What Are Your Personal Luxuries?

A world of less consumption requires rethinking the notion of luxury as part of evaluating the true cost of everything. But that’s completely counter to centuries of history relative to luxury and how its sold to us today.

Note: The following is best read on a larger device, or, if you prefer, it can be read online at:  https://theprinciplesofbeing.com/2023/05/24/what-are-your-personal-luxuries/

Photo by Tamas Pap on Unsplash

The idea of our personal “luxuries” seems to be driving some of what we, individually and collectively, don’t want to give up relative to our current lifestyles. I mean this in the sense of how a person doesn’t want to give up ice cream because “it’s a luxury for me.” In this sense, a luxury is a special treat and doesn’t necessarily have to be something expensive.

According to Oxford Languages, luxury is defined as:

  • a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense. 
  • an inessential, desirable item which is expensive or difficult to obtain. 
  • a pleasure obtained only rarely. 

But I don’t think this is exactly right for the most common everyday use of the word. When we’re speaking about luxuries in a more personal sense, generally we’re either talking about (1) something with which we indulge ourselves, or (2) something that’s a bit out of reach for us today, though we may be aiming for it in the near future.

If we take some time to reflect upon what the luxuries are in our own everyday lives, it might be revealing in terms of whether these are habitually conditioned luxuries or truly heartfelt desires. When we question these a little more deeply, what’s the real value to us of what, up to this point, we’ve been considering personal luxuries?

And as I learn more about the true cost of everything, does the value of my own particular luxury change for me?

In a world of less consumption, a luxury might be about how I spend my time. Because I spend so much less on consumer products and services, I can work fewer hours and have the luxury of more time with my children, or my partner, or alone-time for reading.

In a world of less consumption, luxury might be about the specialness of one possession versus having several somewhat like it. For instance, I might only have one sweater that I wear when I’m not working, but the one I have might be made of the softest cashmere from sustainably-raised sheep, knitted by hand, and pieced with such care and qualitative methods that I’m certain if I care for it, it will be with me forever. It would be a true luxury for me. (Let me note the importance of “if I care for it” as I learned long ago that “special” possessions or luxuries can be ruined just as easily as something that wasn’t special to me. There’s something key here about how we value things and thus care for them.)

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In a drying, ecologically damaged world, clean water and healthy soil might be my greatest luxuries. I may invest time and effort getting the components necessary to amend less-than-fertile dirt in order to make the rich loam my seeds need to become productive plants rewarding me with an abundance of organic fruits and vegetables. I may also have had to decommission a hot tub, take fewer showers, or create a gray-water system in order to provide the water those plants need along with their healthy soil. Luxury generally means some kind of trade-off. Maybe that’s a monetary trade-off, but maybe it’s a matter of time and effort or of sacrificing other things. If I was still pining for that ice cream, it may have meant a caloric trade-off that day. Or maybe I decided instead that the luxury would be to enjoy a dish of Coconut Bliss “ice cream,” still a caloric trade-off but now a plant-based luxury rather than an animal-based one.

The difference that makes a difference here is the consciousness with which we choose our luxuries, our awareness of where they come from and how they are made and what the cost was to the earth and those who made them, the value we place on them, and the care with which we treat them. In the world’s richer nations we’ve had a century (sometimes many centuries) of living and consuming without the requirement of conscious attention. In the United States, even members of the so-called middle class often need only make minor adjustments or trade-offs to fulfill most of their everyday desires.

The lack of conscious attention given to our personal luxuries is grounded in a history that was as competitive as it was consumptive. In his book The Earth Transformed: An Untold History [see review in Remarkable Reads], historian Peter Frankopan uses the Arnolfini portrait by van Eyck, painted in Bruges in 1434, as a representation of “a ‘celebration of ownership’, not only of the picture itself but of the many lavish and expensive objects depicted.” In the portrait we see a rug most likely from the Ottoman empire, metalwork from Spain, and silks from China. For many historians this was the beginning of a capitalist world economy that grew steadily over the next three hundred years. By 1800, the exchange and transporting of goods between far-flung lands had grown twenty-three fold since 1500. Frankopan describes this as a reflection “of the impulse to acquire, demonstrate and accentuate status, and above all of the deployment of merchant capital to respond to and feed these desires.”

The Arnolfini Wedding painting by the Netherlandish Renaissance artist Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441 CE). Created in Bruges in 1434 CE it shows the cloth merchant Giovanni Arnolfini with his wife Giovanna Cenami. (National Gallery, London) In the public domain.

As more and more materials were sought from further and further away, global empires were formed through accelerated exploitation of the people and natural resources of “lesser kingdoms”. Greater supply and availability brought reduced prices so that merchants like Arnolfini and his wife could partake in luxury goods at a level previously unknown for any but the ruling elites. At least this was the case for the wealthier Old World countries. It came at the cost of the countries of the New World. (And what was at first driven by the desire for mercantile capital and its associated interests, over the next several hundred years also fueled the ideologies and biases embedded in Western religious and racial concepts.)

