“The more you know, the less you need.” These eight words stared back at me as I chewed tirelessly on them, sitting on my couch in my 400 square foot apartment in Hong Kong after a long day visiting factories in China. In my lap sat Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman“. I leaned back in the uncomfortable couch, taking my eyes from the page to stare out the window, almost in a daze.
The more you know, the less you need. Oh how true those words suddenly rang in my ears, how heavily the tugged at my heart. The more you know. Let’s start there. The experiences of the past year had been beyond any limits my mind may have constructed in terms of what I thought I would know by now; as well as all I thought I knew. The “education” I received that first year out of college working in Asia had challenged every ounce of my fortitude, my agility, my comforts. It had rocked my pre-conceived perceptions of how the world worked that had been constructed mostly by society and the consumer-driven mentality of my country. It exposed me to the way things were, rather than the way marketing agencies and departments had portrayed them.
Stuff. It is actually a heavy word, “stuff”, taking on the feeling of something unloved, not wanted enough to be cared for or properly named. Images of little things tossed in drawers and junk closets, ending up in the garbage or boxes at the thrift store. I intimately became aware of the weight of “stuff” at this time, spending countless hours in factories churning out millions of components and products that would eventually end up in the grouping of “stuff” when referred to by their owners. Promotional products, toys, mugs, pens, too many items to list, but items all the same that were made with no real purpose.
The point was, the more I knew, the more I realized no one really needed this shit. We were here, negotiating to the half a penny, pushing suppliers for unrealistic timelines and cost points that would encourage outsourcing, overtime, poor wages and bribery, in order to make more “stuff”. And we were just “doing business as usual” in comparison to the many other random companies purchasing products from China.
At the end of the day, the products coming off those production lines would be wrapped in plastic, shipped thousands of miles and eventually find their way onto a store shelf or product promotion bag. Once purchased, the owner might find delight for a brief moment, or perhaps the item would just be something given along with some marketing brochure in a product promotion; either way, the life of this thing would be fairly short without much love. The toxic chemicals used in the manufacturing process, breathed by the workers and dumped in the nearby river…those chemicals would actually sustain a much longer life.
The more I knew. I continued with this work for another year, justifying that the work experience was too unique, too priceless to let go of. What other 22 year old did I know who was based out of Hong Kong working by herself to establish a sourcing devision for a US based company? What other 22 year old did I know who had access to realities only otherwise hidden behind closed doors, who could learn first hand the ropes of doing business in China?
None. I knew that I had a team in the USA that was trying to sell products to our clients and needed factories to do so. I knew I had a team in China who was trying to place production in factories so that we had product available to sell. But I also knew the beginning of the life of these products, I knew the challenges of tracing where the raw materials had come from, I knew the working conditions in which they were made, I knew the lax enforcement by the local government of environmental and labor laws. I knew we could do better. But I also knew that we were making things that I didn’t want or need. The more you know, the less you need.
The less I need. Aside from the full-speed-ahead consumerism that threatened to suffocate me, I also began to know more about the simple lives that those around me were living. The tiny living quarters of the workers, cramped dorm rooms where several workers lived, their small pile of belongings neatly stacked in the corners of each bed. One bathroom with two sinks available for the 100+ workers living in the dormitory, all of whom were expected to arrive to work on the production floor at precisely 8am- and would wait over an hour each morning to reach that bathroom. Simple meals consisting primarily of rice with the occasional vegetable, prepared on the floor of the bedroom or around a small fire on the street.
I began buying less things. As I would stroll through the countless markets in Chinese cities, I would find myself retracting inward, find myself pulling back, leaving empty handed. There were many moments when the volume of stuff that surrounded me would be absolutely overwhelming. The neat, far-extending production lines filled with countless workers, heads down, hands quickly and precisely moving were one thing. But the markets, the malls, the shops and stores, the trade shows, all simply overflowing with stuff. The result of our collective efforts. Meanwhile I strolled down streets choked with pollution, crossing bridges over rivers that smelled so putrid I held my breath as I passed.
