Category Archives: women workers

My Life as a Shopper

I have a new outlook on shopping.  I’m no longer shopping the way I used to.

Why?

I’ll start at the beginning.  My long history of shopping began when I was very young.

My parents were both immersed in retailing.  My mother’s parents immigrated to Chicago from Eastern Europe and, soon after arriving, opened a clothing store on Milwaukee Avenue.  Their enterprise evolved into a modest chain of women’s apparel stores, and throughout her life my mother was intimately involved in the business.  She embedded in me the ethos that shopping for new things, especially clothes, was a good thing.  Under her influence, I gave away countless wearable items of clothing in favor of getting something new, preferably something sold in one of her family’s stores.  (I later regretted departing with some of the perfectly good items I could have continued to wear for many more years.)

Even though my father received a degree in pharmacy from the University of Illinois, and he enjoyed some aspects of his work as a pharmacist, he was himself attracted to retailing.  At a young age, he opened his own drugstore on the South Side of Chicago (I treasure a black-and-white photo of him standing in front of his store’s window).  After marrying my mother, he spent a number of years working in her family’s business, and in the late ‘40s the two of them opened a women’s clothing boutique on Rush Street, a short distance from Oak Street, in a soon-to-be-trendy shopping area.  Ahead of its time, the boutique quickly folded, but Daddy never lost his taste for retailing.

In view of this history, I was fated to become a “shopper.”  After Daddy died when I was 12, our family wasn’t able to spend big wads of money on anything, including clothes.  But my mother’s inclination to buy new clothes never really ceased.

Thanks to generous scholarship and fellowship awards, I made my way through college and grad school on a miniscule budget.  I saved money by spending almost nothing, savoring the 99-cent dinner at Harkness Commons almost every night during law school to save money.  And because I began my legal career with a $6,000 annual salary as a federal judge’s law clerk and, as a lawyer, never pursued a high-paying job (I preferred to work on behalf of the poor, for example), I got by without big-time shopping.

Marriage brought little change at first.  My darling new husband also came from a modest background and was not a big spender, even when our salaries began to move up a bit.

But things eventually changed.  Higher salaries and the arrival of new retail chain stores featuring bargain prices made buying stuff much more tempting.  I needed presentable clothes for my new full-time jobs.  Our daughters needed to be garbed in clothes like those the other kids wore.  Our living room chairs from Sears began to look shabby, propelling us toward somewhat better home décor.

A raft of other changes led me to spend more time shopping.  My boring law-firm jobs were more tolerable if I could escape during my lunch hour and browse at nearby stores.  The rise of outlet malls made bargain shopping easier than ever.  And travels to new cities and countries inspired buying small, easily packable items, like books and jewelry.

After I moved to San Francisco, having jettisoned possessions I’d lived with for years in my former home, I needed to acquire new ones.  So there I was, buying furniture and kitchen equipment for my sunny new apartment.

At the same time, our consumption-driven culture continued to push buying more and more, including the “fast-fashion” that emerged, offering stylish clothes at a temptingly low price.

But this emphasis on acquiring new stuff, even low-priced stuff, has finally lost its appeal.

I’ve come to realize that I don’t need it.

My overall goal is to simplify my life.  This means giving away a lot of things I don’t need, like stacks of books I’ll never read and charming bric-a-brac that’s sitting on a shelf collecting dust.  Like clothes that a disadvantaged person needs more than I do.

My new focus:  First, use what I already have.  Next, do not buy anything new unless I absolutely need it.

Choosing not to acquire new clothes—in essence, reusing what I already have, adopting the slogan “shop your closet”–is a perfect example of my new outlook.

I’ve previously written about confining one’s new purchases to “reunion-worthy” clothes.  [Please see my blog post of October 12, 2017, advising readers to choose their purchases carefully, making sure that any clothes they buy are flattering enough to wear at a school reunion.]

But that doesn’t go far enough.  New purchases should be necessary.

I find that I’m not alone in adopting this approach.

Many millennials have eschewed buying consumer goods, opting for new experiences instead of new material things.  I guess I agree with the millennials’ outlook on this subject.

Here’s other evidence of this approach.  An article in The Guardian in July 2019 shouted “’Don’t feed the monster!’ The people who have stopped buying new clothes.”  Writer Paula Cocozza noted the growing number of people who love clothes but resist buying new ones because of the lack of their sustainability:  Many consumers she interviewed were switching to second-hand shopping so they would not perpetuate this consumption and waste.

Second-hand shopping has even taken off online.  In September, the San Francisco Chronicle noted the “wave of new resale apps and marketplaces” adding to longtime resale giants like eBay.  At the same time, The New York Times, covering Fashion Week in Milan, wrote that there was “a lot of talk about sustainability over the last two weeks of collections, and about fashion’s role in the climate crisis.”  The Times added:  “the idea of creating clothes that last—that people want to buy and actually keep, keep wearing and never throw out, recycle or resell”—had become an important part of that subject.  It quoted Miuccia Prada, doyenne of the high-end clothing firm Prada:  “we need to do less.  There is too much fashion, too much clothes, too much of everything.”

