Material Wellbeing Challenge, Round 1: Sufficiency

When I was last writing about material wellbeing, or Being Thrifty, the focus was on the Sufficiency Sweet Spot.   So where exactly is that sweet spot? On the one hand, we have the subjectivity of sufficiency – as Asoke Buddhists reasonably observed, individuals must determine for themselves what is enough. On the other hand, we have the objectivity of ecological constraints – there are real, concrete limits to what we can consume without threatening environmental collapse.  Rather than depriving ourselves in our guilt for consuming more than our fair share or getting bogged down in the data (How can I measure my COemissions? How much can I emit?), I propose that we simply make sufficiency a guiding principle for our consumption choices whenever we can, for our own—and the common—good. Here are 10 actions to consider.

1. Reassess your relationship with stuff

The minimalist movement has inspired hundreds of thousands of well-off folks to reassess their relationship with stuff.  For those not ready for a total break up, Marie Kondo has popularized an accessible approach to minimalism with her bestseller, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s advice is straightforward: pick up each thing you own and consider it; if it doesn’t spark joy, say your respectful good-byes. We may have to interpret “joy” loosely when it comes to cooking utencils, but I’m sure most of us have any number of non-joy-inducing things crammed in our kitchen drawers. This process might seem a bit silly and more than a bit time-consuming, but it forces you to see clearly all the objects you have accumulated and to reflect on what it is you truly need. The challenge after this initial purge is to only bring into your home things you absolutely love. 

While the focus of minimalism (and other consumption-reducing movements) seems to be on material goods, the real point is to shift focus from things, which don’t bring happiness, to that which does, like relationships and time to spend in fulfilling ways. As we will talk about in a later chapter, satisfaction comes in reflecting on the big picture of our lives—what we have that makes our life worth living. So from a minimalist perspective, the way to achieve material wellbeing is to accentuate the non-material.

2. Plug the leaks

The Asoke monks advised followers to “plug the leaks” – to identify where money is spent unnecessarily and stop up the hole. For this exercise, I separate expenses into two major categories: necessary recurring household expenses (mortgage, insurance, utilities) and discretionary expenses (which are more flexible). Then I hunt for unnecessary spending.

It’s a good idea to review the first category of expenses once a year or so. Thanks to my husband’s diligence, we have refinanced our home twice, lowering our monthly mortgage payment by 17% since we bought it (and that’s a big chunk of change in California).  We also recently lowered our homeowners insurance by $400 simply by asking our agent: “Why did our premium go up so much last year (and the year before)?” Apparently, it just creeps up. Same for internet and cell phone. Many companies assume customers will pay more for “new and improved” services, so they just go ahead and charge for them. But if you don’t need more bandwidth or data, call them and ask to return to the basic package. 

The second, more discretionary category of expenses calls for closer scrutiny. My husband and I put the vast majority of these expenses on our credit card (though we pay it off each month), so it’s easy to get a good overview of what we spend. Then we can evaluate purchases line by line or tally costs in a category like restaurants or travel. My usual response to this exercise is: how do we spend so much?! A more productive response is to decide what to spend in each category, and then think creatively about how to meet the goal. 

Just a heads up that this is not a “set it and forget it” activity. Anyone can be affected by hedonistic adaptation (mentioned in the previous section). This lifestyle creep can happen without us realizing it (like insurance premium creep), so to keep our consumption down, we need to conduct regular checks and cut where we can.

3. Take a (buying) break

A number of books have been published recently by individuals who have taken year-long buying breaks (from buying clothes, for example) or propose breaking the buying obsession to improve both financial and mental health. I don’t think my family would go to this extreme of a year-long moratorium on purchases. However, smaller, more diverse buying breaks might have the same affect on our wellbeing. 

