Monday, September 12, 2011

A Call for Mindful Consumerism

As we get back into our work routines following the end of summer and our nation’s observance of Labor Day, our leaders resume their debate over exactly how to help turn the economy around. While they argue and delay, the situation stagnates. We, as consumers, have the ability to start action whenever we want, simply through the choices we make, in deciding how to help the businesses we most value.

One major contributor to our trade deficit has been Mindless Consumerism: buying without considering where our money is going and who it is going to. While the original impetus for more Mindful Consumption and Mindful Consumerism has largely been focused on environmental issues, I think the movement should be broadened to incorporate all the benefits that can follow when we simply pay attention to where we spend our money.

Every so often we hear of “gas free day” -- when we are told to not buy gas that day as a way of “punishing” oil companies for their practices. But the problem with that meager act of rebellion is that everyone goes out and buys gas the very next day from the very same oil companies they were trying to punish the day before. Boycotts of individual mega-mega-corporations along these lines seem to come and go with little effect. What we really need to do is change our way of thinking as consumers.

Consumption is not bad in and of itself. We need food. We need shelter. We need to replace worn out clothing. We need a way to get to and from our jobs since mass transit is not available everywhere and for everyone. We need to fix or replace things around the house that break.

But what we need to do a better job at is examining the choices we make in response to fulfilling our basic needs. And if we are lucky enough to have some money left over at the end of the month, we need to do a better job at spending our “play money” wisely.

In looking at your own basic needs, here is a brief list of questions to ask yourself:
  • What do you really need?
  • Are there retailers you can support by buying what you need from them?
  • Are there manufacturers who produce these goods in the U.S.?

We need to completely eradicate the idea that owning a lot of cheap stuff is better than owning fewer high-quality items. Just watch any of those TV shows that go into people’s houses and help them fight clutter. Those are the ultimate “Mindless Consumers.” Ask yourself: Do you really need fifteen cheap novelty t-shirts made in a sweatshop in China, or would you rather have two or three high-quality shirts made in the U.S., with the added benefit of helping the economy?

When you have determined what you really need, think about the variety of options for purchasing what you need within ten miles of your house.

  • Big mall
  • Big box store
  • Small locally-owned retailer
  • Small locally-owned consignment shop
  • Thrift store chain
  • Small locally-owned thrift store

No matter what your income level, there is likely to be a small, locally-owned shop that you can support.

The same goes for food:
  • Big box wholesaler/warehouse club
  • Chain grocery store
  • Small locally-owned grocery store
  • Farmers markets

Buying locally-grown foods has added benefits:
  • Food does not have to travel as far and is fresher than in big supermarkets
  • Supporting small, local farmers keeps them in business and reduces the amount of farmland lost to giant housing developments, which in turn reduces suburban sprawl and traffic congestion
  • Money stays in your area

And when it comes time to treat yourself, your family, or your friends, think about all of your options:

  • Big box store
  • Chain store
  • Small, locally-owned store
  • Craft fair vendors who are local artisans

 What we really need is a national call for Mindful Consumerism that looks at the greater benefits to the U.S. economy. Consumers should make sure that they are supporting the companies they feel good about supporting. Would you rather have a variety of stable, small businesses on your main street, or would you prefer to drive ten miles in traffic to a large box store and have a deserted downtown main street? The town I grew up in is an example of the latter but, when I was a kid, it used to be the former.
I don’t have to tell you how depressing it is for me when I go back to visit my parents and see what has become of the town – an abundance of vacant buildings and vandalism. You probably know a town just like it – if you don’t already live in or next to one.
I find it ridiculous that our leading “economic indicators” rely on new housing starts and car purchases – two items I know my family doesn’t constantly purchase – to determine the health of our economy. A better measuring stick would evaluate whether our nation has a thriving variety of small businesses and thriving downtowns.
We hear about the importance of diversity when it comes to our retirement/investment portfolios. We need to value that type of diversity in envisioning our main streets as well. If small towns don’t foster a variety of small businesses on their main streets, they will be forever looking towards decentralization as more space is needed on the outskirts of town for big box stores. They will be dooming themselves to becoming large-diameter circles that are hollow inside, like donuts, with sprawl and increased traffic as the icing and sprinkles on top.
To help our nation get back on its feet and to foster a thriving economy we need to pay closer attention to where we are spending our money. Take pride in your purchases. Take pride in your locally-owned businesses and in U.S.-made goods. And when you find a great local business, tell your friends about them.
Become a Mindful Consumer!



Links to Made in America lists and information:

Also, US-based crafters can easily be found online through sites like these:

If you are thinking about starting a small business, or if you are a small business owner looking for resources, check out the web site of the U.S. Small Business Administration, which provides a wealth of resources for small business owners.


Kristin said...

I'm late to commenting--but I wanted to let you know I've been thinking about these issues all week.

Bernadette Geyer said...

Thanks, Kristin!