Here’s an experience each of us has every day: we discover we “need” something. Some tangible thing in order to do our job or accomplish something. And we don’t have it. Nothing in the desk drawer. The supply closet is out. What’s our first response? Do you fill out a purchase order, drive to a store, or order it on Amazon? That’s true for so many of us.

But buying something new should become a last resort, reached only after thought given to alternatives and creative options. It’s worth slowing down the purchase decision-making process and examining these other options. Because, let’s face it, the most “sustainable” purchase is no purchase at all!

Canadian designer Sarah Lazarovic creates wonderful drawings and charts about rampant consumerism and living with less. She recently produced a graphic she calls a “Buyerarchy of Needs.” It is a great reminder about finding alternatives to always buying something new.

The Buyerarchy of Need

Source: Sarah Lazarovic, SarahL.com

Source: Sarah Lazarovic, SarahL.com

Lazarovic’s graphic is based, tongue firmly in cheek, on Abraham Maslow’s famous 1943 “Hierarchy of Human Needs,” which graphically shows what motivates human behavior. But it is also based on a few well-known principles of demand management from the business world of procurement. For companies that carefully track their “spend,” an important cost control strategy is to reduce consumption in the first place. Carefully examine and challenge assumptions a particular need. Search for alternatives to new spending. You not only save your company money, but you also contribute to a more sustainable world.

Reuse/Repurpose: Everything Old is New Again

Lazarovic lists the preferred order of responses to the discovery of a Need. The first and most important response is to determine if the Need can be satisfied with something you already have. Creativity figures prominently in this assessment. Many materials and items we already have can be adapted to a different use. It only requires a shift in the way we think about the items and their uses.

Just ask my grandmother. Although I’m certain that she never used the word, she knew all about re-purposing. Raising a family during the depression taught her to NEVER throw anything away. In her later years, when faced with an ever-accumulating pile of un-needed stuff, she refused to discard any of it. Instead, she filled shoeboxes (always saved, of course) with whatever she could not bear to discard. She mailed these boxes to her grandchildren, certain that we would “find a use” for the contents. While in college, I would receive these boxes, much to the delight of my roommates. Out poured rubber bands, paper clips, scraps of paper, bits of pencil, hunks of chalk, and best  - and most mysterious - of all, nylon stockings carefully cut into quarter-inch strips. And indeed, my friends and I enjoyed finding creative uses for the stuff (well, almost all of it).

Other No-buy Alternatives

Beyond reuse are other alternatives to buying something new. These include borrowing (good for community building – as long as return protocol is followed!) and swapping (no return required!). If you have to buy, try a resale store (another new life for the item). Making something is a great option for the more creative types.

Did you notice that the very top of the Buyerarchy of Need pyramid is buying new stuff? It is limited to those situations where other approaches won’t work.  Make it a last resort!

Try to anticipate Needs that will arise in your office. Stockpile materials that can be used for a new purpose. Items like old binders, file folders, paper clips, pens and pencils, rubber bands, and interoffice mail folders can all be used multiple again. You can also reuse shipping supplies like boxes, packing paper, and Styrofoam pellets. Better yet, shred old paper and use it for packing. Place these reclaimed items in a central location and encourage everyone to "shop" at your very own mini-reuse counter. Engage co-workers in the fun of coming up with creative uses for existing things.

There are some great ideas and suggestions on the EPA’s Wastewise program website. EPA has also partnered with organizations that accept used office equipment and supplies and reuse them for arts programs. EPA has a list of these organizations in New England – more can easily be located through a quick Internet search.

Looking for more ideas on how to reduce consumption and waste in your workplace? Sustrana has put together a great new tool, the Project Selector, with lots of suggestions and how-to’s. Sign up for a free demo to see how you can take advantage of our leg work!