Sustainable Living and Consumerism

Article by R. Joseph Ritter, Jr. CFP® EA

When you hear the word “sustainability,” you may think about a family living off the grid in Montana, homeschooling their children, growing their own food, and enjoying a limited social life. This way of life is repugnant to some people and, truthfully, it is something that would be very hard to implement on a broad scale. Take heart, because this is an extreme form of sustainable living, and there are other more mild forms of sustainable living that you can practice without moving to Montana. Sustainable living can be a form of increasing your savings and easing the strain on your budget.

Let’s start by understanding what sustainable living really means. A very simple definition is a way of life that is capable of being sustained over the long term. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “sustainable” to mean “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; able to last or continue for a long time.”

In the remainder of this article, we will look at examples of sustainability on personal and global levels.

1. Personal and Household Sustainability. What can you do to practice sustainable living without making radical changes to your life, like buying a goat farm in Montana? Here are a few examples:

Rechargeable batteries – take a few moments to calculate what you spent on batteries over the last two to three years. Then compare that to the cost of buying rechargeable batteries and a quality charger. The initial outlay is expensive, however, the cost over time can be well worth it, especially if you use batteries on a regular basis.
Buying for quality and durability – when you have a choice between two products, consider buying the one that is built better, can be repaired, will not require as much maintenance, and will hold up longer. Often this type of product costs more initially, however, if you buy a lesser quality product, you could end up repairing or buying it two or three times during what would have been the life of the higher quality product. An example of this is the garage door opener in our home. The seller installed a new opener when we bought the home, so we did not have to pay for it. That also meant we did not choose the quality. The opener lasted only a few years. While I was able to diagnose the problem, the parts were expensive. After examining the overall build quality of the opener, I determined that even if we repaired it we would not get much more life out of it. The opener we bought to replace it came with a very long warranty and a much better build quality.
Think scratch and dent, used, refurbished and reconditioned – a number of things in my own house were bought used and refurbished at a fraction of the price and have held up just as long if not longer than an equivalent new item. Buying at a discount not only saves you money, but buying from outdated inventory (refurbished, clearance, shelf model, etc.) you may also get a better item than the reduced quality of many newer products.
Minimize reliance on credit and debt – using credit cards to finance your household needs is unsustainable. At some point, the bank will stop lending you money, and the balance has to be paid back. This is something like digging yourself out of a hole. The use of credit cards and debt has to be scaled back for forward progress to occur.
Conserve electricity in your home – as a father, I am constantly reminding my children to turn lights and electronics off or turning off the lights in their rooms and bathroom after they go to school. It can be frustrating, annoying and seemingly trivial, however, the impact shows up in the electric bill. Shutting off computers and other electronics when not in use for extended periods of time, adjusting the thermostat by one degree, and other conservation practices can add up to savings on your utility bills.
Combine shopping and other trips – energy comes up again and again when discussing sustainable living because it is at the core of what we do on a daily basis. Energy also accounts for a substantial part of household budgets. You can use less gasoline by combining errands, postponing an errand until you have several errands to run, locating more efficient routes of travel, and planning your route to reduce idle time as much as possible. Companies such as the post office and UPS have this savings strategy down to a science, and for good reason. Saving money and time means you have that extra money and time for something else.
Maintain your car properly – a happy car is much more efficient than one which needs attention. A car that is maintained well will last much longer, which means you have to spend less money on car repairs and purchases. A car that is maintained well is also more efficient and will use less gasoline.
Maintain your health – health care is also a major strain on household budgets, and one reason is ignoring healthy habits. Taking care of our bodies means we encounter fewer major medical issues and spend less money on health care.
Reduce spending habits – one often overlooked area of spending is on insurance. Insurance policies are sometimes sold based on the commissions agent serve rather than your needs. The majority of people do not fully understand the fundamentals of insurance, which can be very complex. Having a policy which does not suit your needs can mean you are paying too much in premiums. Eating out on a regular basis is also a major strain on household budgets. These are just two examples of how budgets can be upended.
Larger scale sustainability includes geothermal heating/cooling, solar energy, bio-fuels, home improvements to save energy costs, raising your own animals for meat and dairy products, and growing your own garden. However, these options are not available to everyone.

While we cannot change your habits for you, we can help you analyze your current spending habits and your personal financial matters and identify areas where you may be able to reduce spending and exercise basic sustainable living.

2. Sustainability on a Global Scale. One of my children received a very cheap digital camera for Christmas a couple years ago. She was very excited and wanted to take pictures of everything. Within a few days, the camera stopped working. The smile was gone, and she was very disappointed. All the pictures she had taken were lost, and the camera ended up in the garbage. We had recently upgraded our family digital camera, so I allowed her to use our old camera instead, which still works just as good as when we first bought it.

This is an example of unsustainability. When a company manufactures a product that is not made to last more than a few days, the plastic and other resources that went into making the product, the resources that went into building the manufacturing facility, the energy used to make the product, and the human capital all amounted to a waste, not to mention the money that was spent to buy the camera which also turned out to be a waste. Stores are full of products that are made poorly or are not made to last for very long, and this is nothing more than a form of transferring money. They are enticing you to give them your money in exchange for something that will not do what you want. This is unsustainable living.

Our ever expanding landfills are another example of unsustainability. Our nation is essentially importing products from other countries that wind up in our landfills in droves and handing over our cash in exchange. One can only wonder how long we can sustain this type of exchange.

In our government and national economy, perpetually printing money to finance government spending is an example of unsustainability. It is equivalent to continually relying on credit and debt to finance household spending. Yes, at some point it must all be paid back (with interest). Leaving economic problems and landfills for our children and grandchildren is not sustainable.

Relying on fossil fuel energy is also not sustainable because these resources will be exhausted some day. Many people believe that because these resources will still be available in their lifetimes it is not an issue for them to solve. However, it is still unsustainable. Large scale solar and wind farms, hydro-electric plants, and growing vegetation for liquid gasoline and diesel fuels are all examples of sustainable living on a global scale.

Concluding Thoughts

Not long ago I was watching a public television documentary on the education of mentally challenged high school age children. The process they used was quite interesting, and I was especially moved at how the educators were working with the students to prepare them for a productive and independent life after graduation. What bothered me, however, is the part where the educators were discussing training manuals written for transitioning students to independent living. They said the students could no longer be referred to as students but now had to be referred to as “consumers.” This they said is because they are becoming members of society at large and should not be treated as though they are still students in need of special help. They should be referred to as ordinary people.

The word “consumer” is every where from magazine titles to marketing campaigns to government reports. It is a word which sadly does fairly represent our society – a people who consume – however, it is more sinister than that. When members of society are told at an impressionable age that they are to consume and are taught to live their lives around consumption, it begins a viscious cycle of unsustainability.

If we are going to practice sustainable living, then we have to shed the label of “consumer” and once again see ourselves as ordinary people part of a global race of humanity. Consumption means to exhaust something, deplete and destroy. Once it is consumed it is gone. This is the complete opposite of sustainability because sustainable living seeks to minimize the long-term impact of our use of resources, whether it be our spending habits, use of credit and debt, or use of energy.

You would do well to be aware of the subtle ways in which the government and corporations would like to program your thinking because at its core lies a massive transfer of wealth.  It is transferring wealth from you, the person who buys products and uses energy, to corporations and the government, whether near or far.

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