Mind & Body

Research Shows Why Buying Less Is Better Than Buying Green

Imagine you're on a new health kick and you've decided to start bringing your lunch instead of buying it every day. After all, not only is takeout food expensive and often unhealthy, it's also bad for the environment! You have some old plastic containers at home, but you also have your eye on a new eco-friendly lunch container that's made of sustainable materials. Which do you choose?

The answer might be obvious, but it's worth stating: If you're worried about being environmentally friendly, you should use what you already have. Still, the cultural pressure to buy green instead of reusing what we've got is pretty intense. Now, a new study of millennials explains how materialism affects pro-environmental behavior — and if you've ever felt like the pressure to buy green just makes you buy more random stuff, you're on to something.

Welcome to the World of "Green Materialism"

Climate fears among millennials are rising as quickly as the oceans. And according to the lead researcher on this new study, Sabrina Helm, overconsumption of our resources is a huge accelerator for climate change. Basically, we should be less materialistic if we want to save the planet.

Researchers from around the country wanted to find out how young Americans are adjusting their financial behavior in the face of climate change, and whether our purchasing choices are actually making us feel better about the fate of the planet. What they found: only one strategy really works to reduce consumption, increase well-being, and decrease psychological distress.

The researchers focused on two categories of eco-friendly action. First, the most obvious way to limit the toll we take on the planet: reduced consumption, which involves repairing things instead of replacing them and avoiding impulse purchases. Then, there's "green buying," which involves buying goods designed to help the planet. Think bags made from recycled materials or reusable wraps for sandwiches.

If the goal is to be less materialist, "green buying" won't help you, the study showed. "If you are able to buy environmentally friendly products, you can still live your materialist values," Helm said in a press release. "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."

Why Buying Less Is Better

Here's where well-being part comes in — and it's not great news for those who like to buy. The first part is pretty logical. The least materialistic participants were the most likely to do things that lowered their consumption. Makes sense: The less you want to buy, the easier it is to walk away. But here's the twist: The study showed that reducing consumption was linked to higher personal well-being and lower psychological distress.

The flip side is that although "green buying" could have some positive environmental impact, it doesn't improve consumers' well-being. In other words, no matter how many beeswax wraps you buy for your leftovers, more won't make you feel better.

"We thought it might satisfy people that they participated in being more environmentally conscious through green buying patterns, but it doesn't seem to be that way," Helm said. "Reduced consumption has effects on increased well-being and decreased psychological distress, but we don't see that with green consumption."

In the study's conclusion, the researchers wrote that experts absolutely have to figure out how to convince millennial consumers that materialism is harming them — not to mention that it's harming the planet. "Green buying" might be marketable, but it turns out that it's not helping anyone.

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For more ways to live sustainably, check out "Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste" by Bea Johnson. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk November 22, 2019

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