How to Build a Life Based On Intentional, Mindful Consumption 

Members of the outdoor community, including REI staff, share their tips for embracing minimalism, zero waste and other mindful consumption trends.

Today, Summer Hanson, 25, is a vegan, zero-waster from Seattle who teaches others to stay mindful about what they’re buying, so they can reduce their carbon footprints and hopefully reduce some of their anxiety, too. For many aspiring zero-wasters, she’s an inspiration. But her life hasn’t always been this way.

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In 2016, Hanson got her first job out of college in the fashion retail department of a large e-commerce company.

“I had always had a taste for shopping, and this being my first time with a real income, and working in the e-commerce industry, I went a little crazy with online shopping,” she says. She bought stuff—a lot of stuff—even though she’s always been a budgeter. Then a friend gave her a book on minimalism, which led her to begin decluttering.

“I tried a capsule wardrobe for three months,” she says, referring to the wardrobe she created comprised of limited items that can be worn together in different configurations. The change “helped me to understand the burden of clutter, and caused me to be a lot more cautious about bringing new items into my life, so my shopping slowed way down.”

While she was reducing the size of her closet, Hanson heard about a thing called the “zero waste movement,” where people try to reduce the waste they create as much as possible for environmental reasons. The concept clicked with her right away. Three years later, Hanson now helps run Eco Collective, a Seattle-based zero-waste store. She says she feels less stressed, more mindful and more excited about buying only what she needs.

A shift toward mindful consumption

Hanson isn’t alone in her hunt for a more mindful life, especially as news about climate change ramps up. Temperatures are rising at a rapid pace, causing sea levels to rise and more extreme weather events to occur, according to a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Much of this is due to greenhouse gas emissions, which more than 60 countries have agreed to reduce by 2020 as part of the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, many emissions link back to individual waste output. In the United States, the average person generates 4.48 pounds of trash per day, a number that looks to be increasing each year, according to the EPA. In 2015 alone, that resulted in a total of 262 million tons of trash being dumped in landfills, where trash sits (and sits and sits) until it eventually breaks down decades later. Much of this trash pile is made up of items we mindlessly buy and discard, like single-use plastic wrappers, leftover food waste, and even the random doodads we end up throwing out when we’re spring cleaning. Both the production of these products and the removal of them require transportation, which increases fuel output and can lead to heightened emissions spewing into the air.

At the same time, Americans are buying things at a breakneck pace. Compared with 2018, the Bureau of Economic Analysis found total personal consumption expenditures in 2019 increased by $20.1 billion in 2019, compared with the previous year. An annual analysis by NerdWallet revealed that the average American household carries an estimated balance of $6,829 on at least one credit card every month, with balances carried from one month to the next. And Americans spend, on average, more than $1,497 per month on nonessential items (not including rent and food), a OnePoll study found

“We’re wired by our surroundings to chase the next—the next trend, the next purchase, the next swipe left, the next hit of dopamine those behaviors release,” says Matthew Thurston, director of sustainability at REI. “It kills our time—the very stuff life is made of—and it’s killing our environment.”

Trends like these have led many people, like Hanson, to look toward a new way of living: Instead of buying things on impulse, they’re embracing mindful consumption. This movement goes by many names—minimalism, zero waste and Marie Kondo-ing are three you may have heard of—but no matter the title, it’s all about thinking deeply, with focus, about the items you bring into your life. 

How can you jump into this trend yourself? Admittedly, it can be daunting to change your purchasing habits when they’re ingrained in your routines. But it’s not about changing overnight; rather, mindfulness means taking a moment to think intentionally about how you behave, what you buy and what you throw away. Here, we talk with outdoor lovers and REI staff about the way minimalism manifests itself in their lives, from building tiny living spaces, to living in co-ops, to hiking with the lightest packs possible. These folks also offer some insights about how to get started on your own mindful consumption journey right now. 

Building a tiny home

Ashley Bekolay, 34, a sustainability analyst for REI, has jumped on board the mindful consumption by building a tiny home, which is now in its planning phase. She says she was raised to be grateful for what she had and to respect the planet, but she still bought things—lots of things. Even during college, when she was “broke as a joke,” she says she kept plunging herself deeper into credit card debt. 

While it took a while to realize that stuff wasn’t the answer to my problems, I slowly got there,” she says, noting that retail therapy didn’t seem to relieve her stress; in contrast, it only added to it. “Another big reason for wanting to live more intentionally is because our planet needs us to. It doesn’t take much for one person to make a positive impact.”

For Bekolay, moving from apartment to apartment persuaded her to purge all of the stuff she’d been collecting over the years. Eventually, in 2017, she got on the “Marie Kondo train” and got rid of more items that didn’t give her joy. Soon after, she decided that building a tiny home would be the best way to achieve her goals of having a smaller environmental footprint and making a positive impact on the planet. She hopes that living in a tiny space will teach her to thrive with less. She’ll find out soon enough—the house will be 28-feet long, on a 3-axle trailer and should be completed by the end of 2020. 

Hiking with less in your pack

Before Elizabeth “Snorkel” Thomas went on her first thru-hike, she took a backpacking trip in Europe in 2003. Thomas, now 33, knew she wanted a pack that was lighter, so she learned how to bring only what she needed. Today that lightweight knowledge translates to her love of the trails, where she is a lightweight thru-hiker and the author of the book Long Trails. She’s well-known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail and says the lightweight lifestyle translated into being very picky about what to buy.

Now, Thomas’ pack never weighs more than 10 pounds (excluding food and water) and she decides what to bring based on her trip goals. Overall, she says living light “gives her the right mindset” to evaluate what she might want to buy both on the trail and when she’s at home. When her pack is light, so is her mind.

Embracing minimalism at home

Every Sunday, Ryan Ricketts finds five things he doesn’t need anymore and puts them in a donation bin.