I began to look more closely at my own belongings, the items I had collected over the years, some gifted, many bought. At the time I was living quite light as I traveled all the time and only had my small apartment in Hong Kong; but I still considered how much “stuff” I had acquired over the years. I thought about my car, sitting in the USA, awaiting my eventual return. I thought about the boxes of items I had moved back to Pennsylvania after I graduated college and put almost immediately into storage. I went through my wardrobe and my books, through my household items and my memory boxes. I looked at my bank account, at my credit card debt, at my loans and my income. I evaluated what I needed, why I needed it and what purpose every single thing was serving. It wasn’t an easy task, it wasn’t a comfortable process, confronting all of my stuff, confronting my motivations in acquiring that stuff, my methods of acquiring it. Yet I had to acknowledge it, I had to confront it, in order to truly understand what it was that I needed, now that I knew what I knew.
A year and a half after I read Yvonne’s words, I found myself in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, traversing the Presidential range around the fourth of July, a little over a month into our five month long Thru-Hike. On my back I carried my little bear, as I referred to my Gregory backpack, containing literally everything that I needed.
I wore boots that protected my feet from the rocky trail, and dry during the rainy days. I had gators to keep the sticker bushes from scraping my bare ankles and to keep the dirt from tumbling into my socks. I had shorts that were made from quick drying material and could be converted into pants. I had a t-shirt and long sleeved shirt that offered UV protection and a hat to shield my face from the strong sun. In my pack I carried my rain jacket, a fleece, a shirt and pants to sleep in, 3 pairs of socks and 3 pairs of underwear, a warm hat and gloves, a water pump, my camelback bladder filled with water I had taken from the stream, 6 days of food, sunscreen, toilet paper, biodegradable soap, a spork, a rain cover for my pack, a pocket knife, headlamp and a plastic baggie I used as my “wallet” containing my license, cash, and debit card. A pair of crocs hung outside my pack by a single carabiner. Oh, and of course my journal and a pen. Ale’s pack had similar contents but also held our hammock that we slept in and a lightweight tarp for the rainy nights. That was it. Well, that and countless moments of laughter shared with people I loved, surrounded by the incredible beauty and magic of the wilderness. I knew that I had exactly what I needed, and it was way less than anything I could have ever imagined.
As the years have passed, the simple act of knowing how little I actually need has made it so much easier to pursue opportunities to make memories rather than acquire things. It has motivated me to invest in myself and my life experience rather than investing in stuff. It has inspired me to take big risks and let go of things that I might have loved once, but have moved on from. I may not know entirely what inspired Mr. Chouinard to write those words, but I sure as hell know that I can relate, that they ring true to me and the way I choose to live my life, and that I continue to hold them close as I consider what I really need these days. As my work in the industry continues, and I have gained more knowledge about issues in countries far beyond China, and about the impact of products across many industries, I continue to take comfort in my steadfast understanding of how little I actually need, and how liberating it can be to be free of too much stuff.
It’s easy to be saddled with stuff, even if you are trying to be conscious of your consumption- and especially around the holidays! If you do want to confront those drawers, those closets, those accounts and the motivations behind all that has gathered there, I encourage you to do so. It isn’t always fun, or comfortable, and it takes consistent effort, but it can be incredibly liberating and enlightening. You might actually feel lighter once you begin letting go.
If each of us starts here, if we each begin to examine what we have, why we have it and take a stance to limit the consumption of stuff we don’t need (or really even want), then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to influence these companies placing production orders to start making things that matter. It takes more than not buying things, it takes action, it takes communication, raising your voice, telling your friends and family what you believe and telling the companies you buy from the same. You might feel insignificant in this effort, but you are not. You are essential. And now you know. So, what do you think, when you look at your life that you’ve lived, and you look at the future you hope to live, what do you really need? Do you see a lot of stuff in that picture?