Authentic Happiness in a Consumer Culture

Explore the meaning of real happiness rather than the empty happiness produced by a consumer culture that devalues interpersonal relationships in favor of "stuff" and leaves the earth broken and full of trash.

| December 2014

  • Laundry
    Cheap, abundant clothes are one aspect of consumer culture that may seem useful from the consumer's perspective, but ultimately damage the global community and the environment.
    Photo by Fotolia/THPStock
  • Sustainable Happiness
    In "Sustainable Happiness," Sarah van Gelder has collected essays and personal stories that redefine happiness in terms of thriving communities, loving relationships and the contributions made in the work we do.
    Cover courtesy Berrett-Koehler Publishers

  • Laundry
  • Sustainable Happiness

Consumer culture encourages us to buy ever more stuff at lower and lower prices, but who really pays the price for cheap stuff? Sarah van Gelder explores the cost of consumerism and the meaning of real happiness in Sustainable Happiness (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015), a collection of essays and personal stories that redefine the common cultural definition of happiness with a message of renewal through building thriving communities and a vibrant, natural world. The following excerpt is from chapter 3, “Who Pays the Price for Cheap Stuff?”

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I’m a critic of consumerism, but I’m neither for nor against stuff.

I confess that my T-shirt drawer is so full it’s hard to close. (That’s partly because I’m often given a Tee as a souvenir when I speak at a conference or event.) But of all the T-shirts I have accumulated over the years, there are only a few that I honestly care about. My favorite (no eye-rolling, please) is a green number from the Grateful Dead’s 1982 New Year’s Eve concert. To me this shirt, worn for more than 30 years by multiple members of my extended family, is both useful and beautiful, not only because I attended the concert but because a dear friend gave it to me, knowing how much I would treasure it. The label even says “Made in the USA,” which makes me smile because so few things are made in this country anymore, as brands increasingly opt for low-paid workers in poor countries.

Our stuff should not be artifacts of indulgence and disposability, like toys that are forgotten 15 minutes after the wrapping comes off, but things that are both practical and meaningful. British philosopher William Morris said it best: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

The life cycle of a simple cotton T-shirt—worldwide, 4 billion are made, sold, and discarded each year—knits together a chain of seemingly intractable problems, from the elusive definition of sustainable agriculture to the greed and classism of fashion marketing.

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