To Buy or Not to Buy? Is There Really a Question?

One of the first things to happen when you start storing trash in your basement is that you think a lot about “stuff.” The stuff we buy, the stuff that stuff all comes packaged in, the stuff we throw away. Stuff, stuff, stuff. It is everywhere, and in many ways, it has become endemic to who we are. We are defined by our stuff. We drive it, listen to it, wear it, want it, think we need most of it, and if you are like most Americans, eventually figure out how to get it, with very little thought going into what went into making it, where it will go when it is broken, or how long it will last before we “need” to replace it.

Most of this stuff–like that $2,000 TV with the one-year warranty you just bought–will sadly end up in a landfill. And as if that’s not bad enough, the stuff we buy comes with even more stuff we don’t want. Bags, boxes, packing materials, and most annoyingly, those clear plastic hermetically sealed “clam shells” that electronic devices come in (ever try getting one of these open quickly without losing a digit?).

So I am suggesting we all stop.

Stop buying, stop consuming, stop spending and stop wasting. Now I know that’s not really going to happen, after all, there are a lot of things that we truly do need. Food comes to mind, as well as toiletries and of course, Wii game consoles (I just threw that in to see who was still reading). I’d be naive not to acknowledge that renouncing our consumerist ways would hurt people’s livelihoods, but you don’t try to get people to keep smoking to save jobs in the tobacco industry do you? That said, I do think we can all start consuming a lot less and conserving a bit more, we just need to start thinking about our stuff a little differently.

For starters, when you decide to buy something first ask yourself: Is this something that I want or something that I need? Most of the time you’ll find it’s really something you want, but I’ll let you struggle with that choice on your own. Now if it’s something you need, and you’re being honest about it, then by all means go ahead and get it, but first, consider a few alternatives to buying it new.

Before you run out to the store, try borrowing from a neighbor or getting it used. Craigslist and Freecycle are two excellent sources and I pretty much look there first before I buy anything. You’ll save on money, packaging, and you are removing yourself from the whole production process. Plus you can actually meet some cool people in your community along the way.

Now if you can’t find it used, or it’s something that can only be bought new, at least try to cut down on packaging by buying in bulk. Food and other necessities can be bulk purchased from many stores–just remember to bring your own bag/box so you can re-use them again and again. My wife and I buy most of our staple grains this way and it’s generally cheaper and fresher.

Another way to buy in bulk involves purchasing large quantities at a wholesale chain. This is not always a sure thing because you really need to investigate whether these bulk buys use more packaging or not. Use your noodle and do some easy math to see how much of the product is in each case/box. Bottom line, if you can get more with less packaging, go for it.

If you can’t buy it used or don’t need it in bulk, there’s still one more set of choices to make. Head to the store (preferably on foot or bike if you can) and take a look at what they offer. Assuming that you have more than one choice, consider the packaging and decide which uses less and/or is more recyclable. Also, consider where the product was made and how far it had to travel to get to the store, because all of these things make a difference.

So you’ve made your choices, checked your options, and you’re done, right? Not quite. There’s one more thing to consider and it may in fact have a greater impact than anything else you’ve done. You see, by not buying the other products that were offered, you’ve used your purchasing power to make your voice heard, but if you want to really affect change, use your actual voice in conjunction with your wallet.

Jot down the names of the items you didn’t buy and send a quick e-mail to each of those companies stating, in clear and polite language, that you truly want to buy their products, but due to their packaging choices, you decided to buy another one instead (and let them know what that was). Explain that should they decide to package their products responsibly in sustainable packaging, you’ll gladly reconsider. If sales decline, they’ll wonder why, but if sales slump off and they receive 10,000 e-mails about their packaging, well, things are gonna change.

I know all this may seem like a lot of work, but take it from someone who has been there, it’s really not, and it’ll end up saving you some greenbacks in the long run. You’ll also find that most things that you need you’ll buy over and over, so once you’ve made your choice, you’re set for future purchases.

For more inspiration, check out the Compact Group, who have taken a pledge to buy nothing new for a full year, and watch The Story of Stuff, included below, to better understand how we got to where we are in the first place. And as always, if anyone has any other suggestions, let us know.

