My grandparents married during the Great Depression and began raising their young family during World War II. 

My grandmother would tell me stories about those times with pride. She couldn’t buy a car or nylon stockings. But she did save every bit of aluminum for the war effort, mended socks, and planted a victory garden. Though they had very little, when they could save ten cents, she would get another stamp for her war bond book.  

As tough as those times were, my grandmother felt that what she did every day mattered for the country and her children’s future. Families across the nation took these same actions, and, together, they did indeed make all the difference. The victory gardens, the recycling, the $185 billion in war bonds raised by 85 million cash-strapped Americans (nearly $2 trillion in today’s dollars), and the retooling of Detroit for tanks and planes provided our country with the resources and capacity for the war effort. 

Taken together, these actions gave the economy a whole new set of  priorities—moving from a failing consumer-based economy to an economy focused on providing for the country’s future.  

As a nation, we are again at this kind of pivotal time. We can choose to reprioritize the economy. And we know how to do it — we did it during World War II.  

The steps this time around will look familiar to those who experienced these days. We need to embrace thrift as a fundamental value, and collectively shift our economy from one depending on consumerism, debt, and speculation, to one that spends its precious resources on what sustains health and well-being for people and the planet. 

Like the economy my grandmother experienced during World War II, the consumer sector can no longer be the economy’s driver. But instead of a war effort, the priority now needs be to on economic activity and jobs that bring about a sustainable future—from energy efficiency, mass transit, and sustainable agriculture to education, health, and building resilient communities, that make sure no one is left behind. 

The good news is that we’re already doing it.   When gas prices spiked last summer, we saw millions of Americans finding ways to cut back on their driving.  When Juneau, Alaska faced an avalanche-induced power outage last year, the town reduced its electricity use by 30 percent within weeks.  And just this past spring, we saw the reports that the economic downturn can be seen at our nation’s landfills, which have been taking in less trash, as more Americans shift to thrift.   

Smart transportation, energy efficiency, and a reduction of our landfill footprint:  they’re not only a smart reaction to a crisis, but they’re part of the right response which, sustained into the future, will help us create the new economy that will work for all of us. 

Unlike after World War II, we can’t go “back to the way it was” when our current crisis is over.  We need to create the fundamental system change that keeps to these new priorities and reinvents a new economics that doesn’t depend on unhealthy growth—a system its cost on others, producing a range of modern social ills, from sweatshop labor to pollution.  Instead, we need to build a new system that provides well-being for all in a sustainable, steady-state economy.  

We need to make conspicuous consumption a thing of the past, and in this new economy, you and I, like my grandmother, will be growing that garden, mending, and recycling.   We’ll get more creative about cooperating with family, friends, and neighbors to take care of the basics – and have more fun.  The money we save will go to priorities like making our homes more energy-efficient, and into investments that help our entire country shift to renewables and provide the preventive care to keep families in good health. 

No more defaulting back to consumerism as the engine that drives the economy and speculative investment that sends money speeding around the globe, divorced from the real, Main Street economy.  We need to create the fundamental system change that embeds these new priorities – reinventing a new economics, with a new green engine, that provides well-being for all. 

 Alisa Gravitz is the executive director of Green America, the national organization advocating for a just and sustainable economy,


Filed under Economics, Populists

9 responses to “THRIFT, NOT CONSUMERISM, IS THE ANSWER – by Alicia Gravitz

  1. wicked

    It all sounds good, but can it be done? If I look closely, we’ve pulled back on the consumerism and will continue to do so for the most part. Not that it took a lot. We all do what we have to. Cutting back on driving wasn’t hard, even though I’m now driving more, taking move-back-home daughter to work and back. But, hey, it’s a shorter trip than her honey made, so I guess that counts for something. Too bad we don’t have a good transit system, but without funds and excellent planning, I don’t see that happening.

    I hope Ms. Gravitz will see those goals she mentioned met.

  2. tosmarttobegop

    Think about how covenant your life is, that is because you are a consumer. We are like the guy who as he falls off the cliff suddenly realizes he was taking the wrong path. Part of it was with intent and somewhere there is a video that explains how merchandizing and ad agencies actually used the help of study of human nature to make us become a nation of consumers.