The best buying break I’ve instituted is waiting a week before making an elective purchase. I do most of my elective shopping online, so it’s easy to put something in my “shopping cart” and hold it there. More often than not, the next time I return to that site, I no longer feel the same urgency to buy that thing. You might also consider taking a buying break on certain days of the week. If you’d like to make a real statement, take a buying break on Black Friday. While most companies angle for advantage on the biggest shopping day of the year, my favorite store, REI, closes its doors and runs a social media campaign encouraging everyone to get #Outside. Good advice for any day.

As you reflect on whether you need the things you consume, hopefully you will find lots of little gems you can do without or find creative replacements for. Perhaps for good. We eliminated our landline and cable TV and found a work around for bottled bubbly water with a counter-top carbonator. My sister kicked her Starbucks habit with a good home coffee maker. These small cuts add up over time.

4. Rebrand your consumer label

Have you ever noticed that we—the people who live in this country—were once called citizens, but now we are more commonly referred to as consumers? I can’t say that I’m all that crazy about that label—it’s certainly not the way I see myself. I’m a tall woman, an anthropologist, a Californian with Midwestern roots, a mother, an introvert…none of these labels have anything to do with stuff. So how do we shake this “consumer” label, which seems to go hand-in-hand with our consumption-driven society? It’s time for a rebrand.

To rebrand our consumer label as one that better promotes material wellbeing, think about identities that favor lessconsumption. For example, we might identify with a counter-culture movement that views accumulation as counter to wellbeing, and call ourselves minimalists or downshifters. 

Or we could identify with our own cultural roots where they support minimizing consumption. My roots are Scandinavian—Swedish on my dad’s side. Swedes are known for their modesty and minimalism. A few years ago a friend who visited Sweden brought us back T-shirts with the saying, “Lagom: Enough is as good as a feast.” Now there are entire books published on lagom(to go with the Danish hygge books). Lagom means not only being satisfied with moderate amounts of things (or moderate success); it also means not having more than others. Contrary to the accumulation competition or “keeping up with the Jones” common in some American suburbs, it’s embarrassing to lagom-loving Swedes to have a bigger house or a nicer car than one’s neighbors. So for me, identifying with my Swedish heritage provides a clear rationale for modest consumption. 

5. Calculate your ecological footprint

If you’d like to know how sustainable your consumption is, you can get a concrete picture by calculating your ecological footprint, which measures both the demand on our environment as well as nature’s supply capacity. The Global Footprint Networkhas a free and easy calculator that will tell you how many planets it would take to support your lifestyle based on your consumption of food, transportation, and goods—things that an individual can easily affect through lifestyle changes. The final calculation of your ecological footprint also factors in societal impacts, or “services” provided by the government like infrastructure, public services and assistance, and the military. Everyone gets a share of that, which is why it’s extremely difficult to achieve a footprint score within the means of one planet. This footprint calculator also reveals your personal “overshoot” day—the day that the world’s population would use as much from nature as it can renew in a year. In 2018, the world’s overshoot day was August 1; anything we would consume after that is like going into debt.

I tried this calculator myself and I was shocked to discover that if everyone lived like me, we would need 3 planets to support us all. I see my lifestyle as fairly sustainable—we’re putting up solar panels, for crying out loud! And the Overshoot Day adjusted to my consumption practices would be May 4. What an eye-opener! 

I felt simultaneously better and worse when I looked at a handful of national averages. Americans on average consume 5 planets, so comparatively, I’m doing pretty well; in fact, I’m more like a German who uses up 3.2 planets’ worth of resources. Brazil’s average is 1.8 planets. As a developing country, Brazilians consume less – people living in poverty just don’t have the means to consume like a Northern elite. A quick look at per capita income shows that: In Brazil, the nominal mean per capita income is $10,224; in the US, it’s $31,786, or three times as much. Those numbers don’t even reveal the income gap within the country. In a developing country like Brazil, that gap will be large, meaning that a small percentage of the population receives the lion’s share of the wealth, and by extension, is responsible for the lion’s share of the consumption. Whether we’re comparing America’s and Brazil’s ecological footprints or the ability to consume within the country, it’s clear that too many of us are consuming more than our fair share.

