One Small Step: buy less stuff


For challenge 2 in One Small Step, our simple sustainability journey,  I ratcheted up the challenge level a few notches.

Because oh, my, if this one doesn’t get to the heart of the matter–on so many levels.

When we master this step, our impact spills over into all of the other sustainability goals that we may have (like generating less trash, using less fossil fuels, etc.). I’m not going to lie–this step is a doozy. And while I might have waited until we were a little more warmed up, today felt like the right time–especially as here in America, Black Friday looms ever nearer.

This week’s challenge? Buy less stuff. 


Less clothing, less housewares, less gadgets, less toys–less stuff.

Because when we buy fewer things, both we and the earth benefit. We learn to make due, we learn to make repairs, we learn to make connections. And we lighten our impact on the earth in countless ways.

And when we buy fewer things we may just discover how little we truly need, and how–not surprisingly–we’re happier without all the excess.

Less things mean less resource extraction, less pollution, less human exploitation, less packaging, and less obsolete products heading to the landfill. It’s a win on every level.

But is it easier said than done?

Not if we shift our habits and think clearly about what and why we’re buying. And then start in earnest from where you stand today. You don’t need to become a zero waste master to participate. You only need to begin.


Why we buy + the business of selling

Why we shop is a pandora’s box of human nature. Your reasons and mine are surely different, but for most of us it’s often more than just filling a tangible, physical need.

We’re not only buying necessities. And in most cases, the things that we buy leave our lives as rapidly as they came. Just 6 months after purchase, only 1% of the things we buy are still in use! 1%!*

So why are we buying–then tossing–so much stuff in America and western society in general? For most of us, one or more of the “why we buy” reasons below are at the root of their purchases. (Confession: even I relate to some of these.)

Why We Buy

  • Marketing makes promises that compels us to buy
  • Shopping is entertaining or fun
  • We feel an emotional lift when we buy
  • We’re in a hurry and don’t have time to seek out a more sustainable solution
  • We are disorganized and can’t find the things we already own
  • Convenience drives our purchases
  • We don’t want to disappoint a child or other loved one by not buying
  • We’re trying to buy the intangible (a feeling)
  • We don’t want to miss out

But when we find healthier ways to navigate our complex human emotions and look objectively at our purchases before we make them, we can unplug from the cycle of mindless consumption.

Only then can our purchases can be needs-driven, and can we can look more objectively at the stuff we welcome into our lives.


The Business of Selling

When I was a business coaching client, one of the primary messages our coach drove home was this: You never sell a product. You only sell a feeling.

Happiness, belonging, abundance, beauty, love, relaxation, joy, freedom, fun, health. These are the feelings we are seeking when we buy new Ipods and jewelery, pressure cookers and blenders, dress shoes and gaming systems. And while there is truth that sometimes we buy things that deliver those feelings, mostly they miss the mark.

Because we can’t buy joy, belonging, abundance, or any of those feelings. We can only buy things that–for a fleeting moment–help us tap us into that emotion. Then the feeling fades and we’re searching (or shopping) once more, in an effort to regain it.

But when we keep our money in our pockets and find other paths to entertainment and connection, we are far happier than when we attempt to shop our way there. And the earth reaps the rewards when we make this shift as well.


Buying Less: a simple how-to

Buying less is a deceptively simple challenge, because you decide how far you want to go. Do you have to be zero-waste and shun all things new? Of course not. In order to participate, all you have to do is begin. Then move as slowly (or as quickly) as you wish toward less shopping, less buying, less stuff.

The seven steps below will help you stay focused and mindful about the things you purchase, and ease your transition toward less consumption. (One afflink follows the irony of which is not lost on me). 

1. Use what you have

So often we’re lured by faster, fancier, newer, shinier. But is more really better? Before you buy, decide if you truly need that new item. Sometimes a one week waiting period will help cool your fire, and you’ll realized that you don’t need it after all (this is why most sales run for a short period of time, to seduce you into buying things immediately before you have a chance to think more objectively about your purchase).

Avoid items that only do one job (I’m looking at you, banana slicer), and extend the useful life of your belongings by repairing them when they break or tear (this booklet and this book have been such a gift for us for upping our mending game).

2. Borrow what you can

We all don’t need to own all the things that we use. Just last week, my daughter called up one of our friends to ask if we could borrow their angel food cake pan. We borrowed it for her birthday (the second time in six years), then returned it the next week when we were in the neighborhood.

Borrowing not only reduces the number of things we each must own, store, maintain, and clean, it helps build community and connection when we borrow from friends and neighbors. Win-win!


3. Choose second hand

If you do decide you wish to own something (say, if I’m suddenly hooked on angel food cake, and baking one every week), seek out that item second-hand before buying new. Second-hand goods are an environmentally sustainable choice, because your purchase keeps someone else’s buying decision out of the landfill.

