It's Better to Buy Less Than to Buy 'Green' Products

Public Domain. Unsplash / Sharon McCutcheon

Voting with your wallet has its time and place, but sometimes it's best just to leave the wallet at home.

Americans are obsessive shoppers. Whether it's clothing, furniture, cars, electronics, shoes, or sporting gear, they're always buying and accumulating – often just because they like something or it's perceived as a good deal, not because they actually need it.

This is problematic, as the manufacturing of consumer goods requires resources that are increasingly finite, fills our homes with off-gassing clutter, and loads up landfills with useless junk. The fact is, our shopping habits have a profound effect on the climate crisis, and if we hope to slow the planet's demise, we must also examine our personal relationships with stuff.

This was the topic of a study conducted by Sabrina Helm, a professor at the Norton School of Family and Consumer Studies at the University of Arizona. Helm wanted to understand more about the choices young people in particular make when shopping, and how these affect planetary health.

The researchers followed a group of nearly 1,000 Millennial-aged adults for five years, starting at the beginning of their college studies when they were 18-21 and ending when they were 23-26, two years out of school. This is an age group that tends to express concern about the environment.

According to a press release, the researchers were interested in two main categories of 'pro-environmental behaviors': 1) Reduced consumption, which includes actions like repairing instead of replacing older items, avoiding impulse purchases, and not buying unnecessary items; and 2) 'Green buying,' or purchasing products designed to limit environmental impacts, such as goods made from recycled materials.

Some of the study participants were highly materialistic, shopping to "fulfil their desire to accumulate new items." Helm found that, of these, some fell into a category of 'green materialists,' meaning they bought 'green' consumer products in order to feel better about their purchases, but this did not improve consumer wellbeing. Buying less, however, did have a positive mental effect. Less materialistic participants engaged in reduced consumption, a.k.a. minimalism. This practice was "linked to higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress."

This is an interesting finding that proves buying less is better than buying green; indeed, I've said before on TreeHugger that 'frugality is environmentalism' and that the most effective form of environmentalism is not necessarily 'voting with your wallet', but leaving your wallet at home. To cite Mrs. Frugalwoods in her article, "You Can't Buy Your Way to Green,"

"Frugality is an environmental statement that’s far more powerful than empty words or bumper stickers. Ultimately, environmentalism stems from acts of doing less: less consumption, less commuting, less carbon emissions, less wastefulness, less carelessness."

Helm hopes her research encourages people to pause their shopping sprees and think about what it does to them and to the Earth:

"If you have a lot of stuff, you have a lot on your mind. Maybe you have a lot of debt because you bought all that stuff, and now you have to manage all that stuff... There's a lot of burdens of ownership, and if you relieve yourself of that burden of ownership, most people report feeling a lot better and freer."