Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
Consumers have been confronted by a series of alarming issues: mass recalls of Chinese imports, environmental woes, rampant consumerism, the industrialization of food.
Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 5/20/2008 2:07:29 PM ET 2008-05-20T18:07:29

“It’s just a different way of thinking.”

Michelle MacKenzie was talking about the switch from shopping at Target or Safeway to buying clothes and toys at the thrift store and food at the farmer’s market. But the eco-conscious mother of two might as well have been talking about buying only American-made products, or eating only locally grown food, or deciding to buy as little as possible. Or she could have been speaking for anyone who has decided, for one reason or another, to put her money where her mouth is.

Over the past year or so, American consumers have been confronted by a series of alarming issues: mass recalls of Chinese imports, environmental woes, rampant consumerism, the industrialization of food.  The growing awareness of how these issues could impact our lives, and the lives of our children, has forced many of us to rethink our consumer choices. Maybe we’ve bought a reusable grocery tote or become more diligent about checking the tags on our children’s toys. But then we get distracted by more mundane, everyday concerns, and we move on.

On the other side of the spectrum is that small sliver of the population for whom every purchase is framed by these worries. Call them extreme consumers, but not major consumers. That’s because for most people, buying based on ideology inevitably means becoming less of a consumer.

Their habits, and most notably their frugality, may be poised to catch on with more Americans, as the weak economy prompts many of us to tighten our belts and consider our purchasing decisions more closely.

One striking thing about such extreme consumers is how similar their shopping habits are, despite their different motivations. The eco-conscious consumer, the patriotic shopper and the person who seeks to eat locally sourced foods are all likely to pass each other at the farmer’s market, since a hallmark of each ideology includes supporting local growers. Meanwhile, if you are frugally minded, environmentally aware or focused on buying American, you may find that your best option for clothes or toys is a secondhand store.

You might expect that people who have chosen to abstain from mainstream shopping would complain about the constraints of their consumer extremism, or lament a relic of their easy consumerist past. But it turns out that many people who have made these choices feel – or at least say they feel – liberated from their past life, and soon forgot what it was like to shop the way most of us do. For many, there also is joy in rediscovering the habits of their parents or grandparents: growing food, canning vegetables, quilting, baking bread from scratch.

In different ways they often expressed the same sentiment:

“It’s just a different way of thinking.”

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