“Once per month, I ask my friends if they want anything out of the bin for free and if they don’t, I’ll donate it,” said Ricketts, a 35-year-old technical SEO manager at REI.

Ricketts’ mission to live with less started eight years ago after a friend began to think deeply about how many objects he owned. Ricketts jumped on board and started to evaluate his purchases, too. 

“Do the things you own provide usefulness or utility for you?” he asks. He considers all of his purchases from this mindset, which helps to reduce stress in his life. He rarely buys something new without donating something else and says it only took him 35 minutes to pack up for a move from one apartment to another last year.

Sharing your resources

Mindful consumption doesn’t just have to do with possessions, though. For Scott Mosher, 43, associate creative director for REI Co-op brands, mindful living is all about community. He and his wife live in a cohousing community called Puget Ridge Cohousing Association in West Seattle, where they share resources—like child care, cooking duties, gardening and more—with their neighbors. They live in a 900-square-foot space with very little storage. Mosher says it’s forced them to be very intentional about what they want in their lives.

“We quickly fell in love with this way of life,” he says. It’s “a life centered on community, family, working together and sharing.” 

Peter Whitcomb, 35, who is the director of new business development for REI, is also inspired by the notion of sharing resources as a way to be more mindful about what you’re buying and why. “The average consumer today is buying more new stuff than ever and using it for only half as long,” he says, noting that buying used gear or renting your gear can be a much more sustainable option if you don’t want to use something for very long, or you want to try a product before you buy it.

This shared way of life can also be more sustainable for our planet, Whitcomb says. “We have some early data points that signal that renting and buying used reduces the carbon footprint of the rented or used product relative to buying it new.”

The benefits of mindful consumption

Every person we spoke with for this story mentioned one huge benefit to living with less: Mental clarity. They said getting rid of extra items, and taking care not to add new items to their life just for the fun (or trendiness) of it, gave them extra mental capacity, reduced their anxiety and led to mental clarity about what they wanted out of life. 

Hanson also says living more mindfully makes her feel empowered; she feels like she’s doing her part to help the planet, however small that part might be.

“It’s important to remember that even small decisions at scale can lead to big changes,” Thurston says. “For example, when we buy a product, we also ‘buy’ all the upstream impacts of that product. That could include the mining of raw materials, the intensive manufacturing processes, the global logistics needed to move the product halfway around the world, and the unintended pollution each step along the way. Those invisible environmental costs—what we call the product’s ‘footprint’—can be quite substantial.”

How to adopt a more mindful stance

Each of the minimalists we spoke with recommended starting slow with your mindfulness journey. Adopt one new practice and others will follow. Here are some tips:

Start with decluttering: In the beginning, Ricketts says he tackled his socks.

“You can probably find all the socks that you own in the whole house,” he says. “When you gather them up, you can see what you’ve acquired over the years. Start over: Say I need 10 pairs total, maybe a few that do special things for skiing and hiking, and then maybe buy a few new ones but also get rid of what you don’t need. This creates a snowball effect.”

Hanson uses this filter: Keep what you want in alignment with your values. If you value spending time outdoors, exercising or being healthy, for example, you might keep that gear but pare down on your shoe collection. 

This process will help you understand what you have, feel the burden of excess and refocus on what’s most important to you when it comes to your belongings. Understanding what you have already will allow you to make effective choices on new purchases,” she says.

Read about minimalism: For Bekolay, Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a must-read. She also loves The Year of Less by Cait Flanders. Hanson recommends reading blogs focused on mindful consumption (for example: Miss Minimalist, No Sidebar, Minimalist Student or Trash is for Tossers), and using online resources around zero waste, tiny home living and minimalism.

Pause before you buy: First, think about where the item came from and where it will go.

“All stuff has a story,” says Hanson. “Mindless consumption happens when you don’t think about the story of your stuff. Start thinking about the story before buying, and if the story makes you uncomfortable, keep searching for something with a better story.”

When looking for a more sustainable option, Hanson suggests swapping out items one at a time. Some other swaps to consider: Paper napkins and towels for reusable ones; disposable tampons and pads for menstrual cups; new items for used ones; and synthetic fabrics for natural ones.

Keep track of what you already have: Ricketts keeps a spreadsheet of every piece of gear he owns, and he makes notes in this spreadsheet about the item’s purpose, cost and quality. When he wants to buy something new, he refers to this list and asks: Do I really need this item, or do I have something else that fulfills its usefulness in the same way? If he still wants to buy the new item, he donates the old one.

Bekolay follows a similar process by writing down everything she needs (or thinks she needs) before buying it. “Let those things sit on your list, even for a day, and re-evaluate,” she says. 

Buy used or borrow from a friend: You can find some really great, unique things that need a new home if you just invest the time in finding them. For things like tools, or things you may need only once, see if you can borrow from a friend,” Bekolay says. 

Most neighborhoods around the U.S. have local Buy Nothing chapters, where members can borrow or exchange items for free. And most REI stores have rental gear departments as well, which can be a great way to try a product before buying it.

Reduce your exposure: It’s much, much harder to avoid buying things you don’t need when you’re surrounded by stories about how much you really need those things. Thus, Hanson makes efforts to unfollow social media accounts that make her feel like she needs to “keep up,” and she watches less TV in favor of reading books.

Make mistakes: Hanson and Ricketts have spent years paring down their own items, and still, they both say that they mess up often. Rather than being hard on yourself, give yourself grace; reshaping your habits (especially in a society that’s built to function on buying and having and getting), can be a slow process.

“It won’t happen overnight, and you will make mistakes along the way. It’s a continuous journey, and every conscious step makes a difference, so pat yourself on the back for the steps you take in the right direction, and don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes, just keep moving forward,” Hanson says.