6. Understand a thing’s true cost

As a thrifty person, I lean toward inexpensive things. For example: I wear a $35 Ironman plastic digital watch from Target, not a $125 steel mesh analog watch from Skagen (a Danish company). So I could buy three watches for the price of one (and probably will have to, since the Skagen will likely last longer). But if I dug deeper into the true cost of that Ironman watch, I would see that it’s not such a deal after all. 

Unfortunately, in order to sell goods at such low prices, companies must cut costs wherever possible. This means building factories where environmental and health regulations (which raise production costs) as well as wages are low. Multinational corporations (MNCs—usually American companies set up to operate in multiple countries) head to places like China or Bangladesh that have “export processing zones” that make it easy to do business. As they churn out their Ironman watches, etc., they pass on the environmental and social costs to others so they can offer more competitive (lower) prices to their customers. 

If you would like to see a vivid example, watch A Killer Bargain, a documentary about the hidden costs of producing inexpensive bed linens for a Swedish company (not Ikea). In the film, the filmmakers interviewed sick cotton farmers whose illnesses were attributed to pesticide and captured dangerous handling of toxic dyes, including mixing with bare hands and dumping waste into a nearby lake that provided drinking water to locals and their livestock. To the Swedish company’s credit, once they learned how their sub-contractors so blatantly harmed the local community, they dropped them and set up a system to ensure more ethical practices.

As this documentary shows, we simply have to face the uncomfortable fact that other people and the planet suffer in the production of the cheap goods we thrifty folks habitually buy. Once we realize the true costs of our consumer culture, we might have the strength to cut back for good.

7. Live without Chinese goods

Back when I indulged in retail therapy, I’d often check the label of the clothing I was considering buying, and if it said “Made in China,” I’d put it back on the rack. Companies operating in China are notorious for human rights abuses and complete disregard for environmental concerns. 

But my little clothing check is nothing compared to what Sara Bongiorni and her family did: they tried to live for an entire year without buying anything made in China (one of the “buying breaks” I referred to in action #3).  In A Year Without “Made in China”: One Family’s True Life Adventure in the Global Economy, Borgiorni describes how this experiment turned daily life upside down. Finding tennis shoes for her little one was especially vexing: after three weeks of hunting, she found an Italian-made pair that cost $70—substantially more costly than kids’ sneakers made in China ($15 or so). What she discovered in this year is that goods and product parts made in China touch every aspect of our lives.

While it seems like Borgiorni’s experiment would have been prohibitively expensive based on the sneaker episode, they just about broke even.  She explains that they couldn’t find non-Chinese alternatives for many items, so they went without. As an example, when their automatic drip coffee maker died, they couldn’t replace it—all similar models were made in China. So they ended up making it on the stove for the rest of the year. 

The Borgiorni family is back to buying things made in China, but this experiment is worth reflecting on. Before we buy inexpensive goods with hidden social and environmental costs, we might consider following the Borgiorni example by finding more ethically made—and longer lasting—alternatives. Or better yet, we can ask ourselves: can we do without?

8. Teach kids about consumption

If children are our future, we had better teach them well about how our consumption affects ourselves, other people, and the planet. The most obvious place to do that is at home. For starters, we can set a good example by de-comodifying holidays and birthdays. Instead of buying “stuff” to wrap as presents—stuff that family members don’t really need, find an alternative. In my Michigan family (mom and sisters and their families), we no longer exchange Christmas gifts because it’s just too much stuff. So the money we would have spent to buy presents and the makings for a holiday meal for a family in need. Yes, some of those gifts are extras like toys for the kids, but they always include necessary items like winter jackets, boots, towels, and basic kitchen items. Then every Christmas, my California family (husband and daughter) goes on a hike and has a picnic to remind us of what’s important: each other and nature (not to mention good food and exercise).