Enter Tatiana Schlossberg and her new book, Inconspicuous consumption:  the environmental impact you don’t know you have (2019).  In the middle of an absorbing chapter titled Fashion, she notes that “There’s something appealing about being able to buy really cheap, fashionable clothing [..,] but it has given us a false sense of inexpensiveness.  It’s not only that the clothes are cheap; it’s that no one is paying for the long-term costs of the waste we create just from buying as much as we can afford….”

Some scholars have specifically focused on this issue, the “overabundance of fast fashion—readily available, inexpensively made new clothing,” because it has created “an environmental and social justice crisis.”  Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has co-authored a paper focused on the “global environmental injustice of fast fashion,” asserting that the fast-fashion supply chain has created a dilemma.  While consumers can buy more clothes for less, those who work in or live near textile-manufacturing bear a disproportionate burden of environmental health hazards.  Further, millions of tons of textile waste sit in landfills and other settings, hurting low-income countries that produce many of these clothes.  In the U.S., about 85 percent of the clothing Americans consume–nearly 80 pounds per American per year–is sent to landfills as solid waste.  [See “The Global Environmental Injustice of Fast Fashion” in the journal Environmental Health.]

A high-profile public figure had an epiphany along the same lines that should influence all of us.  The late Doug Tompkins was one of the founders of The North Face and later moved on to help establish the apparel chain Esprit.  At the height of Esprit’s success, he sold his stake in the company for about $150 million and moved to Chile, where he embraced a whole new outlook on life and adopted an important new emphasis on ecology.  He bought up properties for conservation purposes, in this way “paying my rent for living on the planet.”  Most tellingly, he said, “I left that world of making stuff that nobody really needed because I realized that all of this needless overconsumption is one of the driving forces of the [environmental] crisis, the mother of all crises.”  [Sierra magazine, September/October 2019.]

Author Marie Kondo fits in here.  She has earned fame as a de-cluttering expert, helping people who feel overwhelmed with too much stuff to tidy up their homes.  Her focus is on reducing clutter that’s already there, so she doesn’t zero in on new purchases.  But I applaud her overall outlook.  As part of de-cluttering, she advises:  As you consider keeping or letting go of an item, hold it in your hands and ask:  “Does this item bring me joy?”  This concept of ensuring that an item brings you joy could apply to new purchases as well, so long as the item bringing you joy is also one you really need.

What should those of us enmeshed in our consumer culture do?  In The Wall Street Journal in July 2019, April Lane Benson, a “shopping-addiction-focused psychologist and the author of ‘To Buy or Not to Buy:  Why We Overshop and How to Stop’,” suggested that if a consumer is contemplating a purchase, she should ask herself six simple questions:  “Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it?”

Benson’s list of questions is a good one.  Answering them could go a long way toward helping someone avoid making a compulsive purchase.  But let’s remember:  Benson is talking about a shopper already in a store, considering whether to buy something she’s already selected in her search for something new.  How many shoppers will interrupt a shopping trip like that to answer Benson’s questions?

I suggest a much more ambitious scheme:  Simply resolve not to buy anything you don’t need!

My 11-year-old granddaughter has the right idea:  She’s a minimalist who has rejected any number of gifts from me, including some fetching new clothes, telling me she doesn’t need them.

When I reflect on my life as a shopper, I now understand why and how I became the shopper I did.  Perhaps, in light of my family history and the increasingly consumption-driven culture I’ve lived through, I didn’t really have an option.

But I have regrets:  I’ve wasted countless hours browsing in stores, looking through racks and poring over shelves for things to buy, much of which I didn’t need, then spending additional hours returning some of the things I had just purchased.

These are hours I could have spent far more wisely.  Pursuing my creative work, exercising more often and more vigorously, doing more to help those in need.

Readers:  Please don’t make the mistakes I have.  Adopt my new philosophy.  You’ll have many more hours in your life to pursue far more rewarding goals than acquiring consumer goods you don’t really need.

 

 

 

Happy Holidays! Well, maybe…

 

As the greeting “Happy Holidays” hits your ears over and over during the holiday season, doesn’t it raise a question or two?

At a time when greed and acquisitiveness appear to be boundless, at least among certain segments of the American population, the most relevant questions seem to be:

  • Does money buy happiness?
  • If not, what does?

These questions have been the subject of countless studies.  Let’s review a few of the answers they’ve come up with.

To begin, exactly what is it that makes us “happy”?

A couple of articles published in the past two years in The Wall Street Journal—a publication certainly focused on the acquisition of money—summarized some results.

Wealth alone doesn’t guarantee a good life.  According to the Journal, what matters a lot more than a big income is how people spend it.  For instance, giving money away makes people much happier than spending it on themselves.  But when they do spend it on themselves, they’re a lot happier when they use it for experiences like travel rather than material goods.

The Journal looked at a study by Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, which found that people may at first think material purchases offer better value for their money because they’re tangible and they last longer, while experiences are fleeting.  But Howell found that when people looked back at their purchases, they realized that experiences actually provided better value.  We even get more pleasure out of anticipating experiences than we do from anticipating the acquisition of material things.

