Navigating the moral dilemma of buying new things

Photo by Christopher Gower on Unsplash

I finally bought a new phone. This was after five years since purchasing the last one.

I previously had a decent android which worked well. The battery started to fail me, but I got that replaced last year. When I did that, It actually felt like a new phone.

But by late last year it started to fail. Some internal overheating error meant it stopped charging at all. I basically had a phone that I could only use if it was plugged in. The ‘mobile’ part of mobile phone was lost.

I ended up borrowing my mum’s old phone to keep me going. It was a phone that was a few years old. It was living in an old drawer anyway.

The issue once again was the battery. Even when I started using it, it would die when it got to about 30 percent battery, sometimes very rapidly and without warning. I had one moment where I was following google maps to a friends house, only for it to dramatically die without warning. I got lucky and managed to find their front door by some old visual memory.

This only got worse, the battery had degraded so badly it would die almost instantaneously. The last time I used it on Monday, it hit 97% and died. I now own two phones that only work when plugged in.

So this week was time I finally upgraded. Yet, I had a moral quandary here. After all, the constant purchasing of new phones is one of the most obvious examples of needless materialistic waste. New phones rarely have much better features anyway.

I could have bought a second hand phone, or something more socially conscious like a Fairphone. It probably would have fit a nice, conscientious looking mould. But honestly, I didn’t want to. I am one of the heaviest users of a mobile phone that I know, and I much preferred getting a new, higher spec one which will last me a long time.

I know many people who find this question challenging, particularly who work or care deeply around environmental issues. I felt a tinge of guilt for wanting something flashy and new, especially when I literally work on circular economy policy. Yet I also knew that I would use it and it was what I really wanted. I think it would have been worse to not purchase it out of self guilt.

So how do we square this conflict of views?

Well, firstly, I think it’s okay to want things. Wanting and using is part of our natural behaviours as humans. I don’t see much value in chastising ourselves for this.

That said, I believe that it is important that we appreciate the items we consume. It may sound somewhat weird to say it, but one of my most prized possessions is my TV. I love the quality of it, and the graphics when playing games on my Playstation brings me a real sense of joy.

I find this sort of consumerism different to items that we buy but then do not use. If I am genuinely appreciating the materials, I think it is worth it.

Moreover, I’ve seen so many people working in the environmental space get into an existential angst around basic consumption that it makes them miserable. Whilst its great to be conscientious, we must not forget that life is to be enjoyed. If we are going to have some marked impact on the environment through the fact that we exist, we might as well make our existence a joyous and fulfilled one.

On my quest for a new phone, one thing that I did not expect was how underwhelmed I felt when it actually came. It was so quick to setup and transfer my data that I barely had time to notice it happening.

I reflect that with tech upgrades being so easy now, some of the magic and delayed gratification has gone away. If I were to buy a new laptop, I could probably have it setup within hours. The tech is so good that it could sync up all my applications and settings pretty much instantly. This feels very far away to the magic of when I bought my first laptop, where I had to set everything up, along with seeing what wallpaper I wanted to put on.

I think we would benefit from appreciating our purchases more fully. A key element of this is having that delayed gratification, as well as focused appreciation in what we have bought.

Whilst I do not want to turn back the clock on the heightened level of convenience we now have in the world, there is a space for us to build our own rituals to genuinely enjoy the new creations in our hands.

If we took a moment to genuinely consider how much effort went into making the things we own, I think we would live our lives in a far higher state of gratitude.

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