One of the most important aspects of living more sustainably is making the conscious decision to simply consume less; practicing conscious consumption in other words.
Becoming a conscious consumer may seem disarmingly simple, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always easy. Especially in a culture where we’re bombarded with advertisements that tell us we’ll be happier, better looking, more popular, healthier, or smarter if we buy a specific project. Billion-dollar advertising budgets are aimed at making us feel like we need more stuff.
Asking yourself these four questions before you buy something will help align your actions with your ideals, and curb your environmental impact, too
1. Do I need this?
Simple and effective. Do you truly need this item? Is it a dust collector, a duplicate, or an impulse purchase you’re likely to regret and never use? Or is it a genuine need? Everyone’s definition of “need” will be a little different, but I typically default to the wise words of William Morris on this one, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
If you do truly need the item, carry on to the second question.
2. Can I make it?
Why support multinational corporations when you could create something for yourself? If you are able to make something instead of buying it, you have complete control over the ingredients, packaging, and efficacy of the product. Make art instead of buying mass-produced prints, whip up your own body care products, or concoct your own cleaning solutions. With the entire internet at your disposal, you can find guidance on making any number of things.
If you can’t make it (and sometimes this will be the case because, let’s face it, I will probably never be a cobbler), carry on to number three.
3. Can I borrow it, or buy it secondhand?
Why buy when you can borrow? And why buy new when you can find it gently used for half the price? We are obsessed with ownership, but for some items that we might use only once or twice a year (camping equipment, party tents, food dehydrators, and so forth), it might make better financial and environmental sense to pool your resources with a friend or family member. Share the item, halve your expenses, and reduce the amount of space in your home devoted to storing things. Win-win!
Alternately, seek out a secondhand store, hit up your local Craigslist, or list a request for what you need on Nextdoor. Buying secondhand saves money, hits the pause button on the consumer cycle, and also allows you to better evaluate how an item will wear over time. A 50-year old wood table that’s still solid and gleaming after decades of use will always be a better investment than its big-box store particleboard counterpart.
4. Is this the best quality I can afford?
This question runs counter to all of our instincts in North American society, where we chase deals with the fervor of fanatics. The truth is, if you truly need something, making the decision to invest in a quality, well-made piece of clothing, furniture, or equipment means you won’t find yourself buying it all over again in a few weeks, months, or years. If you need sandals, look for stitched soles and natural materials instead of flimsy plastic flip flops. If you need a beach umbrella, get the more expensive one made with wood or metal instead of plastic. Make it a habit to prioritize quality over price.
At first, these questions may seem cumbersome or even annoying. But I find they allow me to distill the process of consuming down to its purest form, rather than that insatiable itch in constant need of scratching.
Feature image courtesy of Douglas Muth. Originally published on November 20, 2014, this article was updated in January 2022.