Britta Gustafson: Shamelessly embracing materialism

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

Cleaning out a loft in my parents’ home last weekend, my sister and I shared some serious laughs at the childhood treasures we have saved for decades.

Opening a shoebox which contained an old, empty Kleenex box housing a small tile, two plastic chess pieces, some Mardi Gras beads, a button from Snowmass Banana days in 1986, a Ziplock bag with a lock of hair labeled “Sonya (my sister) cut her own hair- age 3,” 15 Pacifico beer labels from a spring break trip to Mexico, and more.

It all helped me to recognize that some things are simply not worth saving forever.

But on the whole, if I were defined by the contents of the many boxes that make up a life of keepsakes and trinkets, I’d like to think it would reflect my personality. Perhaps I’m eclectic and sentimental, maybe creative. Clearly I try not to waste, and yes, I am shamelessly materialistic.

It was a pair of little red clogs that helped me to truly embrace my materialism. Those shoes first belonged to my cousin who gave them to me. Both of my sisters then wore them, and we passed them along to our younger cousins who shared them and then successively gave them back to the daughter of their original owner. She saved them and recently gave them back to me for my daughter to wear.

To date, those well-made, little wooden shoes with red leather have been worn for three decades by 10 of my family members, beloved by all, and are still in fairly good shape.

Thinking about those shoes made me wonder: Am I materialistic enough? I don’t love all the things around me and I do throw things away. Like most of my generation, I upgrade my devices, purchase new gear and refresh my wardrobe perhaps a little too frequently.

For a long time I was ashamed of my clutter. I liked it all but felt social pressure to embrace the wave of minimalism, the facade behind which our current culture of excessive consumerism hides.

I can honestly say I find it very hard to throw away perfectly useful, interesting, odd and eclectic things. My motto — borrowed from an old newspaper cartoon — has long been, “A place for everything and everything all over the place.”

But I can purge things. For example, when I have fully loved a shirt to its death by allowing it to evolve from my favorite going out top, to day wear, to casual mommy-bus-drop-off attire, to sleepwear, to cleaning clothes, to a rag, to a hamster cage liner, and can say that’s a clothing life well-lived, then I can let it go.

It seems that the environmental footprint our consumerism creates may be accelerated by the “less is more” trend, a philosophical effort to design our outward appearances that is not in alignment with the way we shop. We are better consumers than at any other time in history but our materialistic tendencies are waning. We’ve become so wasteful that we don’t even like our stuff anymore. It is all disposable.

In this valley, we clearly suffer from an accelerated affliction of affluenza. There is so much excess here that we exceed the national average, nearly doubling our local waste production in one year. Here, throwing out last year’s iPhone, upgrading devices and electronics annually, updating wardrobes and recreational gear isn’t enough. In this valley, we take it a step further and consistently remodel our houses, tear down spec homes and flip properties, and rip out entire hotels to replace them instead of renovating.

Here, it’s not just a new pair of shoes but a new kitchen that’s replaced annually. Entryways, appliances, furniture, it all seems as disposable as the income that must exist to create an infrastructure that sustains such excess. But even though you can, does it really mean you should?

In many ways it seems as if we are now trained to love to waste. It’s not just OK to throw away perfectly good things, now we are actually taught that it is a good idea, trendy and economically progressive. But is that efficient? Is waste really a good way to create wealth?

What if instead we embraced materialism and learned to actually love our possessions? Might we then spend more money on services, fixing and repairing those things we love, instead of discarding and constantly buying new?

Perhaps we have our semantics mixed up, criticizing materialism while embracing consumerism; mixing up the love of buying with the love of the materials in our world. If we truly loved our things, then perhaps throwing them away would become more painful.

If everything old is meant to be discarded, perhaps it should be worth considering discarding that very idea. Embrace materialism, question excessive consumerism, and love your stuff at least enough that you won’t choose to replace or waste it.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind; after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at


See more