You never know how much you have until you try to fit it in a carry-on bag.
That’s a key lesson I’ve learned in my time in Europe: More things aren’t always better. When living out of a backpack for a month, you realize that those “few things” you brought are about to burst out of the zippers.
To many in the U.S., a backpack doesn’t sound like much space. Americans, on average, have a lot of things. This isn’t inherently bad, but looking at other ways of life can give perspective on our attitudes toward our possessions.
Europeans, who have similar standards of living, often buy higher quality items and use them for longer. It isn’t a culture of buying, but a culture of using.
In America, we don’t worry about something breaking or being used up, because we can always buy more. Buying is built into every part of our lives, and companies spend billions of dollars a year to convince you to keep going.
This lifestyle has serious problems, though.
The environmental impact is obvious. It’s commonly stated that if everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average American, we would need four Earths to fulfill the demand. When we also consider all the energy needed to convert those raw materials into consumer goods, we can understand the serious impact on the planet.
Unfortunately, our economy rewards endless demand, whether it’s needed or not. It’s up to the consumers to decide when they have enough.
The decision to continue buying is accompanied by another decision: where to buy your goods.
There are plenty of ethical and unethical sources for food, clothing, computers and anything else you can imagine. Thanks to the power of the internet, we can find responsible companies around us and reward them with our business.
One important aspect of any company is the way it treats its labor. Modern slavery is more common than most suspect, and some of that population is used as manufacturing labor. This doesn’t even take into account the companies that underpay or mistreat their workers in other ways. This will be difficult to stop without consumers deciding they want more from companies.
The truth, though, is that this is better for the consumer, too. The people I met in Europe who had fewer belongings were as happy as their American peers. In fact, they may have been happier, spending more money on experiences.
Look at most philosophical, religious or psychological conclusions about what makes us happy, and you’ll find it won’t be the newest iPhone. In fact, our obsession with possessions often blinds us to things that will really satisfy us, like friends, family or experiences.
I’ve found it helpful to ask myself what a potential item’s purpose will be in my life. Will it make me happier? Will I still use it in a year? Is it worth the price, including that of the labor and environment?
Simply being mindful of such questions will make consumers not only more responsible but also more satisfied.
Daniel Payne is a sophomore integrated marketing communications major from Collierville, Tennessee.