    Big tobacco wanted to increase sales and at the time is was a social taboo for women to smoke.
    This one is kind of weird, based on Freud’s penis envy theory cigarettes were marketed to women as a way to say they have a penis too. They hired several socialites to march in a parade and on a signal produce a cigarette and light up while they marched.

    They strived to break people of the concept of only buying what they needed and show it was OK to have more then one needs. The thought that we have been manipulated is an outrage. But can we break it?

  3. jammer5

    This goes deeper than it looks. We’re being told that credit needs to be opened up again as a way to get the economy going. That’s just wrong on so many levels. Credit is what got us into this mess in the first place. When the savings rate in this country dropped to a minus one point two percent, which happened one time in the past, the great depression, bells and whistles should have been going off like tornado warnings. They didn’t.

    People were, and to some extent, still are, using credit cards as their emergency funds. That’s just plain wrong. And both the federal government and the financial institutions, the ones who allowed this mess to happen, are calling for us to keep spending. My question is: Is this what capitalism has come down to? My answer to that question is: If that’s true, then capitalism itself is wrong.

  4. tosmarttobegop

    Credit is not the answer nor the problem at hand, its fear for the future. Even if you still have a good job you do not buy because tomorrow you may not have that job. Because enough people are not buying i.e. spending money then other are suffering a downturn.
    This causes more lay-offs and in turn more people fearing for the future. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

    We have the problem of for the last twenty five years the financial and business at large has been operating at the same financial understanding of a freeman college student.
    The concept that like with their first credit card, they can keep charging with no day of reckoning. we had that day of reckoning and the pass due was called. Financial values were nothing but on paper with no real value to back it up. It became as if they used the value of the loan they took out as the collateral for the next loan they took out.
    When the first loan is called they took out another loan to pay off the loan they took out.
    Mean while they were able to keep the money gained that should have been going to pay the loan.

    What is my answer? This is going to take time for each phase, first the financial and business needs to right their misperceptions. Realign their concept of free trade and what is the real strength of manufacturing. You have to have something that is made of real value not that is imported. Manufacturing here means jobs and money flowing in and out of the economy. It is real value instead on just on paper.

    Second will be that we as a people become more realistic in what we want and need.

  5. One concrete step that has worked great for my local community is to split ownership of many items and share them through a kind of checkout system. Often items are necessary but used only once a week or less. Why should everybody in a neighborhood own the same things that they rarely use? It’s a form of consumerism the experts call “unused capacity”.

    We also get together and buy goods in huge bulk – directly from local producers and distributors – and see equally large discounts. Benefits are lower costs, less clutter, transportation, packaging and waste.

    For us, saving money was the initial incentive; today, folks in my community lead better, simpler, greener, more cooperative, sustainable and social lives than we would have ever dreamed possible before. I document the transformation of my community in my new blog.

    • jammer5

      Excellent blog, and even more, excellent information. Tried to post a reply there, but it didn’t like me 😦

  6. Fragger

    Get Rid of the Poodle! A Call for a Sustainable Economy [Draft]

    “As a poodle may have his hair cut long or his hair cut short, as he may be trimmed with pink ribbons or with blue ribbons, yet he remains the same old poodle, so capitalism may be trimmed with factory laws, tenement laws, divorce laws and gambling laws, but it remains the same old capitalism.” – Daniel De Leon, in his November 2, 1908 Daily People editorial, “Trimming the Poodle”

    “You cannot solve a problem using the same consciousness that created it.” – attributed to Albert Einstein, presumably sometime after 1908


    Change! was the word repeated ad nauseam by both corporate political parties in the United States in the months leading up to the November 2008 elections. Yet, thus far, we have seen little to no change at all.

    This is especially true of our politicians’ approach to our economy. Amid much hand wringing over “zombie” and “vampire” banks, no one seems to be looking at the bigger picture of a Frankenstein economy that is composed of decomposing parts. Incredibly, the Democratic Party that currently controls both houses of Congress and the White House has continued the Bush Administration policy of throwing obscene amounts of tax money arbitrarily at selected corporations in an effort to “stimulate” the economy.

