The rise of the un-consumer

How much of what you buy do you really need – or use?

Home Life Lifestyle wellness The rise of the un-consumer

The past few years have seen some unexpected consumer trends. The fall and rise of the foreign vacation. The explosion of interest in the once-humble bicycle. The home baking craze. And let's not forget the $415 designer face mask. Yet when it comes to our unpredictable retail behaviour, there's a growing trend to beat them all: buying nothing at all. Buying nothing is not just about simplifying your life, it is also about rethinking how your individual consumption resonates with the wider world. So how far can anyone go in buying nothing?

Do you really need that takeaway coffee?

There's no doubt that a significant amount of household spending is on non-essentials. One recent survey calculated that the average American spends around $18,000 a year on things they don't strictly need – like takeaway coffees and meals
That non-essential spending may even include things that the buyer never uses, things such as gym memberships (one estimate is that almost a fifth of gym memberships remain unused) and extra TV streaming services (7 per cent of Americans are paying for six or more different ones).

Whether or not you manage to watch all that television or drink all that takeaway coffee, it adds up to a lot of money on things that could quite easily be forgone. Over an average adult lifetime, $18,000 a year adds up to more than $1 million. It would be even more money if you included things that are not exactly non-essential, but not absolutely needed either. A new pair of jeans? An upgrade for your mobile phone? Those fancy shoes?

For some people these are just the things that make up the texture of life. But for others they are symptoms of overheated consumption that is running too hot for the health of the planet.

The rise of ‘non-primary' goods

It is a striking fact that an estimated 60 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to households' consumption of goods. And according to a widely-cited academic research paper in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, it is rising demand for ‘non-primary' – or non-essential – goods that is driving much of the rise in adverse environmental impacts.

In plain language that means people in richer countries are buying more and more of what they like but don't really need, and the planet is paying the price.

And it is at this point that the ‘un-consumer' enters the picture. The un-consumer may be a distant relative of the minimalist who lives with a small number of carefully-chosen possessions, but the un-consumer goes much further. The un-consumer's slogan is ‘Buy Nothing' – except the necessities of survival.

What counts as ‘nothing'?

That means no new clothes, no new furniture, no new electronics, no luxuries. Although it sounds simple, as with all philosophies Buy Nothing can quickly get complicated.

There are different rules for what counts as ‘nothing' and there are Facebook groups and Buy Nothing gurus to follow for more advice. Some practise Buy Nothing for a day, a month or a year. Some have even set themselves the target of giving away the same number of possessions as the number of the year – which means disposing of 2,023 things this year. But everyone agrees on the importance of fixing things when they are broken.

A cynic might ask, what does buying nothing actually achieve in the real world, where global warming and environmental degradation are increasingly tangible threats?

That is difficult to calculate. But it remains a fact that household spending accounts for somewhere between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of all use of land, materials and water, which means that half or more of the world's total environmental stress load is being generated by ordinary consumption.

There are never going to be easy, simple remedies that reverse climate change or protect the planet. But it may be that buying nothing, even if only for a while, is actually doing something.


Illustration by Elisa Macellari