A couple Christmases ago, my partner and I gathered all our new items, graciously gifted by our family, into the center of the living room to take stock. We had all of these little stocking stuffers and larger gifts - soaps, lotions, keychains, gadgets, toys, camping gear, hand sanitizer, candy, pens, and more. We stared at the floor in disbelief. It's not that we weren't grateful, it was just that we didn't ask for any of it. We already had a drawer full of soap and lotion gifted to us over the years, still untouched. Most of this pile, we knew, would never come out of the plastic it was wrapped in.
We felt awful. Like, sick over it, awful. We had always been taught that regifting was rude. We were always just supposed to smile and say "thank you." It's a courtesy to get a gift of any kind from anyone, and we should always, always accept and be grateful. So we groveled and argued and continued to feel bad, conflicted over whether to get over ourselves and use the stuff, or shove it in a box somewhere, or trash it altogether. That Christmas, we ended up donating nearly all of the items to our local youth shelter. They certainly needed it all more than we did.
I'm not saying not to be thankful and courteous in the face of gifts that you never really wanted or asked for. Of course, I don't want anyone to tell Grandma off for buying you yet another Bath and Body Works body spray that you haven't used since 2010. But what I am saying is that we need to have these conversations with our loved ones in advance, so that we can be more clear on what will really be valued and used. For generations now, the holidays have seemed to put quantity way over quality. Right here at the start of America's highest season of consumerism, there is no better time to discuss why, and how, we need to put an end to this.
Can we get more present with our own needs? Can we listen to our friends and family more deeply, in order to really know what they desire? Can we please end the trend of overconsumption and find a way to embrace joy and community as humans once did, rather than stuff?
What is overconsumption?
When we think about the word, it can take a lot of forms and definitions. In fact, when discussing this topic with my partner last night, he asked whether I was going to write about "overconsumption in products, or overconsumption of food?" (I laughed, because I could probably use a lesson or two in both, but it's not my business to tell you how to eat 😎). In any case, for the purposes of this post, I'm talking about the act shopping in excess. When we talk about hyperconsumerism, especially around the holiday season, it looks like making sure all the kids' and relatives' stockings are stuffed, that the tree base can't be seen through all the boxes, and that everyone in the family feels like the amount of gifts they got was equal and fair. Of course, this isn't what the holidays look like for every family, but it is most certainly a pressure put on American adults with families to care for. We want everyone to have the perfect Christmas. We want everyone to feel satisfied.
And there is nothing wrong with that inherent desire - the sudden realization that we actually like giving more than receiving. But it goes south, quickly, in a culture that so desperately tries to sell us the idea that we need the product we're seeing. We'll regret missing out on this sale! Everything is limited, and you need it NOW!
Why is it a problem?
To be frank, I would need a full day to list out all the problems of overconsumption, and I would need a lot of time to research. Thankfully, this topic is becoming much more visible, and there are tons of resources out there to learn how to break the cycle. This article from Popular Science does a great job explaining both the history of hyperconsumerism and its consequences - some of which, we're already facing. Take this introduction to their article, "Overconsumption, explained:"
Shoes are made up of rubber, which many producers source from trees across Thailand, Indonesia, China, and West Africa. The industry relies on millions of workers to feed the demand, which translates to the production of more than 13 million metric tons of rubber in 2020.
Those trees are now in fragile supply, but that’s just part of the problem. Shoes stick around in landfills a lot longer than we’d expect. On average, it takes 30 to 40 years for a pair to decompose. One material often used in sneakers—a synthetic chemical composition called ethylene vinyl acetate—can persist for up to 1,000 years in landfills.