    In fact, this bizarre practice is the culmination of nearly 30 years of “trickle down” economics and centuries of robber baron capitalism. However, this habit of attempting to jolt our Frankenstein economy to life from the top didn’t prevent the recession of the early 1980s. It didn’t prevent the failure of the savings and loan associations – remember them? – in the middle to late 1980s. It didn’t prevent the stock market crash of 1987. It didn’t prevent the recession of the early 1990s. It didn’t prevent the Internet business boom and bust of the later 1990s and early 2000s. It didn’t prevent the real estate boom and bust that some believe is at the root of our current crisis. And it won’t prevent similar crises in the future.

    Clearly, we need real change – not just another change from Democrats back to Republicans, or from Republicans back to Democrats. Even the state capitalism that passes for “socialism” in some societies suffers from the same old, tired, top-down thinking.

    Clearly, we need to change our whole way of looking at and engaging in our economy. We need a sustainable economy – an economy that is powered by our core values of grassroots democracy, social justice, non-violence and ecological wisdom.

    What Is a Sustainable Economy?

    An Economy Powered by Grassroots Democracy

    In the United States and throughout much of the world, many claim to cherish democracy, yet few consider the idea that democracy shouldn’t end at the door to the workplace. Some believe that the dictates of property and ownership, no matter how unsafe, unequal and unfair, must be given an unquestionable supremacy in society in order for democracy to exist.

    Yet, under the Frankenstein economy, we can see how lacking in democracy our society truly is. A handful of people – people who may not even know, understand or care what is wrong with our economy – can make decisions that destroy the livelihoods of millions of workers.

    A sustainable economy will put basic economic decisions and the control of science and technology in the hands of the people. Every one of us will have a voice and a vote in managing our workplace, together with our fellow workers who work to produce the same good or service. We’ll elect our supervisors and managers – our fellow workers whom we recognize as the most experienced and capable in the work that we do. If these supervisors and managers fail to manage the workplace correctly, we, the workers who voted them in, can vote them out, delegating the responsibility to someone else. Management authority will flow from the bottom up instead of from the top down.

    In addition, this sustainable economy will be more efficient, because we’ll manage our own work, and will be able to assess the everyday effectiveness of the way that our work is done. We’ll be able to make necessary changes without having to go through layers of unsympathetic bosses.

    An Economy Powered by Social Justice

    Under the Frankenstein economy, economic exploitation is the underlying injustice that breeds all kinds of other social injustice.

    Extreme poverty and deprivation exist in an economy capable of producing great wealth. Employers and the governments that they control in countries throughout the world use fraud and force to suppress the aspirations of the nations’ working populations. In the United States, we are working longer and harder than ever, with all the personal and family stress that overwork produces. Even though we produce greater amounts of goods and services every year, most of us struggle just to maintain last year’s standard of living. Meanwhile, corporations use science and technology to lower labor costs and increase profits, to the detriment of, rather than for the benefit of, the majority.

    A sustainable economy will guarantee us the full product of our labor, and thus the full benefit of their rising productivity. Every one of us will have the inalienable right to be a working member of the community and receive full compensation for the work that we contribute to the common effort. No one will have the right to profit and enrich him- or herself on the backs of the people who produce the wealth.

    Moreover, our jobs will be secure, because we, not our employers, will own those jobs. Nobody is going to vote to eliminate his or her own source of livelihood unless the community of workers decides that he or she can produce something different that has a greater benefit for the community.

    However, because a sustainable economy will operate as a market-free system, in which we own our own product and distribute it among ourselves on a fair and equitable basis, all the nonproductive jobs required by the irrational market system will be unnecessary. All of us now doing nonproductive work will be able to join in doing useful labor for the improvement of the living standards of all.

    Coordinating our decisions with the rest of the economy – including the educational sector that can teach us new skills – we’ll be able to adjust our jobs to meet the changing needs and wants of society. Our livelihoods will be preserved instead of destroyed, with an added benefit for society as a whole.

    Furthermore, a sustainable economy will direct our science and technology to producing what is most beneficial to the most people, not what is merely the most profitable for a few. As our productivity continues to rise, the hours of work required to produce the goods and services that we need will decrease.

