Do You Know What Your Stuff REALLY Costs?

by Ramona Creel

Spiraling Out Of Control

Why does what we buy in America matter more than what someone in England or Brazil or Australia buys? Because our spending has a larger impact on the rest of the world. The United States has 5% of the world's population, but we consume 30% of the world's resources and create 30% of the world's waste — it's simply out of proportion. And we've used up most of our own native resources, so we the only way to get the materials and energy we need to keep consuming is to rob third-world countries of theirs.

A problem which merely started in our own back yard has now become global. In the past 3 decades, we (as a species) have used up 1/3 of our planet's resources in the creation of consumer goods. More importantly, our “needs” are continuing to grow beyond the point where our environment can support our ever-increasing levels of consumption. I don't want to turn into an overly-preachy eco-guerrilla here (even though I do love my Birks), but it's a basic fact of life — there are limits to how many trees we can cut down before we have decimated our forests, how many fish we can catch before we bleed our oceans dry, how much oil we can extract before there simply isn't any left. Our human footprint has exceeded the earth's biological capacity by 25% — that means we need 1/4 MORE water/lumber/fuel/farmland/etc. than we have in order to meet current demand. Any third-grader who understands fractions can tell you that's just unsustainable!

The bigger worry is that we keep trying to sell the American way of life to other countries, insisting that the third-world needs to embrace capitalism and industrialization if it ever hopes to “compete.” But it's actually a good thing that the rest of the world doesn't consume the way we do — we would need 5 planets to support everyone! The United States has the largest ecological footprint in the world — more than 12 hectares per person, compared to 7.66 in Canada, 6.29 in the U.K., 5.94 in Japan, 2.69 in Mexico,1.84 in China, and less than 1 in Ethiopia. In 1961, the vast majority of countries had ecological surpluses (meaning more resources available to them than they used or “renewed” in a year's time.) But now, 81% of the world's population lives in “ecological debtor” countries (which use more resources than they have available within their own borders.) We are completely dependent on “biocapacity surpluses” from the other 19% — and each year, those resources have to stretch farther and farther.

If that has you scared about our future, then this will terrify you. Nearly 99% of the materials that go into what we buy in America end up as trash. I'm talking about refuse from the raw materials used in production, pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, packaging and paper inserts that we throw away — every single purchase made in America creates a greater volume of trash than the thing you bought in the first place! Our “disposable” mindset doesn't help either. Americans throw out more useful and functional consumable goods than people in many countries ever see in their lifetime. We create a tremendous amount of waste just living our normal lives — 4 1/2 pounds of garbage per person a day (which is twice what we created 30 years ago.) However, for every can of consumer garbage put out at the curb, 70 cans of upstream garbage created in producing the trash you threw out. Every step of the consumer process creates pollution — harvesting raw materials, creating chemicals, manufacturing products, transporting, and selling. Reduce/reuse/recycle only goes so far, when so much of the waste happens before you even go shopping!

Looking At All The Costs

Why are these facts relevant to a discussion of how much your “stuff” costs? Because we've set up a system that privatizes the gains related to consumerism (profit earned by companies every time they sell a product) but socializes the costs (which you pay for through your taxes.) Companies are not forced to take responsibility for the damage their activities do to the environment or to society. If they were (and passed these expenses on to you at the checkout counter), you would pay 1/3 to 1/2 more for your consumer goods. Instead, they shove these costs off on the public sector and drop their prices, making you think that you're getting a bargain.

But you're not really saving any money in the long run — you're simply paying with your taxes what you would have paid at the store if the bottom line reflected all the true costs of your purchase. When Dow Chemical pollutes a river and the EPA has to come in and clean it up, that's a cost to you. When the Forest Service sells trees on national lands to Georgia Pacific at giveaway prices to help subsidize their manufacturing of wood and paper products (and then has to spend millions replacing those trees with seedlings), that's a cost to you. When Wal-Mart fails to pay its workers enough to live off of, makes its health insurance plan too expensive for the average employee (and those folks have to go on welfare to be able to survive), that's a cost to you. There is so much more that goes into the final price tag than what you see when you pull out your credit card!

A lot of Americans function according to the belief that they “deserve” to have whatever they want — they worked hard, they earned the money, so why shouldn't they go shopping? Well, as citizens of one of the richest nations in the world, we not only have rights, but also responsibilities. We have a responsibility to know what we are buying, as well as how and where it is made. We have a responsibility to make sure that we only shop with companies which engage in fair trade, are ecologically responsible, and take care of their workers. We have a responsibility to vote with our dollars and NOT shop with companies (like Wal-Mart) that make use of sweatshops and child labor and are constantly breaking the law in terms of worker's rights. And I can tell you right now that we do NOT have the right to take advantage of third-world laborers or suck up every other nation's resources just because we want a new television or SUV or pair of tennis shoes. The only way to stop the insanity is to seriously re-evaluate our levels of consumption, to simplify our material needs, and to stop using shopping malls as our major form of entertainment in this country!

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.