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The Tide of Our Material World

The Tide of Our Material World

 

There are a few things in our lives that we know for sure. Benjamin Franklin was precise about this matter, declaring “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Although it wasn’t on statesman Franklin’s list, one reality in our lives that is nearly inescapable is the fact that people will always buy stuff.

When comedian George Carlin joked, “That’s all your house is, it’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff,” he used humor to bring the reality of consumer consumption in our culture out in the open. Unless you live in seclusion in some remote corner of the planet, you occasionally (or quite often) buy stuff that you don’t need. Case in point: 43 percent of U.S. families spend more than their income, while 23 percent of Americans acknowledge buying things they don’t need.

Besides the negative aftermath of living above our means, what are some other effects of nonstop consumer consumption? According to Planet Aid, only 15 percent of all excess clothing and textiles are recycled, and the remainder is disposed of as trash and winds up in landfills or incinerators. Another downside to living in our material world is an addiction to shopping itself. According to the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, approximately five percent of Americans are affected by compulsive shopping.

For some of us, popular sporting events such as the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and the Super Bowl are good reasons to buy more stuff. Since there’s only one winner, what happens to all the apparel with the losing team’s name on it that merchandisers produce for fans? Some of it finds its way to people living in developing nations, or into the hands of those hit by natural disasters overseas. They benefit from the “Gifts-in-Kind” program sponsored by World Vision, a Washington state-based humanitarian organization.

World Vision partners with the NFL and major sporting goods retailers to bring unwanted championship gear to those who need it most. These donated items also include counterfeit NFL team apparel seized by the United States Customs Service. Those donating the goods receive tax write-offs and positive publicity for their contributions, and those on the receiving end acquire much-needed clothing. So, this exchange is clearly a win-win situation for everyone involved, right?

Maybe not, if you consider the following: some argue that no one in the developing world actually lacks T-shirts, it’s not cost-effective once you take into account the combined costs of getting the T-shirts distributed, it’s a missed opportunity to use the same resources to donate something more useful such as medicine or clean water and it can restrain the local community’s economic programs, right along with their local T-shirt vendor.

On the bright side, there are businesses that are inspiring people to repurpose unwanted clothes, rather than donate them. One organization dedicated to this mission is Project Repat, who will take your best-loved T-shirts (the ones that you can’t stand to part with) and upcycle them into something new such as a scarf, tie, or tote bag. Then, instead of sewing the new products overseas, they’re made at Opportunity Threads, a worker-owned cut and sew cooperative in North Carolina. Through their partnership with artisans in Kenya, Project Repat also produces a “Refab” line that takes unwanted American T-shirts and creates new merchandise.

Clearly, our inclination to purchase more and more stuff has far-reaching and multilayered effects. The rock band The Police reminded us in 1981 that “we are all spirits in the material world.” Ultimately, it’s how we choose to live in our material world that makes all the difference.

 

Related Stories:

5 Reasons Why Voting and Shopping Are Not the Same Thing

Can We All Join Grandmother Heidemarie Schwermer in Living Without Money?

Are Your Clothing Donations Really Going to Charity?

 

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Photo Credit: runron

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38 comments

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9:22PM PDT on May 19, 2012

I used to buy to be "happy", so I thought -- my joy was the UPS truck pulling up to my door. I was filling an empty space, but then wanted more to fill the space again. As one gets older, you learn these truths, that "things" don't make you happy, and all you end up with, stuff to get rid of at a garage sale. I'm trying to divest now, and enjoy the air, the blue sky, the breeze.

5:33PM PDT on Apr 10, 2012

Excellent article.

4:50PM PDT on Apr 8, 2012

Thank-you for the urgent message

4:31PM PDT on Apr 8, 2012

This is our sad reality... it makes us dumb and distracted when there are other more urgent things to notice.

6:44PM PDT on Apr 6, 2012

There is so much used stuff floating around at yard and rummage sales, thrift stores and flea markets, including soap, shampoo, cleaning products,light bulbs, linins, towels, pretty much anything that, except for an ocational construction item or stamps, I've lived for years without buying 'new' stuff.

9:01AM PDT on Apr 6, 2012

I wonder if I could go a year without anything new. Would it count if I traded in something old?

11:23AM PDT on Apr 5, 2012

I live on minimum, no health insurance, unemployed, no food stamps, do not accept charity, my house was lost to foreclosure in 2008. I live from week to week, practically zero non-perishables. I survive on the bare essentials. There is far too much waste in America. People need to become self-sufficient.

11:22AM PDT on Apr 5, 2012

I live on minimum, no health insurance, unemployed, no food stamps, do not accept charity, my house was lost to foreclosure in 2008. I live from week to week, practically zero non-perishables. I survive on the bare essentials. There is far too much waste in America. People need to become self-sufficient.

4:34AM PDT on Apr 5, 2012

People need to have fewer kids in order to consume less.

4:07AM PDT on Apr 5, 2012

Shop till you drop is an American thing that keeps our economy going, and it is a "value" that is increasingly adopted by all countries in the world, except Bhutan. which had scrapped the GNP for another measure: Gross Happiness Index.

Our economic measures of prosperity of the country need to be revised to measure real life, not just an average income, unemployment etc. Those "economic measures or well being" force us to accept a very gross mis-measure of wealth: average money one controls. People genuflect to those who had "succeeded", i.e. have high income and influence based on money they use to influence people. However, there is wealth that is not measured by how much money one makes and there is poverty among those who make LOTS of money. Just look at that guy on TV...developer and businessman who hurt many people but think that he could have run for a President!

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