All stuff tells a story

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In my last article, I asked you to do an exercise: to take a sheet of paper and divide your monthly expenditures into what you need to spend your money on, what you want to spend your money on and what you could save. If you were honest with yourself in making these three columns, then what you have in the “want” column will indicate what you can potentially save to put towards debt reduction.

One way of underscoring the difference between what we want versus what we need is to watch a brilliant and disturbing account of just where all our stuff comes from and where it goes, as well as how quickly our stuff becomes disposable in secondary or tertiary use. This column is an invitation — a dare, if you will — to rethink our consumer behaviour. The movie that I would recommend to help you get started is The Story of Stuff.

Made in 2007 by Annie Leonard, an American sustainability activist and filmmaker, this short film is a graphic presentation of where the stuff we buy comes from, how it is created, how long we use it and where it ends up. By “graphic” I mean that while Leonard speaks, an invisible hand writes on a white board, drawing pictures as she narrates. It caught my attention when it first came out because one of my children was doing a school project on consumption. It made me rethink what I buy, why I buy and how I can change my spending habits. Perhaps the movie’s most dramatic moment occurs when a box is drawn around a small part of the display, which demonstrates our narrow view of the entire process, and therefore our ignorance. From coffee cups to cars, Leonard takes examples, shows their life cycle and demonstrates the imperative of examining our spending habits chiefly in terms of their environmental impact. She also shows that a change of mind and heart about our spending habits will have a dramatic effect upon our savings over time.

Once we thoroughly grasp the life cycle of all our stuff and the constant demand of the debt/consumption cycle (in which we often seem to run blithely like rats in one of those plastic balls), our view of need versus want will change. Human beings crave to be known as individuals, and many of us, I suspect, think we are. However, many of us are caught in the cycle so powerfully that we are actually just one of the rats in the balls. Are you someone who thinks for themselves, including the financial choices you make, or are you one of the ubiquitous herd?

I am not contending that we should all become luddites. Rather, any of our choices, especially our financial ones, need to be made in a state of awareness of what they mean. We should not be driven by immediate gratification, but by our long-term goals and the state of our planet and our island home.

When we start to make conscious decisions about need versus want and begin to protect our planet from our habits, we will also be able to build up our own financial assets more quickly, thus protecting ourselves and our loved ones.

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