Rob Walker is a freelance journalist, the writer for the "Consumed" column in The New York Times Magazine, author of several books including Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. One of his most recent ventures is the Unconsumption website.
What do you see as the green perks to being a blogger?
I should clarify here that I am not a blogger by occupation. I'm a freelance writer, and I do operate some personal sites.
That said, it's true that I work at home, don't commute, etc. I never really thought about those issues in terms of green-ness, but I suppose there's some truth to that. I did choose the freelance thing partly because I prefer not to go to an office, etc. but there were other issues as well. It's a lot cheaper not to live in New York -- but on the other hand in New York I didn't have to own a car at all, because there was great mass transit. That's not true in most places, and I certainly feel we have to have a car in Savannah. So, there are tradeoffs on the eco front, and I assume that must be the case for most people who manage to make a living as bloggers.
You have taken an active interest in unconsumption, or everything that happens after an acquisition. On your blog, you point out some of the attributes of unconsumption including enjoying a purchase to the fullest throughout its "life" with you, not just enjoying the act of purchasing it, as well as finding new homes or new purposes for things once you are finished with them. As a member of a society so obsessed with consumption, when did you realize all these positive attributes of unconsumption and become inspired to spread the word to others?
I can't point to a moment of realization, I think it was more of a gradual process, and maybe a natural of offshoot of spending so much time thinking about things people buy and why they buy them (through the column, writing the book, etc.) I guess what I would say is that I became interested in some of the indirect payoffs that people often get from consumption or from material culture.
The "nonconscious" and emotional things -- things we basically never admit to. You can characterize these as status, or individuality, or belonging, or other ideas. Even just pleasure. I don't want to recapitulate all my thinking about that here, but that's sort of the starting point, the idea that some people seem to satisfy some of those needs, some of the time, through consumption, whether consciously or not.
On Murketing.com, I started musing about just the idea of whether the end point of the lifecycle of the things we buy could ever have the same emotional payoff, for lack of a better term, or the pleasure of acquiring new things. And then that led to a Consumed column about Freecycle, and then to some more stuff on Murketing.
In time I've tried to expand the idea to be sort of a way of thinking about everything that happens after the moment of acquisition. Not just getting rid of something, but all the time in between acquisition and "being done" with a thing. This is partly a reaction to how often things become "obsolete" for aesthetic or other reasons -- the thing still functions, but it's been replaced by something better in the marketplace and now we feel we need that new thing. And it's sort of a drag to think about something that's not really "used up," but we've replaced it anyway, so we're done with it.
I'm aware that this gets unwieldy, because a lot of people have trouble understanding what I'm talking about -- do I mean recycling? Do I mean "simple living"? Do I mean we should spend a lot of time getting rid of things? But your description of what I'm trying to get at is right on the money.
As a result of your job and interests, do you find yourself hyperaware when you purchase anything? Being aware of what we buy and how we use those products are concepts that seem to go hand-in-hand with trying to cultivate a sustainable, low-impact lifestyle. What have you found to be some of the easiest and/or most important environmentally-friendly lifestyle choices and changes that you have made?
Yes, it's hard not to turn every shopping trip into a kind of exercise in second-guessing and overthinking. Although what's interesting to me is how on some level, even for somebody like me, there's still a lot that's a mystery just because the real world marketplace tends to be opaque -- you can't really know how this pair of jeans, for example, was really made, while you're standing at the shelf.
I don't pretend to be an eco role model, so I want to be careful about that second question. I'm no Ed Begley! I think what I can offer really is the stuff I'm trying to explore through the unconsumption idea -- just trying to think about the full life cycle of something one buys, rather than just getting something "new." Enjoying what you already have, and so on. I think it's safe to say that I'm better at that than I used to be.
One funny thing is that I used to get a lot of satisfaction about collecting and taking our recyclables to a collection point here in Savannah -- it sort of felt good to make the effort in a city with no recycling program. But... now Savannah has a recycling program, so the city picks up all our stuff and I don't have my little ritual anymore. Obviously, that's a good thing, but it robbed me of my most conspicuous monthly unconsumption moment! I need a new one.
You have coined the phrase "murketing", which you describe as a merger of murky and marketing and which speaks to the line-crossing that currently exists between consumers and corporations/brands/etc. There's been a lot of talk in the environmental scene about greenwashing and how some corporations and businesses attempt to portray themselves as "going green" while only making superficial changes. What do you think are some of the key issues for people to consider as they try to consume as wisely and responsibly as possible?
The obvious thing is just to be cautious/suspicious of packaging or marketing that touts green-ness in some vague way. There's a ton of that out there right now.
The flip side of that, though, is that sometimes I think it can be easy to buy something virtuous and feel like you've done your good deed for the day -- and thus you're off the hook with the other stuff you buy. I don't think that' a conscious process, of course.
But I cite some research in Buying In that suggests on a nonconscious level that if we feel we've done something "good," then we're more likely to "indulge" afterwards. It's just a human tendency to ponder while shopping. (Don't go overboard of course -- I'm certainly not trying to make everybody's shopping experience into an endless series of second-guessing etc!)
Do you have any eco-resolutions for the rest of the year ahead?
Presently my unconsumption aspiration is to have a worm bin. I don't know why, but I think that would be kind of cool.
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