Is There A Cure For Society's Affluenza?

It's time to consider our own personal wants and needs as a new year begins.

01/10/2018 15:10 EST | Updated 01/10/2018 15:48 EST
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Collectively we breathe out, heave a sigh of relief and make resolutions at this time of year. That usually starts with weight and lifestyle goals, trimming down the excess in our lives in some way, decluttering.

Last year at this time the author Ann Patchett resolved to only buy necessities for one whole year. Her year of living frugally was chronicled in a New York Times essay last month. The previous year the financial journalist Michelle McGagh made the same resolution and presented her findings in a TED talk. For both of them it was a personal exploration to find the difference between want and need. Not surprisingly their fashion shopping was a significant factor behind the resolution.

Will many of the toys, trinkets and clothes that were under the tree be discarded in six months?

In each situation a very similar result was found. Life became richer in other ways when shopping was removed from their life. The message is a good reminder to consider our own personal wants and needs as a new year begins.

The idea is timely given we have just come through a season that is the ultimate homage to consumerism. Will many of the toys, trinkets and clothes that were under the tree be discarded in six months? How many of them belong in either category of planned obsolescence, like the plastic bags used to carry our "stuff," or perceived obsolescence, like fashion gifts received?

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Before we can begin to tackle our own personal consumerism we first need to understand the interconnectedness of all things — our "stuff," its life cycle and its impact on our physical world.

For anyone, parents and educators included, there is no better place to start than with Annie Leonard, a distinguished leader in the environmental movement, and her engaging analysis of our materials economy. In her video "The Story Of Stuff," Leonard describes that interconnectedness of our stuff to water, forests, energy, production, consumption, women's issues and garbage. The engine that drives consumerism is shopping. Every package opened last month has an upstream and downstream story in its life cycle. A sidebar to those bags of garbage thrown out Boxing Day, Leonard notes that for every bag of garbage we create, there were 70 bags of garbage in the upstream production phase.

Is it entirely coincidence there was this societal shift around the time credit cards became widely used?

Once we understand the "how" of consumerism, thanks to Leonard, we need to then look at the "why." About 60 years ago the focus shifted to a consumerist society based on acquisitions. Is it entirely coincidence there was this societal shift around the time credit cards became widely used?

The term "affluenza" originated in the last century and was defined in the 2001 book, Affluenza: The All Consuming Epidemic, as:

n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more...

Twenty years ago, Jessie O'Neill wrote in her book, The Golden Ghetto: the Psychology of Affluence, that "one need not have a great deal of money to become entrapped by it." The rich are not the only ones afflicted with wanting "stuff."

The esteemed Australian economist Richard Denniss has tackled this topic of affluenza as well. A decade ago he co-authored with Clive Hamilton the book, Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough, where they observed that "in the coming decade most of our income growth will be spent on consumer products, the craving for which is yet to be created by advertisers."

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Richard Denniss revisits the topic in his recently published book, Affluenza: How to Buy Less Stuff and Save The World, where he reminds us to consider the difference between wanting "things" and cherishing "things." Have we lost the ability to see a long-term need for possessions? There is today a heightened perceived obsolescence of things in our life like cars and fashion that helps drive the desire for the new and different.

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This example of perceived obsolescence with fashion is that it survives and thrives on society's desire for the latest trend. Perhaps equally disturbing is the fact that the fashion industry is second only to oil as the dirtiest industry in the world. There are a few examples of designers who are attempting to address both obsolescence and pollution. Stella McCartney is one fashion icon who hopes she can help open the conversation toward "consuming in a more conscious way." Most recently she called for an overhaul of this "incredibly wasteful" industry.

The hip New York fashion label Noah is another company committed to change. Noah promotes environmental awareness through messaging on their clothing tabs, as well as a number of philanthropic initiatives involving recycled clothing.

Neither Patchett or McGagh wish to eliminate consumerism. Nor do McCartney and Noah want to end the fashion industry. Our capitalist society would collapse if we stopped buying "stuff." To be mindful of what we purchase, why we buy and its environmental impact are all steps toward a sustainable future.

Perhaps we can all take the first step in 2018.

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