It’s no hidden secret that shopping makes us feel good.
In a Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Our Brain Loves New Stuff And It’s Killing The Planet,” Professor of Neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School Ann-Christine Duhaime writes, “As a general rule, your brain tweaks you to want more, more, more—indeed, more than those around you—both of ‘stuff’ and of stimulation and novelty—because that helped you survive in the distant past of brain evolution.”
This brain tweakage comes in the form of dopamine, a sort of happy feeling that lights up in your brain. The more we receive that burst of pleasure, the more we crave it, and then the more we buy. It’s a vicious cycle—one that leads to overconsumption and an ecological crisis where landfills are reaching maximum capacity and oceans are overflowing with more than 5.25 trillion pieces of trash.
While there’s no easy solution, Canadian illustrator Sarah Lazarovic offers us a good rule of thumb to curb our unconscious consumption. “The Buyerarchy of Needs” is a helpful graphic can help differentiate between what you need and what you want, taking you through the steps of conscious consumption one tier at a time.
Tier One: Use What You Have
At the bottom of Lazarovic’s drawing lies the phrase “use what you have,” indicating this as the default decision.
According to a study performed by Movinga (a relocation and removal company), Americans only wear approximately 18% of their wardrobe in a given year, leaving 82% of their wardrobe untouched in drawers and closets. 24% of American groceries wind up in the garbage and, of the recent movers polled in this survey, 35% of their transferred items had not been used since their most recent move. Given these high levels of unused items, it’s important to assess what you currently have first before investing in any brand new items, for sake of clutter and the environment.
Tier Two: Borrow
If you don’t have an item you need, Lazarovic’s next advice is to borrow.
Whether you’re in need of a classy cocktail dress and you ask a friend, or you knock on your neighbor’s door to see if they have a drain snake for a clogged drain, these actions cut down not only your personal spending but also overall unnecessary consumption. Borrowing can also look like going to the library rather than buying a brand new book, or getting a DVD from Redbox instead of buying it at a store. With borrowing, it’s also a good idea to make sure you lend as much as you borrow. Be generous with your items in the hope and faith that people will also be generous with you.
Tier Three: Swap
If it is time to add a new item to your collection, the next tier on The Buyerarchy of Needs is to swap. Swapping is a great way to collect new items all the while getting rid of things you don’t need or want anymore. While swapping is easiest with friends or family, there is also a wide-range of online resources and social media groups for swapping items within your community. Freecycle.org, for example, allows you to find free local items and post your own items as well, in addition to Facebook Marketplace and locally-organized swap events.
Tier Four: Thrift
Although thrifting, unlike the previous tiers, does require a cash exchange for newly acquired items, it’s overall a more sustainable and cost-effective means of purchase. While savings differ item-by-item, MoneyUnder30.com calculates some of the best thrifting purchases include cars, bikes, clothes, textbooks, and kitchen appliances. Thrifting can also help develop a unique style and acquire secondhand designer goods without dropping major money in the process.
Tier Five: Make
While making new items—from DIY-ing your own clothing to making your own tinted lip balm—can be a fun way to stay creative, it’s important to remember that even the act of making involves purchasing new items (craft supplies, groceries, etc.) that lead to further waste. As much as possible, try to upcycle, reuse, or thrift in the creation process and only purchase what you absolutely need.
Tier Six: Buy
If you’ve exhausted all those steps and still are out of luck, the last tier on Lazarovic’s Buyerarchy of Needs is to buy.
Though it may seem obvious, buying new things is an inevitable part of life (much to the chagrin of zero-waste enthusiasts and minimalists like myself). However, by putting it in the smallest section of the pyramid, Lazarovic helps shift consumer priorities away from buying as a first case scenario and allowing consumers to work their way up the pyramid first instead. Though buying new isn’t a sin, it’s a decision that should take more careful thought and attention than we often give it, which is the purpose and point of Lazarovic’s graphic.
As with all habits, rewiring shopping patterns is an ongoing effort that takes practice and time. We can start, however, by asking ourselves difficult questions. Questions like, Why do I want to buy this? Is it flashy marketing? Stress? Am I seeking a rush of happiness? Or is this something I truly need to help improve my life?
For more inspiration, you can follow Sarah Lazarovic’s journey in her book, A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy, an “anti-consumer manifesto” that chronicles the year she decided to stopping buying new things. Beautifully illustrated, hilarious, and poignant, Lazarovic’s decision to paint the things she coveted rather than purchasing them will inspire you to learn to live with less and appreciate the items you already own.
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Photo: Sarah Lazarovic; pure julia via Unsplash