Here’s a piece of advice to help you become a more conscious consumer: Before you buy something new, shop from your house.
I originally found this advice in the pages of Remodelista: The Organized Home, a book about dealing with all the stuff we all own. Author Julie Carlson, the editor-in-chief of the design blog Remodelista, is specifically talking about storage solutions, suggesting that readers repurpose items they already own before heading to a store to purchase new containers. “I use small, clear glass drinking glasses in my medicine cabinet to hold makeup, my toothpaste and toothbrush, even my eyeglasses (so I spot them every morning),” she told me when I interviewed her about the book for Brooklyn Based. “Terracotta planters come in all sizes and are also good for storing things. So are tin cans.”
We’re surrounded by stuff and it all comes with an environmental footprint. Even the items that bake an eco-friendly, sustainable ethos into their identity take resources to produce, require your attention and energy to maintain and store, and will suck up more resources to dispose of someday. It can be incredibly freeing to have less stuff and to use it well. I’m not talking about minimalism or anything close to it, just a shift in perspective to finding a meaningful purpose for the items filling your closets and drawers.
When my husband and I moved to Vermont two years ago we were shocked to discover just how much stuff we had managed to pack into a New York City apartment. Once the moving truck was unloaded we vowed not to fill our new, much more spacious home with junk. After a few months though, the memory of hauling all those boxes of books and dishes down the steep, narrow staircase from our apartment in Brooklyn faded, and our ample closet space—not to mention the garage—became cluttered with toys, clothes, and thrift store finds. Our stuff was expanding to fill our space at an alarming pace.
After chatting with Carlson I stopped searching online for perfect baskets for my son’s toys and started poking around the closets in my house. I rediscovered a set of canvas folding cubes that were much better suited to holding plastic animals and toy tractors than the sweaters that had been stuffed messily inside.
Now, I apply this principle before I buy almost anything. Instead of searching for the perfect dress for a family wedding this summer, I looked in my closet and discovered one I had worn only twice before. I matched it up with a new belt and jewelry, and got a million compliments on the ensemble. Before I buy new face wash, shampoo, or bandaids I check to see what’s in the back of the bathroom cabinet. At the beginning of winter I pull all the hats, mittens, and scarves out of the closet to see whether we actually need new ones. If I’m thinking about purchasing a new chair, dresser, or bookshelf, I examine whether or not there’s one being under utilized somewhere in our house. The answer is usually a resounding yes.
In the modern world, shopping is only occasionally about need. Even food shopping is about what we want to eat rather than simply what will keep us alive. “We don’t buy things,” writes Margo Aaron, a marketer and former psychology researcher. “We buy how things make us feel.” Shopping feels good so that quitting it can feel bad, unless you incorporate a perspective shift that is even more satisfying than getting something new.
There’s a fine line between thrifty and cheap, but this strategy is about preventing your home from turning into a museum of unused junk. Closets, drawers, and cupboards fill with items that you don’t think about every day, and pretty soon you’ve stockpiled six deodorants, four tubes of toothpaste, a lifetime’s worth of socks, and more sweaters than one person could ever wear.
Pausing and considering what you already have first reduces thoughtless consumption in the same way that giving up fast fashion does by switching the default. Compared to the fleeting satisfaction I get from buying something new, I’ve found that the pleasure of using something well lasts longer.