Simplicity and the True Cost of Everything

The perennial wisdom that there is no free lunch holds for all things in our daily life — from what we eat, to how we shelter and clothe ourselves, to our education, our means of transportation, our vacations, and even how we entertain ourselves at home. But are we paying the true cost for these things and would it make any difference if we were?

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels

I’ve been an inordinate consumer for much of my life. Like so many well-paid people in affluent countries, I worked hard and, somewhat unconsciously, rewarded myself by buying the things I wanted that were within my means. I sometimes felt the disheartening dissonance of this materialism being out of keeping with my overall philosophical standpoint, but I tended to rationalize this with the aesthetic I adhered to. And I never gave much thought to the more global ramifications of my consumption.

Over the past few years I’ve become as strongly opinionated about de-consuming as I previously was oblivious to the effects of my consumption. But it doesn’t cost too much to be strongly opinionated. You just have to watch that your actions match your words to a greater degree as people tend to look more closely for the hypocrisy in those who are more strongly opinionated.

I do work to inform my opinions and I certainly have a solid factual foundation for my belief that the consumption levels of the developed countries are destroying our world, with the greatest effect falling first and foremost on the humans and other species of the less developed countries, i.e., those who have contributed the least to the problem. Still, the challenges and ramifications of my position weren’t nearly as clear to me as they’ve become since my recent reading of a book that covers the specifics of the issues involved with ending these levels of consumption as well as with not ending them. Thanks to The Day the World Stops Shopping, by J.B. MacKinnon, I’m now better educated on this topic about which I’ve so adamantly opined. There are, as we’ve always imagined, definite downsides to de-consumption, though some of these may be moved through to good sides again. Everything has its costs and trade-offs. Thanks to this book, I’m now better informed on both.

The title of MacKinnon’s book is somewhat deceptive. It’s compelling enough if you’re already interested in de-consumption (though a little clunky, MacKinnon’s term is a much less problematic one than de-growth), but readers who don’t shop much or don’t believe they consume much might pass it by and the book is about so much more than that.

Around the year 2000, consumption surpassed population as our species’ greatest environmental challenge. MacKinnon describes the consumer dilemma today as being as straightforward as the question of whether we can continue to sustain human life on Earth. Through the course of the book, consuming comes to be understood as much more than what we physically purchase. Consuming also includes all of the behind-the-scenes services and the better and worse trade-offs we’re making unconsciously every single day in everything we do. It’s these things that make our lives seem normal to us. MacKinnon calls this the “invisible or inconspicuous consumption” happening throughout the lives of so many people in affluent countries.

We’re engaged in inconspicuous consumption in much of what we tend to think of as experiences, but in fact they require services extended to us — for example, when we go to church, to a swimming pool, even when we watch a football game from our living room couch. And we consume through everyday taken-for-granted experiences like getting water from the sink or shower (even more so when it’s hot water) or taking in the advertising information conveyed through a commercial, a billboard, or an email, not to mention driving to the grocery store and then cooking a meal from what was acquired there. The climate-controlled temperature those of us with heating and air conditioning live and work in is also part of our endless inconspicuous consumption as is our internet and video-streaming services, doing the laundry, having our food delivered, and heating the outdoors with our patio heaters and fire-pits.

MacKinnon has done an impeccable job of researching the material for his book, but he has also written it in a way that keeps readers fascinated by what they’re learning and eager to see what aspect of the dilemma gets explored next. He does an excellent job of showing all sides of an issue we have no choice but to deal with. Still, it’s not a doom and gloom book (for that, please read the short Hothouse Earth by Bill McGuire if you ever fear you’re succumbing just a little to the omnipresent greenwashing of the facts about what’s happening to our world). In fact, MacKinnon goes back and forth on why we have to change and why it will be nearly impossible to do so, but both are nonetheless true. In the Kalahari Desert, Finland, Ecuador, Japan, and even in the United States, he finds examples that give us a clear and often inspiring picture of what a more sustainable future could look like. Most importantly, MacKinnon comes to the conclusion that these countercurrents to consumer culture match a resonance in most of us.

I hope you’ll read this book. It’s thought-provoking and enjoyable as it takes readers deeper into a topic so germane to our very survival as a species. But there are two specific take-aways from The Day the World Stops Shopping that I’ve been thinking a lot about and I want to explore them further here. One is the basic notion of choosing simplicity as a way of life and the other is about the more complex “true” cost of everything.

Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels

Choosing Simplicity

When we remember that every tonne of CO2e we’ve already emitted is breaking down our world today and thus every tonne of CO2e we’re emitting today is already dialed in for the future, it’s clear that we still have to do something regardless of the the fact that we’re late to take strong action. Even now, it isn’t too late to make the future better than it could be.