Schools also play an important role in increasing young people’s knowledge about the impacts of consumption. We just need to ensure that easy-to-use materials are available to them. For example, the Story of Stuff, which aims to build a society based on “better not more, sharing not selfishness, and community not division” has created a 10-lesson high school curriculum called “Buy, Use, Toss.” In these lessons, students explore the system of producing and consuming goods (called the materials economy): Extraction, Production, Distribution, Consumption, and Disposal; they then “analyze the sustainability of these steps, determining how consumption can benefit people, economies, and environments.” I don’t know of any teachers who are not thankful for resource suggestions—especially ready-made (but adaptable) lesson plans, so when you find a gem, pass it on.

9. Support sustainable livelihoods

Although to this point we have been primarily concerned with reducing consumption for those of us who currently consume far more than we need, it’s vital to remember that there are vastly more people in the world who occupy the other end of the spectrum. Underlying all this talk about reducing consumption is the issue of fairness: is it really alright for us to consume so much when so many have so little? And besides cutting back, how can we help others to reach a level of sufficiency, where they can enjoy a good life?  The answer is not to simply give them money (though direct cash transfers are popular these days and do have their time and place), but to support sustainable livelihood development. 

When we talk about sustainable livelihood development, we are talking about elevating the quality of life of people in developing countries who struggle to exist in impoverished conditions. The concept of sustainable livelihoods originated in the early 1990s with the work of development practitioners Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway.  They conceived of livelihoods as comprising people, their capabilities (what a person is capable of doing and being), and their means of living (including food, income, and assets). Chambers and Conway’s goals for developing livelihoods included enhancing capabilities, improving equity (equal distribution of assets, capabilities, and opportunities), and increasing sustainability. Livelihoods are sustainable when they can recover from stress and shock, are not dependent on external support, maintain the long-term productivity of natural resources, and do not compromise the livelihoods of others. 

You know the saying, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” True, most of us are not in a position to “teach a man to fish,” literally. But how could we do it figuratively? That’s something to think about.

10. Trade economic growth for wellbeing

When the US economy falters, meaning the Gross Domestic Product grows more slowly than usual, the President tells the people to go shopping. Consumption spurs economic growth. Actually, any kind of spending does. So if someone gets into a car accident, all the money spent on hospital bills and car repair adds to the economy, which is good, as economic growth is currently our key indicator of social progress. But clearly accidents are not good for people. So why do we count them as if they were? It’s time to stop using economic growth as the measure of a strong society and shift our attention to wellbeing. 

When the GDP turned 80 in 2014, alternative measures of social progress were discussed widely. The most well-established is the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), which combines life expectancy, educational attainment, and income into a single statistic to serve as a reference for economic and social development, i.e., quality of life.  The purpose of the HDI is to compare experiences of wellbeing among countries for which data exists and for examining more deeply country-specific HDIs. These statistics, compiled into a ranking of countries and accompanied by a discussion of the year’s most pressing development issue, are published each year in the Human Development Report.

A more recent “Better Life” initiative by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which aims “to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world,” looks at wellbeing in OECD member countries and other major economies. The second edition of “How’s Life?” presents and discusses data from 2013 on 11 indicators: income, jobs, housing, health, work-life balance, education, social connections, civic engagement and governance, environment, personal security and subjective well-being. What’s most innovative about OECD’s Better Life Index is that it’s interactive: website visitors can rank wellbeing indicators according their priorities, and then see how their own country stacks up.

I don’t know precisely how we shift away from GDP, which counts any spending as good, to a different social progress index, which prioritizes wellbeing and, by extension, downplays the importance of consumption. But I do know that countries like Scotlandand cities like Santa Monica, Californiaare doing it…and if they can do it, then so can we.

Wrap up…

Finding the Sufficiency Sweet Spot is not easy–there’s much to consider when juggling our own needs and others’ within the ecological limits of our planet. It is indeed an ongoing challenge…but don’t stress! Just as we wouldn’t gobble up an entire chocolate cake in one sitting; so too should we take reasonable bites of our sufficiency challenge. And before we know it, we’ll be well on our way to a Good Life for All.

Leave a Reply