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Adventures in learning how we buy less – Part 1: The start of my journey

shopping image_no_small.jpgby Kirsten Firminger

I am finally collecting data for my dissertation. It is focused on people living in New York City who have voluntarily chosen to buy less. I launched the survey last Thursday and I am already amazed at the responses I have gotten. Being able to hear about the variety of goals, motivations, and experiences that different people have had is such a privilege and so very fascinating. I can’t wait to hear from more people (obligatory promo: if you live in NYC and have voluntarily chosen to buy less, you can link here to the Buying Less in NYC Survey).


Since I have finally reached this critical stage in my dissertation research, it has led me to look back at how it started for me. I entered my social psychology program thinking that I was going to focus on issues related to gender roles and norms. For my second year project (equivalent of a master’s thesis), I looked at how masculinity was portrayed in teenage girls magazines. What came across in the magazines as strongly as gender norms, was how much these norms where tied into selling products. The underlying need to sell advertising space and integrate sponsors into the content of the magazine articles was overwhelming. It turns out that a girl can’t have her first kiss without the right brand of lip gloss on hand. That is when I turned a page and began studying consumption, branding, and marketing.


After a couple of years of being overwhelmed by research into the
psychology of consumption, I was left feeling a lot of despair. Much of
the writing had a negative tone when it came to individuals’ ability to
have any control, understanding, or voice in this world of
“consumerism”. I wanted to seek out alternative voices and experiences,
both personally and academically, which found new ways to deal with all
the consumption that was going on around us.

That began my academic adventure into researching reduced
consumption and my personal journey of living a life of buying less,
both of which continue to evolve. The coolest part has been finding out
about all the different people and organizations that are out there
addressing this topic in their own way. Not only is it national figures
like No Impact Man, Rev. Billy and the Church of Life after Shopping, Rob Walker and organizations such as the New American Dream, and that are out there. It is also local people and groups like the Brooklyn Green Team, GreenEdgeNYC, Bags for the People, and the Fixers’ Collective. It is even what brought me to the Interdependence Project.
Last, but not least, it is the people I run into in daily life who have
things to say about choosing to buy less. We all bring something of our
own to the table, whether it is ideas, skills, compassion, networking,
or politicking, it all contributes to creating where we go next in
unexpected and surprising ways. And that, to me, is what makes this
worth doing.

Comments read comments(3)
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Lauren Serota

posted September 30, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Hi Kirstin,
I think this is an interesting topic, and believe that through understanding motivations for making such life decisions as voluntary simplicity, we can find opportunities to encourage reduction of waste and over-consumption in others.
I do have a couple of questions:
1. Why New York City? Living in New York forces simplicity due to a general lack of storage space, ability to transport items (with anything besides two hands/a grocery caddy) and significantly varied spending/lifestyle priorities. Might it be more insightful to understand why people are making choices towards voluntary simplicity (or buying less) in places where space, transportation and financial means are less restrictive / more representational of our society as a whole?
2. Do you feel it be beneficial to understand motivations for people who AREN’T buying less? I suppose this would depend on what you intend to do with the outcome of this project..
I’m eager to hear your thoughts, and look forward to learning about your findings. I think that excessive consumption (commercial, agricultural, etc) is something we’ve been guilty of as a nation, so bringing to light motivations behind being moderate (or modest) could act as a positive step towards more healthy and conscious consumption patterns.

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Kirsten Firminger

posted September 30, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Hi Lauren,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. To answer your questions:
Question 1) I understood going in that NYC is not representative of the rest of the country in many ways. It has more resources in some ways (lots of groups/communities, organizations, activists, alternative spaces/resources to acquire needed goods, mass transportation, etc…) and in other ways it is a real burden (expensive, a lot of pressure to consume and have a certain appearance, constantly being bombarded with marking and advertising, and so forth). However I am also a graduate student with very limited resources (both in time and money) and there is not a lot of funding out there to learn about how people buy less (if I wanted to research how to get people to buy more, I would have no problems). Since I live in NYC, I have local connections and I don’t have to travel to interview people. Oh, which reminds me I should also note that I am doing follow-up, in-person interviews. The survey actually arose after I was first planning on just doing in-person interviews because I found that when I was setting up the questions for the interviews, there was a lot of basic stuff that I did not know. My interview protocol ended up full of Yes/No questions or questions that required a short answer (for example, in addition to buying less, do you also limit your exposure to advertising? do you participate in freecycling? do you grow your own food?). So I decided it would be good to do a survey as well as interviews. That way I could reach more people as well as get some information from people who would not be inclined to spend the time needed for an in-person interview. But I do agree that it would be helpful to do a survey and interviews on a national scale. Maybe if my dissertation goes well, someone will want to give me the funds needed to do that kind of work! In which case, my dissertation would serve as a pilot study to that work.
Question 2) I most certainly think it important to understand the motivations of people who aren’t buying less. To some extent that is what is being studied by market/consumer studies researchers everyday (why do people buy what they buy). Every researcher has to limit the focus of a particular study so that their results don’t get too convoluted and complicated. If anything, my study might still be considered too broad since I’m not just studying one particular motivation for buying less, such as wanted less clutter in one’s life, or one community, such as the freegans or voluntary simplifiers. I went into the work knowing that I cannot do everything at once (even if I really really want to) because I don’t have the time (I would never graduate), resources, and most importantly, it would hurt the clarity of the research itself, leaving me with results that may not answer any questions at all.
Let me know if that answers your questions (or if you now have more questions). Sorry for the excessively long-winded answer! It may be a little while before I have results from the survey and the interviews (late winter 2009/early spring 2010), but I will certainly get the word out once I do.

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Lauren Serota

posted September 30, 2009 at 5:57 pm

Hi Kirsten,
Thank you for your thoughtful responses! It sounds like you’ve made some good decisions for the scope of your project! Best of luck to you on your research and analysis.
Looking forward,

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