While PopSci covers the issue of climate change (which is undoubtedly the most important reason to break our nasty consumerist habits), there are also issues of greed, gluttony, and ever-increasing expectations in our culture that work against us in fighting off overconsumption. Influencers are literally paid to sell us products, and the younger generations know little else than to believe that they need it. Don't get me wrong - this was still a problem when I was a child. I remember screaming "I WANT THAT!!!" every time a new Bratz doll commercial came out on Nickelodeon. That said, the absolutely constant nature of being exposed to these sneaky, aesthetic advertisements today begs the question of how anyone on the internet isn't much more "influenced" than they were by the television in 2005. We can't stop, and they won't stop.
There you have it: From environmental concerns, to the clutches of the media and cultural influence, and in the larger picture - prioritizing profit over anything else - overconsumption is bad news. We're all falling for it now, but it wasn't long ago in our history that our realities looked much simpler.
How did we get here?
It's something I've mentioned in a lot of my work now, but hyperconsumerism as we know it, along with practically all of our media usage trends, is still a relatively new thing. Online shopping only became the norm with the likes of Amazon Prime starting in the mid 2010's - maybe only a decade or so ago. Of course, leading up to that we have made a lot of changes to the ways we collectively shop for the holidays and beyond. Black Friday in its modern context only became popular in the late 1980's; though I'd like to think it's actually on its way out about forty years later, its remnants still show up in small-business Saturday (a much lesser evil) and Cyber Monday. And before then, we've been leading up to the amount of consumerism we now partake in from commercials constantly blasting us on television, trends in fashion and home goods going in and out, pressure to keep up with said trends, and a lack of knowledge in how to avoid the single-use and non-renewable resources it all requires.
Since the Industrial Revolution, many of the issues we now face with insane overconsumption were bound to happen. Many of the products and practices we now see as harmful were praised as the cheapest, most convenient, most effective in the market just a few decades ago (looking at you, plastic). In a way, it's comforting to know that this pattern repeats itself all throughout human history. We become more aware, and we do something about it. In the grand scheme of things, it hasn't been all that long since our culture dug itself into the massive trench of overconsumption. I'd like to believe that we still have time to make things right.
How do we get out?
As with many problems we face in the current collective, breaking the habit of mass consumerism is going to take a lot of conscious effort, hard conversations, and cumulative change. The good news is, we are at a perfect point to begin this work. If you celebrate Christmas, or any holiday that involves gift-giving, now is the perfect time to have a discussion with your loved ones about the practices you want to implement, and what your hopes are as they shop for you. It may be uncomfortable at first, especially if your family is really into the stocking stuffers, but here are a few things you could consider chatting about to help you get started:
Identifying local stores and/or small businesses you love and want to support - have your people look there, rather than on Amazon or the like
Specifying the kinds of things you actually need or have wanted for a long time, and, if necessary, providing the exact name or a direct link to the item
Being clear and direct about the things you DON'T need - especially if the item is a frequent flyer from your family
Taking stock of the above on your own time - in other words, really looking through your clothing items, gadgets, jewelry, toiletries, household items, and any other products to determine whether you need a new addition to any of these
If your loved ones go hard with the plastic containers and wrapping paper, consider asking if they would limit their usage
Hopefully this covers the gifts you may generously receive, but what about you? Do you partake in any habits of overconsumption? Though this is a passionate subject for me, I'd be lying if I told you I strictly only ever buy things I need, or that I never ever use Amazon, or that I've been successfully plastic-free all year long. Hell no. In our culture, these things are practically impossible to avoid altogether, but there are most certainly things we can think about with more care and awareness to ease our own footprint and sever ties with hyperconsumerism. It's a journey we should all be taking if we want to curb the climate crisis, or the influencing epidemic, to any degree.
I'll leave you with a post from @environment on Instagram I saw the other day that I absolutely loved. To not only have these conversations with loved ones, but also with yourself, can absolutely spark massive change. We just have to commit to it. Here are some hard-hitting questions to ask yourself the next time you want to partake in a little retail therapy, just for the hell of it. Read through, think about it, and be well as you shop, spend, and give this holiday season! I'm thinking we'll get a part two to this conversation soon 🤍