Why do we buy to waste?

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Like many people I hate waste and have always been quite frugal. I work hard and hate to see my money going to waste. That’s why it is so painful for me when I get caught out by the many pitfalls of being a consumer today.

Despite my best efforts I seem predestined to repeatedly make one of two mistakes:

I grow too attached to unimportant items and I fail to recognise the really important purchasing decisions when they come along so I make rash choices that haunt me later.

Who doesn’t have shelves and shelves of CDs collecting dust, (apart from young people presumably)? Once loved now ignored, we rent our possessions room in our homes which we could take back and enjoy ourselves if only we had the will power. My loft, the bottom of that wardrobe, the drawer full of clothes that don’t fit and never will: they are all mini landfill sites. And unlike the proper municipal landfill site you pay for it every month because that stuff is robbing you of space.

If we store so much waste in our home because we love our stuff too much, how on earth are Britons managing to send so much to landfill?  As a nation we waste 177million tonnes a year. How is it possible that people who are willing to hang-on to everything from badminton rackets to Take That’s Greatest Hits are still managing to generate over two tonnes of trash a year?

I think part of the answer lies in the fact that we no longer have an emotional attachment to many of the items we should. Our heads are getting tricked and our hearts are getting lost.

Mobile phone upgrades are a classic example. It’s estimated that when it comes to technology 13.5% of the population are ‘early adopters’, the ones who queue overnight outside an Apple store in anticipation of the latest iPhone launch. These people are consuming more because they enjoy having the latest gadgets.

The rest of us are just happy with a phone that works and is durable and will often only replace it when it either dies or becomes too slow or annoying and so we are being driven to consume by the fact that the products have, often built in, obsolescence.

I think there is another less talked about driver of consumption – the speed at which we choose our new possessions.

I recently renegotiated my phone contract. By the time I’d settled on a contract and price, I was so bored, angry and exhausted I decided on which mobile phone model I’d have in about 2 minutes. As a result I’ve ended up with a phone I really hate – it bleeps during calls and flashes constantly at night. Because I made a quick decision under pressure, I chose badly. Worse than having no attachment to this object I actively despise it and can’t wait to be rid.

We can now buy stuff at the click of a button often based on very little information. Whereas in the past important purchases came with a strong signal that said: “hey don’t mess up here” you can now make significant investments with greater ease than buying a coffee.

It took me a week of research to choose my beloved road bike, 6 months to buy a flat and 9 months to plan my wedding. Yes, there was an investment of time but my decisions have so far served me very well. But those are the easy ones: each of those came with significant financial cost. A clear signal to pay attention, but what about the times when the cost is low but the price is high?

If we want to save money, consume less and not get stuck with dreadful, dreadful phones, we need to change our buying culture. We need to give more consideration to the benefits we will derive from a purchase, in particular, how much am I likely to use this item? If you use something a lot like your mobile phone then it’s worth investing time in research upfront to make your life easier day to day.

Of course we aren’t the only ones to blame. Companies need to give us better information and more time to make decisions, and we need to better understand the pros and cons of our choices. But industry won’t give us that information unless we demand it and reward the guys that are forth coming.

At the end of the day, designers and manufactures don’t go home and think: “Lovely, I just made a load more crap that will soon be landfill”. As human beings we want to be proud of what we do and we want to contribute positively to the lives of others. Gary Barlow makes music, not CDs, and I’m sure wouldn’t begrudge me if I sent my CDs away to be recycled (providing I then of course bought Never Forget on MP3 for those occasions when nothing but Take That will do).

There are other numerous drivers of waste – stuff is cheap and advertisers are very clever at encouraging us to buy more. But we also don’t help ourselves by making quick decisions. If you take the time to plan what you want, I’m sure you will find that not only do you get better value for money, but you will be much happier with the decisions you make.

This blog first appeared online for 2Degrees Community on the 21st March 2014.

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