As quantities of goods like sugar increased, their prices decreased. Larger portions of European societies could afford them. This served as an incentive for people to earn more money so that they could purchase more luxuries — that is, the items previously unavailable to them. Productivity and income went up, and so did the entrenchment of what we know as modern capitalism.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, the concept of luxury has been heavily marketed to us through brands that are associated with certain stories with which a consumer might want to be associated. This concept of luxury brings with it the notion that in associating oneself with this brand, there is a measure of comfort and security. It’s a safe place to be. Your taste cannot be questioned and your consumption, though conspicuous, is generally seen as justified.

As consumption comes under a new kind of conscientious scrutiny, how it operates within the human psyche becomes clearer. Tim Jackson makes clear in Post Growth: Life After Capitalism that an underpinning mechanism for the success of consumerism in the late-stage capitalist model requires a persistent dissatisfaction with whatever we currently possess, including our most recent or our most “luxurious” purchases. This dissatisfaction could be due to their intentionally designed-in obsolescence but it’s equally likely to be due to our psychological dependence on novelty fostered by a capitalist cultural mindset of endless consumption. Jackson elaborates:

“Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to spend. Consumer products must promise paradise. But they must systematically fail to deliver it. They must fail us, not occasionally, as psychologists have observed, but repeatedly. The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability consistently to disappoint us.”

Tim Jackson, Post Growth: Life After Capitalism

Luxury is entirely different in a world of less consumption as it is contextualized within a cultural mindset of sufficiency. With the perspective of sufficiency, we have a sense of “enough” as opposed to the sense of indulgence in our desire for more that’s associated with luxury within a culture of endless consumption. Built into that sense of indulgence is the reality that with repetition the luxury item is no longer a luxury to its possessor. It’s the awareness of indulging oneself that makes it a luxury. At first it’s a qualitative experience, but as it becomes more quantitative, the awareness of the indulgence quality fades as does the fact of it being special (an indulgence) at all.

Coming back to a world of less consumption and the personal luxury of the one finely and sustainably made sweater, the luxury of this item is reinforced with the knowledge that clothes production overall is a significant contributor to the global problems of environmental destruction, inefficient use of precious resources, and the climate crisis. Frankopan estimates that the fashion industry represents about 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing the combined contribution of aviation and shipping industry emissions. Carbon from the production of clothing in 2050 is expected to account for as much as 25% of global emissions. Worst of all is how much of this ends up as waste product. He maintains that in the UK alone, almost $50 billion of unused clothing is estimated to be sitting in individuals’ closets. But even that is next to nothing compared to “the equivalent of a rubbish truck of textiles . . . burned or deposited in landfill every second of every minute of every hour of every day of the year because of clothes and fabrics that are no longer wanted or cannot find a buyer.” [See this post for more on the vast amounts of clothing dumped in the Atacama Desert, a previously pristine area so dry there is little to no chance of any of it ever biodegrading. The photo below was taken on January 7, 2022 and the pile has continued to grow at a rate of about 39,000 metric tons per year.]

A satellite image of the huge clothing dump in the Atacama Desert, provided by SkyFi. The discarded clothes are located near the municipality of Alto Hospicio in the north of the country.© SkyFi

It’s popular to blame the manufacturers and the profiteers above them. They’re certainly worthy of that blame. But there’s no avoiding the simple truth that every lifestyle choice we as consumers make every day has direct real-world consequences. These can be seen in the straightforward example of purchasing a single cotton shirt. The production of just this one item requires 713 gallons of fresh water. This is the same amount of water as a person’s drinking requirements over 2 1/2 years. Given the water scarcity issues growing around the world, we must consider the offsets entailed here. Before I get to the question of whether that shirt is a luxury for me, I want to consider what its true cost is, and also determine whether I already have one that will suffice. And if I honestly am in need of a shirt, I must pay the true cost, recognizing that part of that was water that was needed by other humans or animals or trees.

In a world of less consumption, the greatest luxury is, for many, found in nature, in seeing it rebound, in watching areas previously “tamed” by humans re-wild, in experiencing our interdependence with a tree we planted, nurtured, and watched grow for years or decades. The luxury is in hiking, alone or with people we love. Most of all it is in doing things that tread lightly on the planet. Knowing we are contributing to a healthier future for coming generations of humans and wildlife, even preventing endangered species from going extinct, is a luxury born of conscious attention and thoughtful action.

Our personal luxuries are something we get to choose. They are decisions we have the ability to make intentionally. So much of our future is uncertain but there are still things we control, lifestyle choices we can make and even feel good about. That in itself is a personal luxury.

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One thought on “What Are Your Personal Luxuries?

  1. Thoughtful and very relevant post Lynne.  Gets me thinking about what, to me, is a luxury, and, can I justify, afford, and be satisfied with a desired “luxury.”  Thanks

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