Live sustainably.


Michele Wilkinson

I am amazed at how much "stuff" I actually have!
Every 6 months or so, I try to clear out wardrobes, and cupboards, and everything I have not used/read/worn in those last 6 months is recycled in some way.Usually, I split the stuff between 2 charity shops, donating some to people, and some to animal charities.

Wade A.
Wade A.10 years ago

Right now we are facing troubled economy, which force us to save. The most possible way of saving is on our household expenses. Buying in bulk can be a very good way in order to save money. Unexpected emergencies may come our way and we will need cash, this is the time when we find payday loans very beneficial. However, you don’t always have to go this route if you practice saving money and financial planning. I recently read an interesting article on the payday loan blog at that primarily targets this concept. It talks about how to save on your biggest monthly expense; your food bill. It suggests ways to purchase food and save money by buying in bulk, shopping off a planned list and regularly checking on grocery sales and discount prices. One other thing that was mentioned in this article recommends planning meals around staples such as beans, rice, and pasta which can be prepared in many different ways that creates great tasting without costing you a fortune."

Sustainable Dave
Dave Chameides10 years ago

Wow. sorry to hear about the freecycle problem. Just goes to show you that not everyone is on the same page. At least you're still finding useful solutions for things. On a similar note, I just posted on my blog about Peter Gabriel having a child and what he asked people to do for them...nothing. Check it out at

Lisa Marshall
Lisa Marshall10 years ago

When I started reading the first part of this article about 'stuff' it was so familiar it seemed someone was talking for me!
I will be honest here. Having a green business, it is always on my conscience whether to 'promote stuff' or not. The way I have justified it is that atleast folks will be buying green products and moving towards a natural sustainable lifestyle if they are buying green 'stuff.' However, I really attempt to promote things that we would truly use or that will make a difference in our lifestyles.

I buy VERY minimal stuff. When buying anything except food, it is off to the thrift store, Freecycle or a consignment store. Then at last resort a local producer or individual.

Food is bought in bulk. I still have more packaging then I prefer even as a conscious buyer.

Perhaps educating people to be a conscious consumer is the best way to keep clear of 'stuff.' Thanks for the great article.

Aarra Limberlost
Aarra Limberlost10 years ago

I have tried to not buy anything new for the past year - except for food and toiletries, my friends think that I'm giving up a lot, but my quality of live has NOT suffered at all. I have more money saved and a lot more time to spend with friends and family.
I really liked the video too.

bindu p.
bindu p10 years ago

yes this is very correct the plants and animals never generate any waste that cannot be dealt by the nature. whatever waste they produce are absorbed by the nature. but we humans only create tonnes tonnes of inorganic and indecomposable wastes that our poor mother nature cant even degrade easily then only the comes absorption.So please please use less and less of plastic and even if u are using any plastic always reuse it with one plastic bags u can use several several times to carry our shopping products.So please save our home! Our nature! Our earth! please Save Us and our fellow animals and plants including fishes and birds and other living organisms

Mary F. B.
Mary B10 years ago

most of my "stuff" is paper records of memories. Needs organization, not disposal.

Tassa Rose
Tassa Rose10 years ago

I Give to The Needy; and at Present...I am Sitting along the Poverty Fence. I continue to give to Charities: PETA,,et al.

Angela Colwell
Angie C10 years ago

Guilty as charged. I have recently become very aware of how much "stuff" I have. All of it seemed quite necessary at the time-mostly as a result of "retail therapy". I have gotten into the habit of weeding out things a bit at a time and pretty much anything at the curb with a "free to good home" sign on it is gone before I get home in the evening.

"You can take what I got but you can't keep me from getting more"
Tiger Rose-does that sound familiar? I took it right from your profile page. Got some 'splainin' to do, my friend.

Rhiannon Myst
Rhiannon Myst10 years ago

good 'food for thought' its amazing what we think we can't live without, until kerpow! we are forced to. So many find out really by some fluke incident or accident. I have used freecycle the experience was for the most part good, then you find their is one in every group that one or two that make it a bad experience..I just try to not see the entire group like that. Most of them are really good. I have used only one, so thats a small observation.