Photograph by Menty Jamir

It all began with a dressing gown. 

Denis Diderot was a French philosopher who lived in the 1700s. Though the co-founder of the Encyclopédie, he was a poor man. As the story goes, he was unable to afford getting his daughter married. Luckily, he was bailed out by Catherine the Great, who bought his library. Diderot now had money to spare. His purchase of a new scarlet dressing gown led him on a journey of consumption that he soon regretted — he accumulated a host of possessions to match his new gown, which upended his life. Today, we call this concept the Diderot Effect. 

Simply put, the Diderot Effect describes the phenomenon of how gaining a new possession can trigger a spiral of consumption. 

At some point in our lives, we have all been Diderot and fallen victim to this tendency. If you’ve bought a new car, you would’ve also bought seat covers, speakers, a stereo or other high-end accessories. If you’ve bought a dress for an occasion, you may have also bought matching shoes, jewellery, a bag, and make up. One purchase can set in motion a chain reaction that pushes us to acquire more things, whether necessary or unnecessary for sustaining our new lifestyle. 

It’s human nature to want to consume more. In today’s times, for instance, e-commerce algorithms constantly leave us susceptible to the Diderot Effect — we end up wanting and buying things we do not need. 

This rush to upgrade our lifestyles and become newer versions of ourselves, facilitated through our purchases, affects us in many ways. It can lead to unnecessary spending, and in extreme cases, a snowball effect could compel people to use up their savings or take loans to satisfy their need for a new life or identity. 

But a more lethal effect of such patterns of consumption is on the environment. Overconsumption (and unsustainable consumption) is a major driver of the climate crisis. Our consumption overshot the annual reserve of global natural resources even back in 1971; all we are doing now is stealing resources from future generations. A 2022 report by UNICEF Office of Research — Innocenti has found that over-consumption in the world’s richest countries is contributing to the destruction of the global environment. “The use-and-throw culture or consumerism is probably at its all-time high, given increasing disposable incomes, affordable prices and the plethora of options available to buy from,” says Sushant Figueiredo, a waste management consultant based in Goa. 

Consumerism has a significant carbon footprint — consumption leads to demand, which in turn leads to increased production, which has its own problems. “A steady decline in the expected ‘useful life’ of products has led to an increased rate of production as well as increasing generation of waste products. So, while on one hand, our natural resources are strained through raw material extraction, manufacturing processes and logistics for new products; on the other, they face a serious threat due to improper waste disposal practices and insufficient civic infrastructure to deal with the issue,” Figueiredo explains. 

To avoid the Diderot Effect and reduce our carbon footprint, change is necessary. 

To start, we need to become mindful and ethical consumers, making informed purchases. “As consumers, we must also understand that we are contributors, and therefore being able to distinguish between a necessity, whim and a luxury is important,” says Figueiredo. “If the decision was indeed made to purchase a good, priority must be given to those with longer life spans, made sustainably or having lesser environmental consequences.”

We need to learn how to eliminate the excess, set some limitations and focus on the things that matter. It is good to remember that possessions do not define us.

We need to slow down, both for the sake of our environment and our wallets. 

Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer from Goa who specialises in writing about travel, food, culture, lifestyle and all things Goan.

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