Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Are Consumers Done?

I'm morbidly fascinated with the financial mess in the headlines these days, even though we are, for the moment, blessedly avoiding the worst of the downturn.  It could change, of course, and so I'm part reading-the-tea-leaves, part rubbernecking.

But here's a factoid that threw me for a loop:  70% of our economy is based on consumer spending, consumer spending on things like dinners out, new televisions and fancy sneakers.

It's a set of habits that has landed many families in the red, but from my perspective, it's also pretty dramatically un-green.

When my husband and I settled down in our new home after nearly a year's transition involving four addresses in three states, we evaluated all the stuff we had and realized we didn't need any more.  It's been well over a year since my husband bought shoes, shirts or pants, including work clothing.  Because I lost more than 40 pounds, I have bought clothing, but a fairly modest amount - a pair of size 12 jeans, then size 10, then size 8 and finally a second pair of size 8 cords and a pair of size 6 cords before becoming pregnant and turning my old clothes into maternity wear.

Since moving in, we've also purchased two sets of sheets and a full size mattress/box spring to serve as our guest bed, plus two new hand towels for our "good" powder room, and a new comforter cover for our son.  Every over stitch of linen in our home is at least a year old, and much of it dates back more than a decade.  Our spare comforter is from my husband's freshman year in college.  And yes, we've bought furniture (a desk, Freddie's big boy bed and shelves, a bench for our entry way with wall-mounted shelves above.)  We have three TVs, two of which are more than a dozen years old and one of which is a mammoth, early HDTV older than our child - the only real gadget my husband has indulged in, ever.

Honestly - I don't get it.  I walk through Target, looking for a container for trail mix or a microfiber dust cloth and see women pushing trolleys spilling over with stuff - blankets and blenders and vases and toys.  Did they need this stuff?  Could they afford this stuff?  Where were they putting all of this stuff?

Calling for people to stop buying stuff they don't need makes all the sense in the world - it's frugal, in a world with precious little of the saving impulse, and it's green, in a world that is quickly squandering every resource.

But does being green bring the economy to a crashing halt, and if so, what's the answer?  And is anyone looking for it, or are our leaders just worried about how to get us back into Target, loading up our carts to spill over and put the economy back in black?

It's a colorful question, and I'm afraid the answer is not one that I'll like. 

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