Accumulating Mountains of Things

Alana Semuels of The Attlantic penned an article on August 21, 2018 titled ‘We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things:’ How online shopping and cheap prices are turning Americans into hoarders.

I've pasted a few highlights / disturbing statistics below. Our Mindful Materials summit on September 15 will address some of these concerns. Hope to see you there to continue the dialogue and identify ways we can get involved and make a difference.

Ms. Semuels quotes Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, explaining that one of the reasons we buy clothing we don't *need* is because it is so "inexpensive" (ed: quotes mine) we don't have to consider the cost. The problem with this way of thinking, of course, is that it conflates the amount of money we have to spend for something with its value. That is a false equivalency that has been taught many/most of us who live in capitalist markets / in the modern age / in industrialized countries. 

When we actually consider the value of something by what it provides us: shelter, warmth, protection, some measure of functionality, even intangible value such as a sense of identity or comfort in belonging, AND the amount of human labor that went into making it (from milling the cotton, through sewing and delivery and the numerous steps in between) AND its impact on the environment: the amount of water used, fuel burned, trees cut, and more, we realize that there is no such thing as "inexpensive" clothing.

Semuels further reminds us that what we're really buying when we're online shopping is the dopamine hit. I'm overstating her conclusion because this experience is one of my personal a-ha moments, but the science is true. We buy online, we get a pleasure rush. It's the same juice that feeds the video gaming industry and most other forms of addiction. It's an evolutionary advantage – I should write it "was" an advantage – but too much pleasure seeking morphs into that old adage about what you once used to survive will become the thing that kills you.

  • Americans spent, on average, $971.87 on clothes last year, buying nearly 66 garments, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. That’s 20 percent more than they spent in 2000.

  • At the same time we are amassing all this stuff, Americans are taking up more space. Last year, the average size of a single-family house in America was 2,426 square feet, a 23 percent increase in size from two decades ago, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

  • The number of self-storage units is rapidly increasing, too: There are around 52,000 such facilities nationally; two decades ago, there were half that number.

  • In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, Americans put 16 million tons of textiles in the municipal waste stream, a 68 percent increase from 2000. We tossed 34.5 million tons of plastics, a 35 percent increase from 2000, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Over that same time period, the population grew just 14 percent.

  • Cline estimates that 85 percent of the clothing that is donated to secondhand stores ends up in landfills every year.

  • Just 9 percent of plastic that ends up in the municipal-waste stream gets recycled, according to the EPA, and only 15 percent of textiles get recycled.