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


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?”

To find more books that pique our interest,
visit the
Utne Reader Bookshelf.

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.














Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $40.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $45 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!




Facebook Instagram Twitter


Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved
Ogden Publications, Inc., 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, Kansas 66609-1265