Thrifting the things that we need can take time and patience, so plan ahead. Keep an eye out for a suitably sized pair of snow pants before that blizzard hits, for example. I often thrift with a list of items we’re in need of, knowing that it might take a few months of patient searching before we tick everything off the list. When my kids were younger, I kept a list in my wallet of the items and sizes that we needed for future season’s clothing, footwear, and outerwear. It helped prevent me from buying duplicates, while stocking up for the months to come.

Yard sales, thrift stores, and even clothing swaps are all great options for picking up some low-impact, second-hand goods.

4. Make you own

While it is not always possible, there are many instances when you can DIY an item off of your shopping list (bonus points of you can use some upcycled materials). You don’t have to be crafty to follow a simply online tutorial for whacking together a shelf, knitting up some mittens, or stitching yourself a zip bag.

If you’ve never made things before, this challenge is a great opportunity to develop some of this skills that your great-grandfather and great-grandmother had. Learning to work with a hammer and saw, a sewing machine, or a needle and thread will give you a skill you can use for a lifetime. Connect with a crafty friend or neighbor to learn some new skills, or contact your local university extension or folk school for assistance.


5. Where from?

So you’ve looked over the list above, and decided that you really do need to purchase something new. (It happens to all of us, more often than we’d like.) What now?

Before you dive in, consider where the item you purchase is from. Where it was made (and from what), where it has traveled, and where you choose to buy it all matter, and all impact the environmental footprint of your purchase.

Was your product made on the other side of the planet, or closer to home? Is it made of sustainable materials, or synthetics? Is it toxic or nontoxic? In each of these decisions, choose the past of lowest impact when your options and budget allow.

Remember, a high quality item will be more expensive today, but cheaper (and more sustainable) in the long run, because it won’t need replacement as soon as a cheaper model will.

Consider the packaging as well. If you have a choice that’s free of excessive packaging and another that’s shrink-wrapped, bubble-packed, and triple bagged, choose the first option.

And finally, if you have the choice between buying from a big box store (online or otherwise) or a small, locally owned shop, choose the latter.

6. Shop with a list

When you embark to make your purchase, let your shopping list serve as your force field. Don’t be distracted by the cute, shiny, fast, fancy new products that call to you with their seductive siren songs as you walk through Target. Buy what’s on the list, and only what’s on the list. Jot down things that call to you, and come back in a week (or a month) if you really need them.

7. Give conscious gifts

And finally, give better gifts. Our kids don’t need more plastic toys, we don’t need more whirring gadgets. Don’t throw the planet under the bus because you feel obligated to buy a present. Instead, give mindfully.

One blog reader here mentioned that she’s gifting freezer meals to her loved ones this year. We handcraft most of our gifts, and also give our sustainable body care. Consumable gifts and zero-waste gifts are always a win. Or make thoughtful donations to organizations doing good out there in the world.

Need more ideas? I shared 101 toy-free children’s gift ideas here, and many of them are zero-consumption/zero-waste, to boot.

What would you add to the list above? How do you keep too much stuff from coming into your life, especially at this time of year? 

* Only 1% of items purchased new are still in use after 6 months. Did this statistic blow your mind like it did mine? Watch the full video below for more staggering facts, and inspiration on why less stuff is good for the planet (and for our happiness).


You can find the entire One Small Step series here, or click through below for individual posts below.

One Small Step: a year of small actions with huge impact

Swap Plastic Bottles of Soap for Bars (plus a DIY liquid recipe)


4 thoughts on “One Small Step: buy less stuff

  1. Brett Elizabeth says:

    I like how you laid out this article in an easy to consume format. This topic can be one that makes people’s stomachs turn as they try to digest the concept of leaving consumerism and the standard American gift giving process behind. Thank you for sparking some fresh ideas in my own mind as we head into gift giving insanity in our house with two birthdays, a wedding, an anniversary and Christmas bam bam bam.

    One thing our family has really enjoyed getting and giving are experiences: zoo passes, restaurant gift cards, children’s Museum passes, overnight accommodations, and even just things like 12 coupons for spousal foot massages one for each month or date night with Dad tickets that you create on your own. Things are nice when you need them or they are going to get used over and over again… thinking of getting your suggested books for a couple family and friends and I’m nearing the “I don’t own any socks” level again. 🙂

    Thanks again and have a very happy sustainable joy filled holiday season.

  2. Genie says:

    Ooh, this is a good one!

    As my parents used to put it:

    Use it up
    Wear it out
    Make it do
    Do without.

    I’d add that, for me, another significant benefit of buying less stuff is that I have less stuff to get rid of later on. In my family, the process of purging alternates between easy and torturous (for so many reasons). Anything we can do to simplify the process of simplifying is so worth trying!

    • Rachel Wolf says:

      Yes to all of this, friend! We’re still digging out here. And oh, my. It’s exhausting and wonderful to let all the excess go. But how much lighter we would be, had we never buried ourselves to begin with.

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