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Sustainable Living -- Becoming an Unconsumer

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A new buzzword has surfaced thanks to the recession: unconsumption.

Unconsumption describes the now savvy and respectable trend of reducing, reusing, and recycling. It's a conscious consumerist mentality. In other words, it's the opposite of the buy-now-throw-away-tomorrow culture that permeated most of the 90s.

Just how much are Americans unconsuming these days? Sales at Goodwill stores grew 7.1 percent in the first three months of 2009. Craigslist saw 100 percent increase in bartering. And companies began to launch campaigns to appeal to the frugal consumer, like the Babies 'R' Us trade-in where customers brought in old car seats for discounts on new goods.

In one of my favorite talks at SXSW, Dr. Nita Rollins, Futurist at Resource International, walked through her research and insights on how values have been reset by the American super-consumer. Unlike consumption, the word used to describe the acquisition of things in exchange for money, unconsumption encompasses all actions after the act of acquisition.

Frugality has changed the internet and the internet has changed frugality. Digital forces have helped transform consumption, connecting consumers to ideas, transparency, and products. For instance, sites like Etsy--where material culture meets counter culture-- disintermediate the middleman to allow artists to sell directly to consumers.

Unconsumption has sprouted from simultaneous developments: the recession and the green movement. While US consumption overall has slowed, a third of consumers are willing to pay more for 'green' products, especially food and large appliances, according to a BCG study in January. Rollins commented, "Environmental green and greed are not enemies."

Learn more:
View Rollins' presentation from SXSW
Check out the Unconsumption Wiki
Read Rob Walker's New York Times column, Consumed

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