In My Words: Buc-ee’s and the necessity of ending runaway consumerism

This column published by the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News & Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun, Professor of Psychology Mat Gendle addresses the impact of a throw-away culture of consumerism.

By Mat Gendle

Over the past few years, proposals have been made to build the first Buc-ee’s in North Carolina along the busy Interstate 40/85 corridor. For readers who may be unfamiliar, Buc-ee’s is a Texas-based chain of convenience stores, known for their massive size, unique snacks and extensive selection of novelty retail goods.

Mat Gendle, professor of psychology and director of Project Pericles

I’m a silly guy at heart, and on one hand I love the idea that this Buc-ee’s might provide travelers with a place to rest, use a clean restroom and browse a seemingly endless selection of humorous tchotchkes. After all, the Carolinas have a long history of embracing interstate highway kitsch at well-known establishments such as South of the Border. But on the other hand, I am concerned by what Buc-ee’s represents, particularly within the context of the global environmental crisis.

Buc-ee’s locations are enormous—often featuring more than 100 fuel pumps and over 50,000 square feet of retail space packed with cheap souvenirs and consumer goods. And I believe that this excess makes Buc-ee’s a prime example of end-stage American consumerism at its worst.

A large proportion of the non-food items that Buc-ee’s stocks are cheap, foreign-produced novelty products that are certain to lose their perceived value once the purchaser’s road trip has ended. These aren’t heirloom objects to be treasured and passed down across generations. Rather, I would bet that nearly every non-consumable item for sale inside a Buc-ee’s will end up in a landfill within five years of purchase.

But it’s not just Buc-ee’s who is at fault here—this is how mass consumerism operates in 2023. Most major retailers are willing and active partners in egregious environmental harm.

During the 2022 holiday season, I had a sobering experience inside another national retailer that specializes in home décor items. At Home is known for warehouse-style displays of holiday-themed decorations and home goods that seemingly go on without end. Inside, everything is organized by color palette—one gigantic aisle may feature only items that are green while the next aisle may stock (in the same order) the exact same goods, but this time in red, and so on. The sheer volume of merchandise I encountered was mind-blowing.

Much like the products marketed by Buc-ee’s, I found the goods stocked by At Home to largely be low-quality imports—items with product lives that are likely short on a fast track to the landfill. In that moment, I had a frightening realization.

I thought about all the stuff in this one location, and before I could stop myself, my mind began to race. This was only a tiny fraction of all the cheap products sold at this company’s locations across the U.S. All the goods offered by this one company are just a minuscule percentage of all the landfill-destined merchandise that is collectively stocked by retailers throughout the U.S. at any one time.

Think of the armada of container ships that carried these items from their point of manufacture, each spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases as they plied the Pacific from Asia to ports on the west coast. Then there are the enormous fleets of trucks used to transport all these goods from their ports of entry to their final retail location. Considering the net environmental impact overwhelmed me.

Modern consumer capitalism is grounded in the practice of producing unfathomably large mountains of cheap goods as part of a vicious cycle to perpetually drive up both consumption and production. If we hope to have any chance of preserving our environment, it is essential that we abandon this “runaway train” consumerism.

As “un-American” as this perhaps sounds, if we wish to have a sustainable economy it is imperative that we scale down retail operations, become comfortable with having fewer consumer choices, and, quite simply, manufacture fewer things. Unfortunately, as fun as purchasing a piece of Buc-ee Beaver-licensed merchandise might seem in that humorous road trip moment, celebrating the expansion of corporations that utilize business models based on scaled-up mass consumption of cheap and disposable goods won’t help us achieve this endpoint.

I’ve often thought that 2008 Pixar feature WALL-E may unintentionally be one of the most prophetic movies of our time. In this film, the future Earth is depicted as a barren wasteland, completely buried in refuse resulting from decades of rampant consumerism promoted by profit-driven megacorporations. There is a happy ending to the movie (I won’t give it away!), but I hope that humanity can get to that better place before having to first drown itself in garbage and destroy the natural resources we depend on for our collective sustenance.

The consumer offerings of companies like Buc-ee’s may provide some inexpensive fun, but they are a dead end if we want humanity and the rest of the natural world to continue to flourish.

Views expressed in this column are the authors’ own and not necessarily those of Elon University.