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Worthwhile questions to ask about the things around us

September 12, 2019

Part of living a more sustainable lifestyle includes rethinking our relationship with the physical world. Sometimes that means reconsidering the importance of the forests in Ethiopia, or the trees in our own neighborhood. Other times, it means reconsidering the physical objects in front of us- our drinkware, the clothes on our back, or the electronics in our pocket. Here are a few things worth asking ourselves about those items.

Where did this come from?

Every object has an origin story. Where does the item in question come from? Most likely, its journey began on a farm, a lab, or in a forest, whether its paper, a t-shirt made from cotton, the plastic in a toothbrush or the rubber on a tire. Do you know the origin of the things in front of you?

You can start with asking- where is the item from? And sometimes, that’s an easy place to start. Most items that are labeled with their country of origin give you an opportunity to research what manufacturing conditions are like in that country, what its ecological concerns are, or what steps it may have taken to make things better.

You can also ask- who made this? For any given item, there may have been many hands involved in bringing its pieces together. Raw materials to make phone components may have been gathered by farmers in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Laos before being assembled by workers in Taiwan. What are the steps involved?

Another question worth asking- how did this get to me? At any given moment, tons and tons of cargo moves across the world via plane, ship, and truck. One of the great costs of a more interconnected world is a detachment from the process of getting items from one place to another. It’s something we easily take for granted.

These questions are worthwhile, because it reminds us that there are more costs to an item than its financial costs. There are human implications involved when it comes to how an item is made. There are ecological concerns related to its materials and its transportation. Being more mindful will hopefully enable us to constantly improve.

A flowchart for your closet

A flowchart for your closet

What is its purpose?

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in how impressive a product’s features and benefits are, that we forget to ask ourselves what its purpose is in the first place. Being focused on purpose can make us more mindful, conscious consumers.

Business expert Clayton Christensen writes that every product a person purchases is being “hired” to perform a job. He encourages people to think, “what job is this product hired to do?” Christensen also encourages going beyond the obvious- a lawnmower’s job might seem like it’s to “cut the grass,” which is true, but “keeping the lawn beautiful” points to a higher level answer.

He gives this advice to business leaders and marketing departments, but there’s no reason why the users of products shouldn’t ask themselves these questions as well. By being more mindful of our hopes and intentions for each thing we buy, we can be far more intentional with our purchasing decisions.

We’ll be able to see if there are other ways of doing something we’ve always done. Maybe other products will serve the purpose just as well, in a more sustainable way. A reusable cloth might do the job a paper towel used to do for us. Maybe a bamboo version of an item usually made of plastic would be more appropriate. Asking the purpose question helps us see more clearly when this applies.

Where is this going?

Every product is temporary.

What will happen when the things you buy retire from serving the purpose they were meant for?

Some things made out of materials, like plastic or aluminum are originally meant to be used for a few months or years. Unfortunately, they take decades, and in some cases, centuries to break down. A plastic bag can take 500 years to decompose, while one made from cotton can break down in mere months.

Every item has to end up somewhere, so what does the end of the road look like for the thing right in front of you? Is it a landfill? Will it be repurposed and made into something else? Is it going to be composted so its nutrients can nourish growing plants?

Thinking of every product as finite can help us to consider more sustainable alternatives that accomplish their purposes. It may ultimately move us to make fewer unnecessary purchases and to instead focus on intangible things that last.

If we were to approach each item we’re interested in with the past and future in mind, we can take a significant step towards more sustainable living.

We believe that we can be a part of creating more stories of hope for our planet. To invest in restoring the relationship between people and the planet for just $22, you can sign up to be a Purpose Partner. Visit this part of our site to learn more.

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