Environment

Going Green Is Simply No Match For Cutting Back on All The Junk We Buy

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If you’re a millennial who likes to indulge in a bit of retail therapy to cope with anxiety over the climate crisis, we’ve got some bad news.

New research says children of the ’80s to mid-’90s who buy less stuff have less psychological distress and a better sense of wellbeing compared to materialistic but well-intentioned consumers buying recycled or environmentally friendly goods.

 

A team of US researchers investigated the spending habits of millennials to see how values in environmentally responsibility gel with the cultural pressures of buying our way to happiness.

“We’ve been told since childhood that there’s a product for everything and it’s OK to buy, and it’s a good thing because that’s how the economy works,” says University of Arizona consumer scientist Sabrina Helm.

“We’re brought up this way, so changing behaviours is very difficult.”

Unlike older generations, those in their 20s and 30s are sometimes considered to be more interested in living in the moment than stashing away cash for a rainy day. 

This can mean bigger purchases that require saving are off the table, but smaller, more affordable items like clothing and electronics still satisfy the urge to feel good today. As do outings to restaurants, a good cup of coffee, and getting home in an Uber after a big night out.

That means plenty of millennials are still big consumers, yet trying to balance the social and environmental responsibilities of the brands they’re loyal to with a need to scratch that materialistic itch.

 

To determine whether going green was really making the more materialistic millennials feel any better, Helm and her colleagues conducted an online survey with around 970 young American adults.

The volunteers were all in their first year of college when they first answered an initial series of questions, with follow-up surveys sent in their fourth year, and then again another two years later.

The researchers’ goal was to answer two questions. Firstly, in light of limited finances and our need to be sustainable, how do materialistic values affect the way millennials spend money while being environmentally friendly? 

And secondly – keeping those materialistic values in mind – what impact do these ‘green’ spending habits have on their wellbeing?

Unsurprisingly, the results show that being more materialistic means you’re less likely to save the planet by reducing your possessions. But for those materialists who think it’s important to be sustainable, going green is good, just not as good as going less.

“There is evidence that there are ‘green materialists’,” says Helm.

“If you are able to buy environmentally friendly products, you can still live your materialist values. You’re acquiring new things, and that fits into our mainstream consumption pattern in our consumer culture, whereas reduced consumption is more novel and probably more important from a sustainability perspective.”

 

Being materialistic doesn’t necessarily make a person feel happier, though. Or, for that matter, more miserable. But people who buy lots of things do tend to be less proactive with their finances.

So even if wanting all the nice things actually doesn’t affect our wellbeing, buying those expensive new shoes, latest PS4 games, and $20 bowls of acai and chia can reduce wellbeing if it hits the back pocket.

By the same token, those who reuse what they can and repair what they can’t tend to feel good about saving their hard-earned dollars.

“For very obvious reasons, if you have a proactive financial strategy and put money to the side and live within your means, it has positive well-being effects,” says Helm.

Not that society makes this easy. Technological turnover makes it hard to opt out of the endless consumer cycle of buying goods.

Governments around the world are slowly catching on, introducing laws that force manufacturers to make their goods last longer, and make them easier to repair. But there is still a long way to go before deeply embedded cultural pressures to buy up fade out.

If you want to be both a good environmental citizen and happier in general, the take-home message is clear.

“If you have a lot of stuff, you have a lot on your mind,” says Helm.

To save the planet, then, save your cash. And you’ll feel better for it too.

This research was published in Young Consumers.

 



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