “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality is unfortunately common place and, as consumers, we are conditioned to buy, buy, buy.
What is the true cost of our hyper consumerist, disposable society?
- In the US alone, the EPA estimates more than 262 million tons of municipal solid waste is generated each year. Most of this isn’t recycled and ends up in landfill.
- Each year ~8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean – which is equivalent to dumping the contents of one garbage truck of plastic every minute. Best estimates suggest there are over 150 million tonnes of plastic currently in the ocean and by 2050, more plastic than fish (by weight)
- The shipping-supply chain behind companies like Amazon have an enormous carbon footprint. Consider the planes and heavy duty truck emissions involved in getting a Prime package to your front door within 2 days or less. Putting the packaging to one side, in 2017 it’s estimated Amazon delivery emitted ~19 million metric tonnes of carbon (the equivalent of ~5 coal power plants). FedEx were estimated to be responsible for 14 million tonnes, and UPS 13 million tonnes in that same year.
- Manufacturing these low cost items puts pressure on wages, with increasing numbers of people working in low cost jobs despite exponential increases in productivity. Given our global economy, many of the goods we consume without consideration may also be produced by exploited workers in subpar, unsafe working conditions and in countries with weaker labour laws.
- This year, household debt in the US hit record levels of $13.5 trillion. Credit card debt is estimated to be ~$810 billion, with the average balance being $6,354 and 43% of people carrying over a balance every month. We aren’t just buying too much, we are spending beyond our means.
- On an individual level these purchases impact our saving and investment capacity. Even small purchases add up. Bringing endless clutter into our homes, just because we can and often feel compelled to by advertising, can impact our mental wellbeing too. It can become an unsustainable cycle of buy -> use -> dispose or need more space/storage -> buy to resolve needs created in previous step.
As someone pursuing financial independence, where frugality is celebrated, you might expect me to always look for cheapest option available. A more holistic perspective and intentional approach is needed:
- Search for quality – these items might cost a bit more but should work better and last longer
- Avoid fad and fashion items where possible
- Buy used and give items a second lease on life while saving a ton of money in the process
- Reduce plastic usage and look for items with more sustainable packaging
- If you have the choice, opt for Fair Trade Certified items
- Buy local where possible
The true cost of what we consume looks very different to, and is much higher than, the retail price!
As a society we need to change our disposable mindset. Just because we can buy something doesn’t mean we should. Our wealth, health and environment might be better off without instant shipping, continuous sales, and an abundance of cheap consumer goods. We need to be more thoughtful about what we buy, then value and maintain our possessions better.
Thanks for reading
Mr Simple Life