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.
Photo Credit: runron