Considering the many ways people have attempted to live in better harmony with the natural world of which we’re a part, it’s hard to miss the hypocrisy on all of our parts as we barely glimpse the depths of our complicity in the issues MacKinnon explores. This is borne out in the study he cites that shows those who focused on simplifying their lives had a much more positive environmental impact than those who tried to live more greenly. It’s all so connected and complex that many of our best intentions have unintended yet surprisingly negative consequences. As MacKinnon explains it, “the authors of the study concluded that perhaps people who live with less, rather than those who live green, should be our role models for living more lightly on the earth.”

When one arrives at a feeling of “enoughness,” that person is most likely to exhibit “sufficiency behavior.” They’re no longer doing the calculus (whether consciously or unconsciously) weighing their good behavior to see if they have enough in the balance for a little “less good” behavior. A common example of this is buying a more fuel efficient car and then driving it more often than they did their former car. Often the good (or “green”) behaviors of the person experiencing “enoughness” spread into other areas of their life and they are soon making more and more choices that positively affect both their lives and the environment. They’re making voluntary choices to cut back and still be happy because they have a firm sense that they have enough already. (Unfortunately, these people don’t make up a large portion of the overall population in most countries.)

While the term “voluntary simplicity” was first used in the 1930s, it was until the late 1980s/early 1990s that the idea spawned a social movement, albeit a relatively small one. The pandemic sparked a second wave of this movement as many people were backed into an “opportunity” to take a look at what did and did not bring them a sense of well-being. This is admittedly a somewhat privileged exercise for people with some room for choice in their life. Still, even for these people, the existence of choice doesn’t necessarily feed the feeling that one actually has real choices. To that end, the word “voluntary” has great meaning when it’s paired with simplicity. At some point, many people everywhere and throughout time have been forced to simplify (whatever that meant given the time and situation) due to circumstances beyond their control. Voluntary simplicity requires the courage to choose to let go of too many things, of too many people, of unfulfilling occupations and preoccupations, of unrewarding events and distractions, and so on, based solely on the unforced decision to do so. Voluntary simplicity is about the choice to fill our time, our space, our life with just the things that matter to us and to intentionally carry a much smaller footprint on the planet.

Simplicity is not a quality most of my family members or friends would associate with me. A value for complexity is much more likely to be on a list of my defining characteristics. But just as I’ve moved in the past few years from a long period of over-consumption to one strongly advocating for de-consumption, so too have I moved toward a deep appreciation for the strength and integrity inherent in the personal decision to voluntarily move one’s life firmly in the direction of simplicity. For me the draw has been largely two-fold. I’ve come to value my time over most other things, and I’m working diligently toward making my own world more in balance with nature such that I’m not an out-sized contributor to the havoc climate disasters wreak on others and the planet today or in the future. But I also resonate deeply with the desire to live more consciously as well as more independently, not controlled by the societally-influenced desires I may not authentically relate to.

Of course the systemic changes must still happen, but as individuals, I’m realizing that one of the most important things for those of us fortunate enough to be able to do so is to reside in a place we love, and thus we’re content to stay in that locale. Once in the right place, the work is to build a life within it that is simple and fulfilling, healthy, and happy. Then we won’t need to travel or consume in all the other ways, and we can focus on taking care of ourselves, the people and the natural world around that place. In itself it’s a very local plan, but imagine if more of us did just that . . .

The True Cost of Everything

The second point I want to highlight from MacKinnon’s book stems from a question he asked Amanda Rinderle of Tuckerman. & Co., maker of highly-sustainable dress shirts: If she could use a magic wand to change one thing in order to help create an economy of better but less, what would that one thing be? After some thought, she responded that she would make prices tell the truth. That is, if goods and services were required to be priced at the true cost of those goods and services — not just the overt costs of producing them — then we have our best chance of moving toward real and systemic de-consumption so that we’re actually consuming at a sustainable level. Rinderle also knew this would be no small task.

As I’ve reflected on what a difficult accomplishment this truly would be, I’ve also thought about what an incredibly value-added effort it would be if the various industries around the world, paired with the data bases of watchdog organizations, were required to come up with those true costs of everything. Then, if people were committed to doing so, they could use the information to start working on their own “true” impact budget.

Done right and, ultimately, implemented with regulatory requirements, this effort could make a world-changing difference. Imagine requiring all industries to tell the full truth of the cost of their goods and services, to include the actual consequences of production and consumption so that there would be the regular supply and demand price for Materials + Manufacturing + Marketing + Shipping, and then there would be the societal externalities price of production and consumption that equated to Air and Water Pollution + Land Degradation + CO2e emissions + cost to Biodiversity and Species Extinction + damage to Human Health + contribution to Climate Effects like wildfire, flooding, sea level rise, and drought + Waste accumulation.

