With the Christmas splurge over, some of us will be mid-way through a month of healthy eating. In recent years, a new movement of people has taken the idea of abstinence from unwholesome food and drink and extended it to other consumer goods, writes Jonny Hughes.
A dry January or Veganuary might be combined with a ‘no-buy’ January where no non-essential items are bought for the month, or longer. A variation on this is to choose a category, such as clothes, toys, household or beauty products, and cut them out completely. These ‘conscious consumer’ movements are fairly niche but appear to be growing fast among young adults and those overwhelmed by the amount of ‘stuff’ in their lives.
We know from research that status anxiety is linked to competitive buying and that those who place a high value on wealth, status and acquisition of material things show higher rates of depression and lower sociability. A study led by psychologist Galen Bodenhausen, of Northwestern University in the US, concluded that “irrespective of personality, in situations that activate a consumer mindset, people show the same sorts of problematic patterns in well-being, including negative affect and social disengagement”. Retail therapy is a myth.
One group called the Minimalists has decided to do something about these trends. Since being founded in 2009, they claim to have helped over 20 million people live more meaningful lives with less through their website, books and podcasts. The Minimalists say their focus is not so much about having less and less but “making room for more: more time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom”.
While many adopting lower consumption lifestyles are doing it for their own well-being, a considerable number want to reduce their environmental impact. Reduced demand for consumer goods cuts pollution and energy consumption, and takes pressure off global ecosystems. Even if we manage to recycle 100 per cent of materials in a circular economy and achieve 100 per cent renewable energy, purchasing fewer products in the first place will still be the best option for reducing our environmental impact.
So why is it that, if over-consumption is bad for our well-being, our sociability and our planet does the media only focus on the downsides of lower retail sales? I can’t remember ever reading a story reporting poor Christmas sales having helped hard-working families cope better financially during January whilst reducing our national environmental footprint. The unspoken assumption in these reports appears to be that strong retail sales are a sign of a growing economy and that is good for jobs. The economy must keep on growing for the sake of jobs, even if we long since stopped needing so many of the goods and materials it produces. But something has to give. We can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Nor can we have billions of people without meaningful work.
In the coming decades, environmentalists will need to solve this conundrum. It’s not enough for us just to call for zero GDP growth or degrowth – we must also devise strategies to help people live lives filled with purpose and ambition. The solution lies partly in a truly circular economy, encompassing natural and manufactured capital. It also lies partly in our evolution into a species that values quality above novelty, experience above material trappings, and nature above artifice.
Jonny Hughes is Scottish Wildlife Trust chief executive. Follow him on Twitter @JonnyEcology