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10001ways: Next time you go to Costco or Target try this. (But you probably won't like it.)

Before I make a suggestion about your next $500 trip to CostCo or Target let me set the stage.

In order to defeat climate change and stop environmental degradation we have to change our consumer predilections. Since World War II we have believed that consuming as much as we can, as fast as we can, is good for everyone and makes us all happy. Such a consumer-based economy would give us all jobs and might even make us rich. Not only did it seem to make sense, it worked. Thus, we were chained to production and consumption for better or worse.

Meanwhile, our lust for things caused landfills to flourish, skies to heat up, oceans to acidify and nature to enter into death throes.

There is talk of different kinds of economies to replace the one we currently live with thus stopping the destruction of the environment. However, replacing an economy where everything is measured by growth and % of profit will be revolutionary at the least. Without getting into the details of Command and Market economies and variations thereof, let’s just jump to an alternative economy that is getting a lot of lip service lately: The Circular Economy.

Circular Economy: Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, regenerate natural systems. (More detailed explanation here)

Let’s just say we don’t buy new stuff anymore that we don’t have to, and we learn to make things last 'forever' through the process of regeneration. (That’s recycling on steroids.)

Ellen MacArthur Foundation - Creative Commons

It’s sounds alien doesn’t it. How would that work? Where do the jobs come from? How do you get ahead in life? Who can get rich that way? It is really hard to imagine isn’t it? What would it be like to live in a circular economy?

This is where our trip to Costco or Target or Walmart or wherever comes in. Before we go into the store there is one more thing to talk about.

Wants and Needs

In my day I did my share of sales training. I tried to get salespeople to understand that customers preferred wants over needs and that, of course, is where the money is. They need a car but want a $50,000 pickup truck. They need a phone, but they always want the latest one. The compressor in the 2-year-old air conditioner is shot? Let’s just buy a new one. They have lots of towels but none of them match the upstairs bathroom colors. The engine of a consumer economy is driven by wants not needs. Anything old or used is bad. Consumerism, after all, is a state of mind. If I want it, I should have it. So, sell them what they want.

The engine of a circular economy is needs. We make things last and then regenerate them.

If you want to discover what a Circular Economy tastes like let’s go shopping. Don’t forget your CostCo membership card. OK. Go get your cart. You may fill it to the brim but only with items that get a yes answer to the following two questions.

Do I need that?

Is that environmentally friendly?

If the item gets a no to either or both questions you don’t put it in the shopping basket. This is especially challenging in the food departments.

No cheating on question one! You aren’t allowed to rationalize that you “need” something to maintain your mental health. For instance; those new ipods would do a much better job relaxing me while I listen to my music than the perfectly good ones I have now. And I need to be relaxed in these traumatic days.

You are allowed to pick the item up and examine it. You may have to in order to answer question two. What is it made of and what chemicals are involved? Everything, of course, has a carbon footprint but remember that there may be similar items that you need, but one is not very environmentally friendly while the other is. For example, one may come in a plastic bottle and the other in a glass bottle. One may be made of paper and other bamboo. Others are wrapped in a multitude of tiny packages inside a box, etc. Fundamentally, you are asking whether the product can be “regenerated” or, at least, recycled. Will it eventually end up in the land fill or become part of a “natural cycle”?

If you are still asking these two questions after walking two aisles you’ve done well. If you make it all the way through the store without picking up anything that you don’t need or isn’t “regenerative” then you can probably survive in a circular economy. I’ll guarantee you didn’t come out of the store with $500 worth of stuff. In fact, you may have an empty cart. However, you just saved a lot of money and I think you will be just as happy in the long run. You will also have tasted the circular economy.

Costco, shopping, department store

Yuck! A bitter pill to swallow you say. Perhaps.

What good is life if you can’t get what you “want”? After all, isn’t that what happiness is – getting what you “want”. That is an excellent question but let’s not equate happiness with pleasure. When you are lying on your death bed and reflecting on your life, you might take an inventory of what really made you happy or could have made your life happier. If your answer is that $50,000 pickup truck, then you aren’t cut out for a circular economy.

Is a circular economy so much utopian drivel? Do we or can we even make products that are “circular”? Remember, most societies throughout history lived circular economies. Daily life was all about needs not wants. Most ‘things’ back then eventually rotted back into existence. The fact that the industrial revolution and the invention of plastics made ‘wants’ the rage is more curse than blessing.

In a circular economy we are not fixated on “things” rather on services and experiences. Instead of buying a new 80 TV you travel to the mountains or visit Venice (on a hydrogen powered jet). You hire trainers and gardeners and others who market time and energy. You appreciate music, the arts, a trip to National Park, or a train ride. Instead of gadgets you gift things you made or baked. Children find toys of wood or opportunities to attend an environmental camp under the tree. That’s where will we spend all that money we saved at CostCo.

So, if you decide to try this exercise out, good for you! For extra credit you might try asking the same two questions when buying Christmas gifts this year. Does s/he need that? Is that thing environmentally friendly?

I realize that is a lot to ask but giving it a try can’t hurt. You might learn something about yourself and the culture you live in.


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