In my inaugural article, Creation and Consumption: An Armchair Discussion, I spoke quite a bit about consumption and the role it plays in our lives. I stated that we should be consuming things in a responsible manner, but what does that mean? I am going to expand a bit more on how to approach reducing consumption and hopefully provide you with some guidance. Or possibly it’s just incoherent rambling. Let’s find out!
“Consuming in a responsible manner” is an incredibly loaded phrase. What does it mean to consume? How do you determine what is responsible? These things can be hard to define. When they are defined they can still be very debatable. I will discuss a bit about what I think responsible consumption means. It’s possible you’ll disagree, but that’s okay. The entire philosophy is, I believe, very personal.
When I say “consume”, I mean any action that is using some thing to fulfill a need or desire. The simplest example is food. I eat food for sustenance. This is consumption. You read a book for entertainment. This is also consumption. A little more abstractly, you wear clothes to protect yourself. This is consumption, albeit at a slower rate (you probably don’t just use clothes once).
You can consume things physically or mentally. When you brush your teeth, you are physically consuming toothpaste (albeit, not ingesting it I hope). When you watch a movie, you are mentally consuming information. Something does not have to be depleted to be consumed. You could read a book a million times, but the act of reading does not consume the book itself (yes yes, of course a book can degrade over time, but the act of reading isn’t doing that, it is the handling/wear on the book).
Most of our lives are spent consuming. And I must reiterate that this is not an inherently bad thing. We must consume to live, both at a basic level and to enjoy the greater fruits of life. But it is certainly important to be aware of how much and how often we consume.
Becoming aware of your consuming patterns is the first step in reducing consumption. Think about how you spend your day. If you are like me, the first thing you do is shower. To do so, I am using water, gas (to heat the water), electricity (to power the light and fan), and various soaps (because I’m a fancy man). And that is all in the first 10 minutes of being awake. Each step probably contains more consumption than immediately apparent. Examine your day and understand how much you are consuming.
The next step is to understand your basic needs in life. How much do you need to consume to simply survive? If you only consumed to live, how little would you consume? It might not be as little as you think, but it’s probably much less than now. Reducing consumption to your basic needs is not the goal, simply a baseline.
A side note: This is essentially a thought experiment. While a lot of consumables can be quantified, I don’t believe it is necessary at this point. What you should be doing is trying to get a general understanding of your consumption habits versus your basic consumption needs. It’s challenging to have a measurable quantity for either.
Now think of these two points as a spectrum. On one end, you are consuming the bare minimum to survive. On the other end, your current lifestyle. The goal is to find where on the spectrum you continue to achieve the most fulfillment while limiting your consumption (as in, over-consumption). It will most likely be more than your basic needs but also less than your current lifestyle.
Examine your life closely. Write down the top 5 things in life that make you happy. Write down your goals. Your motivations. Describe a typical day in your life and how much each part contributes positively. It is no easy task, and usually a moving target, but try to understand what aspects of your life are the most fulfilling.
The ultimate goal of this exercise is to marry your consumption with a fulfilling lifestyle. We should be consuming to survive and to fulfill. When you start to deeply examine yourself and your consumption habits, you will start to see where you are consuming wisely and where you are over-consuming. Wherever possible, we should avoid over-consumption.
For example: eating out. I love eating out. It’s a great time to socialize with friends and fulfill that food craving. But it can also be an outlet for laziness, for not wanting to cook. Thinking about my own life, when I eat out with friends or for a special occasion, I feel great about it. When I eat out because I don’t want to go grocery shopping, I often end up feeling guilty (it costs money, I still have to go to the grocery store).
A simple life change for the above example would be to not eat out due to laziness. This obviously reduces consumption from a financial aspect and may provide other benefits as well (consuming smarter, healthier). Not only that, you avoid non-value added consuming, otherwise known as over-consumption.
Over-consumption is unnecessary consumption and, I would argue, irresponsible consumption. But why is over-consumption bad? There are the obvious answers, such as limited resources. There are some less obvious, such as consumption replacing time when you could be doing something more meaningful. You could write a whole book here, but I’m keeping it simple by saying that responsible consuming is consuming in a manner in line with a fulfilling life, something that adds value.
Take a look at your life of consumption and try to identify where you are over-consuming. There is probably some low hanging fruit. You would be surprised what activities jump out at you as soon as you think critically about them.
Another key point in this exercise is understanding your motivation. Why do you want to reduce consumption? I would imagine that for most people it is motivated financially. For others, you might care about a specific cause (environmentalism, animal rights, etc.). You probably already know your motivations, but it’s good to restate them so that your actions are in line.
I went back and forth on adding a list of things anyone can do, but decided against it. That information is already plentiful on the internet. You should do your own research. It is important that you decide how you want to approach consumption in your life, not how I think you should. I think everyone should live close to their job and walk/bike to work, but I realize that isn’t realistic. Find your approach.
There are a lot of ways to reduce consumption, but it ultimately comes down to what works for you. There is little point in changing our habits such that life becomes painful. It is about thinking smarter about consumption, making sure that what we consume truly benefits us. Will this solve the world’s problems? Probably not. But I think it is a good first step.