    Work will continue to be an important part of our lives in defining who we are as individuals – but it won’t be the only part.

    With a shorter workweek, we’ll have time to develop our other talents and personal potential. We’ll have the time to be the best parents, students, friends and neighbors that we can be.

    An Economy Powered by Non-Violence

    Under the Frankenstein economy, a few people enrich themselves by taking the lion’s share of the wealth produced by the work of the majority, society is divided into opposing interests, and the result is conflict and strife.

    Employers and the governments that they control wage battle against one another and against us for valuable resources, for control of markets, and for trade advantage. Exploitation breeds destructive oppression, irrational hatreds and war.

    However, we do the actual fighting and dying. We are caught in the middle of these conflicts, suffering the most and gaining the least from them.

    In a sustainable economy, we will work together as a unified community of workers, promoting intelligent cooperation and peace.

    An Economy Powered by Ecological Wisdom

    Under the Frankenstein economy, the air is being made unfit to breathe, industrial pollutants are poisoning the water and land, the earth’s resources are being exhausted, and rising temperatures threaten the very future of civilization.

    A sustainable economy will ensure that resources are used wisely and aren’t wasted. When we’re working for ourselves, we’ll understand the importance of making the right choices when it comes to what to produce and how to produce it.

    The quality as well as the quantity of goods produced must be considered. These goods should be made to last so that they don’t stress the environment by being thrown away and replaced sooner than necessary. This will also reduce energy use and decrease the production of greenhouse gases, by reducing overall production levels.

    How goods are produced is also critical. The time and resources that minimize industrial pollution and waste must be allocated to ensure that we maintain a rational balance between consumption and preserving the environment.

    A sustainable economy will achieve this balance because the purpose of production will be to meet the needs of people, and not to sell ever more merchandise for maximum profit through reckless and unplanned growth.

    How Will We Build a Sustainable Economy?

    Neither the Green Party, nor any other political party, nor a minority faction of workers can impose a sustainable economy on society. A benevolent dictator can’t give it to us. A philanthropic elite can’t grant it. It can only come into existence through the creative, coordinated action of the majority of workers.

    Political Action

    Nonetheless, we need the Green Party to represent and advocate a sustainable economy in the political arena. Through political activity, competing principles and programs rally support and votes, and, by winning a majority, become the ruling principles of society.

    For a sustainable economy to come into existence, we need the Green Party to act in the political arena because existing laws protect and enforce the property interests of employers. If we were to start simply running our workplaces ourselves and assuming ownership of the product of our labor, the police would be called in and we would be arrested for trespassing and theft.

    We need the Green Party to win a majority vote and enact new laws that validate the new system. The legal way would then be open for a peaceful and democratic change in the economics and governance of nations.

    However, the Green Party can’t credibly advocate a sustainable economy if it doesn’t stick to the principles essential to the creation of such a system. Thus, throughout this process, the Green Party must remain true to its four pillars: grassroots democracy, social justice, non-violence and ecological wisdom.

    Likewise, it is important for the Green Party to legislate with the goal of the new system in mind, and not to content itself with merely “trimming the poodle,” as Daniel De Leon put it so aptly in the quote above more than a century ago.

    Economic Action

    As essential as the Green Party will be to the success of a sustainable economy, equally important will be our simultaneous organization in our workplaces.

    Labor union organization will unite us in the economic arena as our organization in the Green Party will unite us in the political arena. Organized labor will realize our economic power as wealth producers, and enable us to challenge the financial power of employers from a position of strength.

    As our strength and confidence grows, we’ll challenge the dictatorial authority of the bosses in our workplaces. We’ll expand our own authority through our elected union representatives and labor councils, thereby creating the representational framework of the coming sustainable economy.

    Thus, when political victory is won at the polls, and the Green Party enacts the legal change to a sustainable economy, we’ll be mentally and organizationally prepared to assume its responsibilities.

    Political and economic action is the one-two punch that will create a sustainable economy.

  7. That’s a bunch of typing, Fragger. It’s too late for me to read it tonight. I’ll try to tackle that another day…

    Couldn’t you just have said, “hi” on your first post? 🙂