Buying 'Green' Won't Make You Any Happier, but Buying Less Will

Millennials who made use of what they had instead of buying new items reported higher satisfaction levels. HollyHarry/Shutterstock

At some point, buying a new pair of jeans just for the sake of having a new pair of jeans may become permanently etched in our actual genes.

After all, we've spent generations steeping in a culture that extols the joys of consumerism — regardless of how high we stack yesterday's iPhones and flat-screen TVs and designer jeans in landfills.

Maybe we can have it both ways. Maybe we can buy responsibly — so called "green" products that don't take such a toll on the environment — while still abiding by the mantra of consumerism.

It turns out, when it comes to the environment, there's no such thing as feel-good spending.

In a new study published in the journal Young Consumers, researchers at the University of Arizona analyze our spend-happy ways and reach a sobering conclusion: Buying green is another variant of materialism. The world doesn't need any more materials, and they won't make us happy no matter how small a footprint they make on the environment.

Buying less, on the other hand, could actually make us happier.

Specifically, the team looked at how environmental issues informed the spending habits of millennials, considered the most influential consumers in the U.S.

A egret looking for food in a dump.
No matter how small the environmental footprint, the world still has to find space for yesterday's new things. FJAH/Shutterstock

The researchers looked at data from a longitudinal study that followed 968 young adults from their first year of college, when they were between the ages of 18 and 21, to two years post-college, when they were between the ages of 23 and 26.

Researchers identified two different approaches to the environment. Some millennials tried to curb their spending outright, by simply consuming less. They might, for example, try to fix an item rather than replace it or head to a repair cafe, an increasingly popular option in a country that produces some 254 million tons of potentially salvageable rubbish.

The other option for millennials was to buy "green," essentially looking for products made from recycled or biodegradable materials.

At the same time, the research team looked at the participants' overall happiness and sense of personal well-being by asking them to respond to an online survey.

Reduced consumption wasn't an option for some of the more materialist participants, notes researcher Sabrina Helm in a university press release. They may have felt an intrinsic need to buy things, but when they did, they opted for "green" products.

"We found evidence that there is a group of people that belong to the 'green materialists,'" Helm explains. "This is the group that feels they're giving satisfying both the planet and their own desire to buy things."

The other group managed to overcome the "culturally entrenched" values of consumerism and simply make do with less.

You might think the first group — those who were accumulating stuff and feel like they we're doing their part for the environment — would be the happiest.

After all, who's happy with less?

But it turns out those who curbed their consumption reported feelings of more positive personal well-being. When it comes to life satisfaction, the study concludes, less really is more.

"We thought it might satisfy people that they participated in being more environmentally conscious through green buying patterns, but it doesn't seem to be that way," Helm explains. "Reduced consumption has effects on increased well-being and decreased psychological distress, but we don't see that with green consumption."

The idea that you can't buy happiness is an oft-repeated refrain. We know, for example, that putting our money towards life experiences, rather than things, helps us feel more fulfilled.

But the idea of finding joy in having less? That may be a tough pill to swallow for some. But for the sake of our planet — and for ourselves — it may just be the medicine we need.

"We've been told since childhood that there's a product for everything and it's okay to buy, and it's a good thing because that's how the economy works," Helm explains. "We're brought up this way, so changing behaviors is very difficult."