Have you ever looked around your home and thought you had way too much junk sitting around, collecting dust? Can you recall when, where or why you purchased those items you now want to throw in the garbage? After answering these questions, you might brush off your responses as nothing to worry about. Maybe you’ll experience fleeting guilt about mindlessly using your credit card on an Amazon or SHEIN haul one too many times. However, with climate change predictions quickly becoming reality for millions of people around the globe, ignorance won’t provide bliss for much longer.
Back in late January of this year, TikTok creator @sadgrlswag uploaded a video aiming to “deinfluence” viewers and prevent them from buying products seemingly every social media influencer owns — Olaplex, the Charlotte Tilbury Liquid Highlighter Wand, the Dyson Airwrap, the Stanley Cup, UGG Mini Booties and all those other fads. Within those following days, “deinfluencing” became a topic of conversation across the platform and many other TikTok users called on their peers and audiences to reduce their levels of consumption and live more minimally.
Nevertheless, to understand why “deinfluencing” became popular, one must acknowledge how online shopping has affected domestic and international markets. Dr. Haoluan Wang, an assistant professor of sustainable economics at the University of Miami, explains online shopping services have allowed for the price of goods to drop and the quantity of goods to increase.
“Online shopping platforms, such as Amazon, not only make goods more accessible to consumers but also bring down costs,” said Wang. “These two factors combined will incentivize consumers to purchase more goods given the same purchasing power, even for something that may not be useful or necessary for our daily lives.”
Following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prices for goods have spiked across the U.S. and abroad. According to The World Bank’s Global Database of Inflation, the inflation rate in the U.S. rose from 1.2 percent to eight percent between 2019 and 2022. Other data points from The World Bank’s study revealed Americans are now devoting majority of their paychecks toward essential goods such as food and energy.
Will inflation force Americans to keep their wallets in their pockets? Wang predicts shifts in consumer spending may curtail our collective levels of consumption.
“With everything becoming more expensive, considering our salaries have not increased proportionally, people are becoming more careful about how to spend their money,” said Wang. “Inflation will, to some extent, discourage people from ‘unnecessary’ shopping if they have more important things they need to spend money on, such as mortgages.”
So, if Americans must spend more money on the basics, how are users on TikTok and other social media platforms affording those overpriced items such as the $600 Dyson Airwrap anyways? The truth is most of us can’t, yet we choose to do so because of the perceived elevation in social status granted through purchasing certain items. Researchers from the University of Granada in Spain published a study in 2022 analyzing the psychological mechanisms behind status item consumption.
They found status anxiety, or concerns and fears about one’s relative position in the socioeconomic hierarchy, can spur individuals to buy status items such as designer handbags, expensive jewelry and luxury clothing, even during economic turmoil. Furthermore, they discovered higher levels of economic inequality contribute to increases in status item sales.
Isabelle Fitzpatrick, a junior majoring in public relations and journalism and minoring in environmental science, argues that even though spending by upper-class individuals can maintain company profit lines during times of inflation, the working class may struggle to keep their heads above water in the face of increased prices.
“The current surge in inflation is creating a larger gap in consumer behavior between different socioeconomic classes. Upper class individuals that don’t have to worry about supporting themselves financially are likely to stimulate an inflated economy,” said Fitzpatrick. “However, lower class individuals are finding it harder and harder to survive, as inflated prices leave them living from paycheck to paycheck.”
Poor Mother Nature
At this point, you may be asking yourself why you should even care about how much and often you buy things. If you have the money, it’s your right to spend it. Right? Scientific research heavily disagrees.
In 2022, UNICEF Office of Research released a report which found that if every person on Earth consumed at the consumption rate of the average American, industries would need the resources of five earths to sustain the global population’s demand. Furthermore, their research showed the average person in high-income countries disposed 1,177 pounds of waste during 2019.
Fitzpatrick believes hyperactive consumerism in the United States contributes to the destruction of the Earth’s ecosystem, yet our government fails to act due to capitalistic motivation and societal disconnect.
“The production of most consumer goods requires factories that heavily utilize fossil fuels as energy, leading to the release of harmful greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere which directly causes global warming,” said Fitzpatrick. “However, our nation tends to value business and revenue over environmental sustainability. People see the products that they buy every day, however they rarely see direct, concrete impacts of climate change.”
Even though we want to believe climate change is not as bad as it seems, the clock is ticking to prevent its detrimental effects. Every year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases a comprehensive study on the current state of the Earth’s climate. Last year’s report proposed that to prevent average global temperature rise from exceeding 3 F, countries would have to halve their emissions by 2030 and reduce them to zero by 2050.
If governments do not rapidly decarbonize their economies over the next decade, long periods of drought, rainfall or wildfires may become the new normal for communities living in climate change-prone areas. Increased exposure to climate hazards will increase deaths associated with heat as well as diseases originating from food, water and other transmitters of disease such as animals and insects.
Dr. Eduardo Elena, an associate professor of the history of consumption, echoes the worries of most contemporary climate scientists and believes we have reached a turning point in climate change’s progression.
“The present-day debates about [overconsumption] reflect the fact that today we are surrounded by a lot more stuff and a lot more people than ever before. We have realized the collective impact is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore,” said Elena. “Especially for younger people, because they have realized they’re going to be around to see the consequences. There is something particular about our current moment.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
The essential question remains: how do we make a difference? Unfortunately, most governments have not made serious legislative efforts to mitigate the effects of manmade climate change or to reduce their country’s annual carbon emissions.
Simone David, a junior majoring in psychology and criminology, contends that U.S. corporations may fight off attempts to shift the country’s economy towards greener business practices because of the cost associated with making such changes.
“Our nation has not strived to reduce our consumption of goods in hopes of mitigating the effects of climate change because corporations see it as an expense that causes them to lose money,” said David. “Corporations may lobby against policies that would force them to be more environmentally conscious, such as stricter caps on greenhouse gas emissions and other similar laws.”
Consequently, the burden of saving the planet falls primarily on the people, especially those living in the wealthiest of the world’s nations. To create tangible societal change, we must work together to encourage those around us to live more minimally and sustainably, one person at a time. So next time you’re about to blow hundreds of dollars on your growing digital shopping cart, think about whether you want the next generation of people to live with our mistakes.
The 48-Hour Rule
A common tactic employed by minimalists, called the 48-hour rule, may help you make smarter decisions as a consumer. When making a purchase decision, whether it be in-store or online, give yourself 48 hours to critically think about the purchase and decide whether you need the product, whether you can afford the item and if it’s worth the cost. After 48 hours, if you still find yourself wanting to make the purchase, then have at it.
Thinking About the Bigger Picture
“Our current modes of consumption discourage us from asking where the stuff comes from, how it was made, what are the materials in the things we consume and what was the energy used,” said Elena. “The different steps of the supply and production chains have a higher carbon footprint than most people would think. Not to mention, there is a significant growth in the trash stream associated with all the cardboard boxes that things come in.”
words_andrew mccleskey. photo_sharron lou & valeria barbaglio. design_nicole smittcamp.
This article was published in Distraction’s Fall 2023 print issue.
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