Redefining Materialism

By Shreya Kabra and Samara Zuckerbrod

Americans let Stuff define who we are as people. Luxurious goods and other physical items that supposedly improve our lives are flung around as status symbols that are supposed to fulfill a deeper emotional desire within us. However, buying one thing after the other doesn’t always provide the emotional satisfaction we may desire. In fact, this probably increases our discontent.

Modern consumerism has existed at the core of this nation since the 1940s postwar economic boom continuing into the age of social media. Buying things became our patriotic duty as it would support the country’s growth as a world leader. Nonetheless, constant expectations of how we should cook and eat, how we should dress ourselves and how we should spend our money can be suffocating. People keep buying and buying for moments of short-lived excitement, but how will the accumulation of our Stuff treat us in the long run?

For example, we sometimes justify our purchase of new apparel by claiming that we’ll donate our old ones to the local thrift store. However, according to a 2017 Pulse of the Fashion Industry report, only 20% of postconsumer garments are recycled or reused. Furthermore, only 40% of these garments actually enter the secondhand market, while the rest are exported to Global South countries in which these items disrupt local clothing markets or go to landfills. Western culture allows for an unhealthy chase after new and shiny objects that will unfortunately end up discarded.

I don’t believe that people need to completely stop buying things they don’t need and adopt a strict minimalist lifestyle. In fact, I advocate for materialism, but with a lens of conscious consumerism. Annie Leonard writes in her novel, The Story of Stuff, that we need to “value our Stuff more” and “give it the respect it deserves.” I, Shreya, and my co-worker Samara, hope to inform readers just how we can value our things more by sharing our stories below: 

Art by Lily Hernandez

One day in the 90s, my mom happened to casually buy a pair of denim overalls at her local Walmart, completely unaware of how much this article of clothing would mean to her daughter nearly 25 years later. Ironically, I discovered these vintage shortalls when I was insistent about going to the store and buying a classy, new pair to upgrade my wardrobe, which was full of the latest fashion trends. Taking on my dear mother’s suggestion, I tried on her old pair instead.

After a quick readjustment of straps, the stiff denim fit perfectly. I felt a thrill of absolute joy surge through me. But not the kind of short-term joy one might feel when they buy a pair of new sneakers or a nice top. This felt like a nostalgic joy, knowing that my mom wore these overalls throughout her 20s and never threw them away, unsure of their future use. Knowing I could carry them into the future, have my own memories in the overalls and maybe even give them to my daughter one day was a very Motherhood of the Traveling Pants type situation. These overalls are still in my closet, and the material has barely deteriorated over 20+ years due to our cautious care. This experience shaped my current attitude toward fashion, which is now more value-oriented. 

Whenever I have the urge to buy a new pair of pants, shorts or a sweater, I remember my discovery of the overalls and wonder if I already have something in the closet that will do the job. This practice has saved me not only money but also the frustration of having a cluttered wardrobe. With a smaller amount of clothing and a thoughtful evaluation about what I buy, I’ve learned to value and appreciate my individual pieces of clothing more. I’ve begun to understand the difficult work that goes into apparel making and have taken this understanding to a new level by learning how to sew and make new clothes from leftover, unused material or even old clothes. I don’t let the number of clothes in my closet limit my creativity in style, as I experiment with what I have to reimagine fun and functional outfits.

Art by Lily Hernandez

In contrast to Shreya, my current tendency to overpurchase (though fashion had once been my crux) has more to do with my passion for cooking. Everytime I find a new recipe or special kitchen technique I want to try, I think I need to get all the fancy tools or unique ingredients deemed “necessary” by the chef’s instructions. As a result, I now have a mortar & pestle I’ve used once, an assortment of barely-opened stir-fry sauces and a mega-duty flour sifter. In addition, I’ve been known to go out of my way to get the exact ingredients I need for a certain dish I’m making. Thus, I sometimes buy more food than I need (since I only need 1/2 cup of heavy cream for a dessert, but my store doesn’t sell that small a portion) or ingredients that require enormous inputs to grow and/or transport to this part of the world.

While I am, as we all are, still struggling to find a balance between pursuing my hobbies and living sustainably, my advice (to myself and to you) is to actively evaluate the difference between what you want and what you need. 

You have to balance the wants and the needs. Do I really need to make that gingerbread recipe that is going to require me to buy five new spices, a bunch of new cookie cutters and a new mixer (because, silly me, I broke the old one last time I made gingerbread)? Probably not, but also, I want to because it is a really important holiday tradition to me. So, since I want to make this recipe due to its sentimental purpose in my life, I try to cut-down on other, more frivolous cooking purchases which would be less meaningful. Definitely purchase the needs (and look for the most sustainable ways to meet those needs), and then fulfill the meaningful wants on a case-by-case basis.  

Kyle Chayka writes in an NY Times Opinion article, “Minimalism, to me, is more about attention than anything else. It advocates seeing the world not as a series of products to consume, but sensory experiences to have on your own terms.” Everyone sees the world differently. We all think and act in different ways. However, one thing most of us have in common is our interpersonal relationships and how much we care for those people. We can develop similar relationships with our clothes, furniture, kitchen items and other materials by giving them the cherishment and care they deserve.

By cultivating a more compassionate and personal approach to buying Stuff, a practice we would like to call Conscious Consumerism, we can drastically improve the current consumer culture and its detriment on our health and the environment. Here’s to redefining materialism!

Citations:

Chayka, K. (2020, January 24). What we get wrong about minimalism. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/opinion/sunday/minimalism-definition-history.html

Leonard, A., & Conrad, A. (2011). The story of stuff: The impact of overconsumption on the planet, our communities, and our health–and how we can make it better. In The story of stuff: The impact of overconsumption on the planet, our communities, and our health–and how we can make it better (p. 29). New York, NY: Free Press.

Pulse of the Fashion Industry 2017 (p. 10, Rep.). (2017). Copenhagen, Denmark: Global Fashion Agenda and Boston Consulting Group.

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/tupperware-consumer/

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