With looming climate catastrophe in the news so much lately, it's natural to want to do as much as you can to halt the parade of floods, freak blizzards, and alarming reports from scientists. For many of us (myself included) part of that that means running out to buy reusable straws and shopping bags, organic cleaners, packaging-free products, etc. 

But before you go crazy with the "green" purchases, take a second to consider the results of a timely new study out of the University of Arizona. By comparing the shopping habits, mental health, and environmental impact of nearly 1,000 young people, the researchers reaffirmed a principle that should be obvious but is all too easy to forget. 

Buying nothing beats buying "green" stuff hands down. And that's true whether you're looking at the impact of your purchases on the earth or your own happiness. 

Buying less beats buying "green" for the earth.... 

It shouldn't come as too large a shock that simply consuming less is better for the planet than consuming a product that's marketed as "green." After all, every new item a factory pumps out requires some resources to produce, even if per item that level is lower than a less "sustainable" alternative. 

But in the confusing whirlwind of environmental news and expert recommendations this simple truth can get lost. Take plastic bag bans, for instance. If your state or city is eliminating single-use shopping bags, it can be tempting to spring for that chic organic cotton tote hanging in the check-out line of your local supermarket. 

Experts who have crunched through the data on environmental impact insist that growing cotton is actually far worse for the earth than that original plastic bag, however. Your best bet for carrying your groceries if you care about sustainability? Any bag you already own.

This is true of many kinds of "green" products. If you're going to buy straws, biodegradable beats plastic. Fairphone is better from an ecological perspective than an iPhone. But the best option of all is not to buy straws or a new phone at all unless it's truly necessary. 

... and for your happiness. 

It's not just the earth than will be happier if you simply buy less stuff. According to the University of Arizona study, you'll be happier too. 

Again, this isn't wildly shocking. An incredible amount of research has shown that materialism in general makes us miserable and lonely. But you might think buying green wouldn't have the same negative impact on our mental health as normal, everyday consumerism. Not so, this new study found. 

"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," lead researcher Sabrina Helm commented. "Reduced consumption has effects on increased well-being and decreased psychological distress, but we don't see that with green consumption."

In short, it's perfectly possible to be both obsessed with going green and a raging materialist at the same time. Lusting after every new "eco" product on the market might make you feel virtuous, but it presents the same emotional pitfalls as lusting after whatever the Jones' next door are buying. 

"If you have a lot of stuff, you have a lot on your mind. Maybe you have a lot of debt because you bought all that stuff, and now you have to manage all that stuff. It requires maintenance and being organized. It's not like you buy it and you're done with it," Helm says. "If you relieve yourself of that burden of ownership, most people report feeling a lot better and freer."

The earth (and also likely your financial advisor) will also thank you for putting your credit card away. Which makes the bottom line recommendation of this research dead simple: if the choice is between buying green, and buying nothing. Buy nothing. 

"The key is to reduce consumption and not just buy green stuff. Having less and buying less can actually make us more satisfied and happier," Helm concludes.

Thanks for the reminder, science. 

Published on: Oct 18, 2019
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