Refusing new stuff

Reducing our need or desire for stuff would have a much more powerful environmental impact than recycling does. (Here's why.)

It would also have a bigger positive impact on our lives, trading less stuff for more time.

It's easy to fall into the habit of mindlessly buying things (just the way we often eat to excess…) because we're inundated with advertising telling us we "need" the next new thing or that we'll be a social misfit if we don't have it.

Part of reducing our consumption is simply to become more mindful of this inclination. Do we really need another fry pan even though that nice one is on sale? Do we really need another tablecloth even though our current one doesn't really match the room or fit the table? (Actually this might be a situation that calls for redistributing!)

We're going to start asking ourselves, "Do we really need this?" anytime we're tempted to purchase something.

  • Sometimes the answer truly might be "Yes." That's the good stuff. Then we try to choose an item that has been produced in the most responsible way or we can look into the new collaborative redistribution options.
  • Sometimes the answer might be that we need the service the object provides, but we don't need to buy one of our own. That's stuff we can rent or share.
  • But many more times, I'm sure the answer will be "We might want it but we don't really need it." That's the stuff we can refuse getting altogether.


Gifts often are stuff that could have and should have been avoided. Gifts are often given just for the sake of giving or to fulfill a social obligation. Occasionally, they may be just what you wanted, but more often, they're just a burden.

Recently I was in line at the checkout counter of a major department store returning a recently-purchased pair of slacks that I fortunately realized wasn't going to meet my needs before I had cut off the tag. (It's extremely difficult to find slacks that actually fit!)

I had to wait for three other people ahead of me also returning things. One of them was a man in his 30s, obviously short on time, holding a packaged shirt. When he finally got to the counter, he explained that he'd like to return or exchange this gift he had gotten because the neck was the wrong size. After his long wait, he found that the gift hadn't been purchased at that store! He was given another store, miles away, as a possibility. What a gift! Who knows if he genuinely liked the shirt (apart from the size) but it certainly had wasted hours of his precious time trying to deal with it. Why not just give money or a more general gift certificate, such as at Amazon?

In the past, we've often gotten gift certificates to, for example, a local chain restaurant. Although it was a nice gesture, going to restaurants isn't one of our favorite things, and this particular well-known restaurant is certainly not one we enjoyed. When it comes down to it, we would have even preferred a donation in our name to one of our favorite charities. This frustrating experience wasn't the intent of our generous gift givers, but that's how it ended up for us and probably for many, if not most, "gifts."

Giving gifts

Weddings have become easy. Either we choose something from their gift registry, or, increasingly, we've given money. I know many people this giving money is "crass," but what do young couples need more than money? And then they can get what they really want or—if they're wise—save it for the future, or at least make their own purchasing mistakes instead of being left with the white elephants most of us have from our own weddings. (And this is stuff that's hard to get rid of for fear their donor will notice their absence.)

For other occasions, we've either given things on an Amazon wish list or Amazon gift certificates. Why Amazon? Because it works no matter where the recipient lives, and there's such a wide variety of items that anyone should be able to find something that they would enjoy.

As for what they choose, it's up to them to choose according to their own values. We can't dictate their choices, just make our own.

And some formal gift-giving occasions (such as the "everybody bring a $5-$10 gift for the Christmas party kind of thing) we just choose consumables, such as shade-grown, Fair Trade coffee. Sometimes, we give a donation to some good cause in that person's honor (or memory). And some occasions we just ignore because some occasions have been manufactured and advertised just to increase sales. They aren't genuine.

Receiving gifts

In the past, we've been saddled with the results of gifts—stuff sitting around for years on end that we neither wanted nor enjoy. We can just pass them along, but that just hands off the problem to someone else, and often it's not socially feasible. So we're left with these objects that just take up space and attention. And this is a gift?

At this point in my life, family members know I really don't want anything, except perhaps a donation made in my name to one of my favorite causes. That truly is a gift: it accomplishes something I want to happen, and I don't have to store stuff, return it, or learn how to use it.


When we see the stuff we have that cannot be recycled, reused, or repaired (and it's obviously too late to be avoided), it's time for a 4th "R"—Regret.

The object has been created from the earth's resources, and it's not serving any purpose for us or anyone else. It probably never did.

Why did we ever buy that stuff? Sometimes we didn't buy it, but just acquired it either actively (by offering to take other people's castaways) or passively (all those presents that become a burden).

One of the first cases of this kind of regret I remember is about 40 years ago when a Boy Scout troop was selling trinkets to raise money. I bought a object that had a battery that lit up a bunch of fiber optic cables (I think that's what they were). It didn't pretend to have a purpose; it was just a geegaw and that was an excuse for selling something to raise money. I remember thinking at the time that I had just contributed to the world's problems, and this was even before I had become very environmentally aware. It was just so obvious.

Now, in these situations I'll frequently just give a donation equat to whatever profit I think the organization will actually end up with and skip the junk.