The business of buying and selling employs people and often gets us what we need. But excess consumption is another story. Here's a guide on managing the impulse to buy what you could do without.

Most of us have done it. We’re feeling a bit low, so we head out to the closest retail outlet and pick up just a few things, ahhh that feels better.

The urge to acquire ‘things’ is not a modern affliction. Purchasing objects to make us ‘feel good’ is reported to have emerged in the west around the 15th and 16th centuries, and the urge to acquire things as a sign of wealth can be traced back to ancient civilisations. With all that history and psychology of consumption in our past, is it any wonder we have difficulty walking past that new pair of black boots in the window display despite having a perfectly good pair in our cupboard?

The difference between now and the 15th century, however, is that the expense and necessity of the basic requirements of well being meant that 15th century people were not in a great position to purchase. Flash forward to today and we have a plethora of cheap and accessible options.

Psychologically, we are the same as those ancient civilisations, looking for shiny things to line our homes, but does it really make us feel good after the post-shopping high subsides? On the contrary, Joyce & Pang report that materialism is bad for our psychological well-being and our emotional well-being.

Here are some tips to help you buy only what you need, and living a less consuming life.

Consume with purpose

Being conscious of your consumer habits is one of the best ways to impact your purchasing behaviour.

Impulse buying is fun, but it often results in items we will only use for a short time and either throw out or pass on to a charity for a hopeful re-sale. Thinking about what you need, researching your purchase and purchasing exactly what you want and need with a view to the future will cut down on what you send to landfill.

Purchase for long-term use

This can be difficult in today’s ‘throw out’ society where planned obsolescence is part of the manufacturing process (for an interesting history of planned obsolescence check out IFixit.org).

With only 15 – 20% of the 50 million tonnes of e-waste we produce being recycled, your purchasing behaviour can have a massive impact on the environment. By researching and investing in companies who have an ethos of making things last, repairing things and supporting recycling or buy-back programs, we can encourage the emergence of better business models which positively impact the environment and our back pocket.

Be pushy about presents

Australian ‘gift culture’ has exploded. Not only do we purchase more gifts than ever before, some of us feel uncomfortable or embarrassed with presenting home-made gifts at birthday parties. CBA’s Consumer Spending study reported that in 2018 Aussies were set to spend $10.7 billion on gifts, with millennials clocking the highest average spend of $1000! So, what can you do to keep your gift spend in check?

1. Discuss expectations

Have a conversation with friends and family members about which occasions are important to you. Perhaps you can agree to purchase Christmas presents only for the kids in the family and make home made gifts for the adults? Or maybe the cousins don’t need more Easter eggs – you may just find out that a small homemade gift is welcomed.

2. Ask for what you want

When it comes to close family, the best way to cut down on single use, unused items is to simply ask for what you want. If your partner buys you something every year that you hate, it’s time to pre-empt with a list of things you do like. It may seem unromantic, but you’ll end up with something you need and one less thing will be turfed to landfill.

3. Set a limit

It can feel awkward to talk about because of our ingrained cultural beliefs about wealth and gift giving, but setting a limit for gifts between friends and family can alleviate the strain of purchasing multiple gifts. Better yet, look at a Kris Kringle or Secret Santa type game where you provide a list of ‘wants’ and each person buys only one gift – you can go slightly more expensive and end up with something you will use.

4. Go for experience

Often people don’t need more ‘stuff’. Experience gifts are easier to find than ever before and provide a great zero waste option for gift giving. Think a trip to Sea World, coffee out with mum or a couple of movie tickets – gifts that everyone would love.

Avoid fast fashion

McKinsey & Company reported that the average consumer purchased 60% more clothing in 2014 compared to 2000, but kept each item half as long. Considering it can take 2700 litres of water to produce one t-shirt, that is an alarming increase which has a massive impact on the use of resources.

So, set yourself a challenge today. How long can you make things last? Can you learn to mend that hole in your favourite pair of jeans, darn your socks or fix your bike yourself? There are YouTube tutorials for almost everything, and companies like Reverse Garbage run regular clothing repair nights where you can pick up the basics to keep those much loved pieces going a bit longer.

Fast fashion is the cheap and quick production of catwalk-inspired clothing. The quick turn around and cheap production costs result in a low-quality product designed to last the minimum amount of time. Often these products cannot be recycled or reused because of the material they are created from.

The ABS reported that 501, 000 tonnes of textiles and leather were sent to landfill in 2009, which means 88% of what was discarded was not recycled in anyway. By carefully considering clothing purchases and focusing on classic long lasting trends rather than ‘this seasons’ fashions, you can avoid throwing away money, along with those poor quality clothes.

Invest once

Channel your inner event manager and invest once in yearly events.

Birthdays, Easter & Christmas happen every year, yet every year we are out buying new things to adorn and decorate. Think about what you really need to have a special day and purchase once – bunting works great for birthdays and can be reused over and over again, metal Easter baskets will last for the life of your child and wooden Christmas decorations won’t have to be purchased again and again.

Resist the modern urge to get ‘bored’ with what you already have and design events around sustainable traditions.

Support ‘recycled’ item manufacturers

If you know you need something new, take a look if there is a manufacturer who uses recycled products as part of their production process. Planet Ark has a Recycled Product directory perfect for researching your next purchase. Supporting these manufacturers will encourage more product reuse in the future.

Spontaneity has it’s place in our lives, but is not that great for the environment or our budget. Next time you have the urge for an impulse purchase, think about whether you truly need it right now, or if you can take some extra time to research your purchase using our tips above.