Cheap prices are deceptive. A cheaper item is actually costing each of us much more than we realize or would want to pay. Currently, societies around the world shoulder the costs of these externalities. Determining and communicating the true cost of everything begins to change that. At this initial point, the regulatory requirements would simply be about labeling to educate consumers. But look what that did for raising awareness on nutritional issues. The people living in poverty generally can’t make much change based on awareness, whether of nutritional facts or environmental ones, but people living in poverty are not the problem when it comes to the climate crisis. We need to affect the more consumptive consumers. The teenagers and adults throwing away the cheaply priced fast fashion often without ever wearing it, as well as the Taylor Swifts jetting around the world for dinner, need to understand the true cost of everything. They may look away at first but, over time, they probably won’t. And we — you and I — also need to know this true cost. We need to demand it.

Part of the beauty of labeling the true cost of everything (and ultimately having it be required for every product and service) is that it uncovers the false face of capitalism without directly working to get rid of the economic system. It’s a systemic approach that includes individuals in the decision-making of our purchases. And this happens not just once, as with a vote, but every single time we consume anything. It doesn’t necessarily change the price of things (though it would be ideal if it did and that extra money went to those affected by the true costs), but rather it informs consumers of what they’re in reality contributing to for themselves and their children, for their neighbors and the people and species across the world from them, every time they think they want something. Okay, I can have this, but this is what it really means to do so, to have it produced for me. Do I still want it? There’s no more obfuscation regarding the total impact, no more greenwashing about how sustainable the product is. There’s no more magical thinking about how sustainable my own purchases and overall lifestyle are.

If this seems impossible to imagine, it might come as a revelation that France is planning to be the first country to roll-out this kind of labeling on clothes next year. Their goal is to require all clothing to carry a label about the piece’s precise climate impact so that customers can make more sustainable choices. Debates are ongoing about how and what data will be communicated and what the label will look like as well as what size companies will fall under the legal mandate. While France will go first in 2023, the rest of the EU is expected to follow by 2026.

Contributing an estimated 10 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the clothing industry is a worthy candidate for this kind of labeling. But in the end, addressing the climate crisis will require a populace informed on the true cost of everything. And not just in Europe. We need to keep marching beyond this laudable first step and take this proof of concept all the way, applying it to all goods produced and services rendered.

A recurring battle cry of climate advocacy is for accountability. The legal mandate to communicate the true cost of everything is a just demand for accountability. Every company will have to collect the required data from all the purveyors in every step of their production process. In almost every case, it will be the first time these companies themselves learn the actual cost of their products and services. More than providing the information (and accountability) to their customers, this information also shows the company where they can redesign and restructure so that they can create more sustainable products and services.

But a better informed consumer needs an additional piece of information. They need to know what they can buy instead if the labels before them all appear to provide unsustainable products. Without an alternative, there is paralysis and nothing changes. Labeling the true cost of everything shows us who is doing better than others (or than they themselves were doing previously), but consumers will want to start seeing a better value for their money. Right now, truly sustainable quality products like the shirts made by Tuckerman & Co. are not cost competitive. Making prices tell the truth begins to change that as organic cotton grown with a concern for regenerating the soil would cost the same or maybe less than cotton grown with fertilizers that damage the air and water and pesticides that harm both people and wildlife. The consumer would then buy less shirts but they would last longer and be better for the planet. This would be true of all products and services as they are produced sustainably, priced accordingly, and designed to last. It would mean the end of planned obsolescence. A small portion of the population can shop this way now, but recreating our consumptive world will require changing the entire system within which everyone consumes.

Photo by Sam Lion at Pexels

It’s in support of a false dichotomy when we debate who must shoulder the blame and take responsibility for addressing the climate crisis. Many climate advocates stress that the big corporate offenders have spent billions to sell us on our individual need to recycle or to stop using plastic bags and straws to divert us from the fact that the big companies themselves are the real problem. But ultimately it’s the aggregate of individual consumers who pay these mega-offenders to do so on our behalf. And doing so is so much the water we swim in that having so much more, on average, than most of the rest of the world, and thus adding so much more to the problem, feels like nothing but normal to too many of us. At an average of 25 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per person (and please note, this is not representative so much of an “average” American as it is of the one-fifth that are emitting at levels high enough to cover about one-third of the country’s overall household emissions), Americans are putting out 5 times the average of a person living elsewhere on the planet (thirteen times as much if it is a person living in an underdeveloped country). Meanwhile, the requirement to achieve a sustainable Earth is 2 tons per person. The behaviors that perpetuate our unnecessarily excessive lifestyles must change just as those of the corporations profiting from these behaviors must.

And believe it or not, there are a few countries with an even higher per capita contribution. After them, large land-mass countries like Canada and Australia sit right there with the United States. Europe, Japan, and South Korea follow closely behind. But few people in these countries have a recent memory of, or a new model for, a different way of living. All we can conceive of is some version of poverty, of having to give up things we imagine are critical to our well-being. It won’t be enough to simply change how energy is generated. We’ll have to change ourselves in order to live contentedly in a very different world.

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