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Mnookin: Consumer Culture

My family and I recently gave away household items corresponding to the day of the month. One item on the first of the month, two items on the second, through day 30, and totaling 465 items.

We’d been inspired by friends, and were motivated to de-clutter our home. Stuff seems to accumulate when you have a toddler and live in a house with a basement, attic, and shed; it takes intention to clear out.

We also took this opportunity to reflect on our relationship both to consumer culture and to our possessions, to reconsider what we cherished, and to practice generosity to those in need.

Though we didn’t quite make our self-imposed 30-day deadline, we held ourselves to the final number, keeping track of what we’d downsized and where it had gone. Inevitably, some items became trash: expired vitamins, dried-up nail polish, broken chopsticks. But mostly, we found new homes for our things.

I gave planters to friends, metal roofing to a neighbor, and made curbside “free” piles. I brought clothing to hospice for resale, winter boots to our local drop-in center, and “catch all” items, including VHS videos, to the transfer station’s swap shop. Ripped clothing was collected for commercial insulation; egg cartons went to a nearby farm; books and games to the children’s thrift store. Sometimes it was hard to let go - like the ceramic goblet from a friend overseas - but mostly, it felt good.

My wife and I had challenged ourselves in similar fashion before. In 2011, we embarked on a year of buying almost nothing new. Following our friends’ lead, we made exceptions for food, toiletries, and health and safety products, but little else.

I’ve never been a big shopper, but it’s difficult for any of us to deny our roles as consumers. During that year, I thought more intentionally about what I buy and why. When I discovered I was pregnant that same year, I was tempted by items in a local baby boutique. Still, I spent less money, supported local and online used marketplaces, and became more resourceful about fixing stuff when it was broken.

Activist Annie Leonard clearly outlines the impacts of consumerism in her video, The Story of Stuff. The thrust of her message isn’t new or complicated. She declares, “We have a problem with Stuff. We use too much, too much of it is toxic and we don’t share it very well with others.”

She continues, “But that’s not the way things have to be,” and I agree. Individual choices have the ability to create societal change.