Another psychology professor, Thomas Gilovich at Cornell, reached similar conclusions.  He found that people make a rational calculation:  “I can either go there, or I can have this.  Going there may be great, but it’ll be over fast.  But if I buy something, I’ll always have it.”  According to Gilovich, that’s factually true, but not psychologically true, because we “adapt to our material goods.”

We “adapt” to our material goods?  How?  Psychologists like Gilovich talk about “hedonic adaptation.”  Buying a new coat or a new car may provide a brief thrill, but we soon come to take it for granted.  Experiences, on the other hand, meet more of our “underlying psychological needs.”

Why?  Because they’re often shared with others, giving us a greater sense of connection, and they form a bigger part of our sense of identity.  You also don’t feel that you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses quite so much.  While it may bother you when you compare your material things to others’ things, comparing your vacation to someone else’s won’t bug you as much because “you still have your own experiences and your own memories.”

Another article in the Journal, published in 2015, focused on the findings of economists rather than psychologists.  A group of economists like John Helliwell, a professor at the University of British Columbia, concluded that happiness—overall well-being–should not be measured by how much money we have by using metrics like per-capita income and gross domestic product (GDP).  “GDP is not even a very good measure of economic well-being,” he said.

Instead, the World Happiness Report, which Helliwell co-authored, ranked countries based on how people viewed the quality of their lives. It noted that six factors account for 75 percent of the differences between countries.  The six factors:  GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.  Although GDP and life expectancy relate directly to income, the other four factors reflect a sense of security, trust, and autonomy.  So although the U.S. ranked first in overall GDP, it ranked only 15th in happiness because it was weaker in the other five variables.

According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, a professor at Columbia and co-author of the World Happiness Report, incomes in the U.S. have risen, but the country’s sense of “social cohesion” has declined.  The biggest factor contributing to this result is “distrust.”  Although the U.S. is very rich, we’re not getting the benefits of all this affluence.

If you ask people whether they can trust other people, Sachs said, “the American answer has been in significant decline.”   Forward to 2017.  Today, when many of our political leaders shamelessly lie to us, our trust in others has no doubt eroded even further.

Even life expectancy is going downhill in the U.S.  According to the AP, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing for decades, but 2016 marked the first time in more than a half-century that it fell in two consecutive years.

Let’s return to our original question:  whether money can buy happiness.  The most recent research I’ve come across is a study done at Harvard Business School, noted in the November-December 2017 issue of Harvard Magazine.  Led by assistant professor of business administration Ashley Whillans, it found that, in developed countries, people who trade money for time—by choosing to live closer to work, or to hire a housecleaner, for example–are happier. This was true across the socioeconomic spectrum.

According to Whillans, extensive research elsewhere has confirmed the positive emotional effects of taking vacations and going to the movies.  But the Harvard researchers wanted to explore a new ideawhether buying ourselves out of negative experiences was another pathway to happiness.

Guess what:  it was.  One thing researchers focused on was “time stress” and how it affects happiness.  They knew that higher-earners feel that every hour of their time is financially valuable.  Like most things viewed as valuable, time is also perceived as scarce, and that scarcity translates into time stress, which can easily contribute to unhappiness.

The Harvard team surveyed U.S., Canadian, Danish, and Dutch residents, ranging from those who earned $30,000 a year to middle-class earners and millionaires. Canadian participants were given a sum of money—half to spend on a service that would save one to two hours, and half to spend on a material purchase like clothing or jewelry.  Participants who made a time-saving purchase (like buying take-out food) were more likely to report positive feelings, and less likely to report feelings of time stress, than they did after their shopping sprees.

Whillans noted that in both Canada and the U.S., where busyness is “often flaunted as a status symbol,” opting for outsourcing jobs like cooking and cleaning can be culturally challenging.  Why?  Because people like to pretend they can do it all.  Women in particular find themselves stuck in this situation.  They have more educational opportunities and are likely to be making more money and holding more high-powered jobs, but their happiness is not increasing commensurately.

The Harvard team wants to explore this in the future.  According to Whillans, the initial evidence shows that among couples who buy time, “both men and women feel less pulled between the demands of work and home life,” and that has a positive effect on their relationship.  She hopes that her research will ameliorate some of the guilt both women and men may feel about paying a housekeeper or hiring someone to mow the law—or ordering Chinese take-out on Thursday nights.

Gee, Ashley, I’ve never felt guilty about doing any of that.  Maybe that’s one reason why I’m a pretty happy person.

How about you?

Whatever your answer may be, I’ll join the throng and wish you HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Lobby Congress to Pass the Paycheck Fairness Act

When U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski recently announced her decision not to run for a sixth term, she noted that one of the issues she cares about “most deeply” is the issue of fair pay.

Mikulski, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986 as the only Democratic woman and one of only two women in the Senate (the other was Kansas’s Nancy Kassebaum), has a long record of promoting issues that loom large in the lives of American women and families.

Mikulski noted that every year, on average, women who work full-time lose more than $10,800 in income because of the wage gap between what women and men earn. She plans to spend every day of the two years remaining in her term fighting for critical legislation like the Paycheck Fairness Act.

I’m joining Senator Mikulski in her campaign to enact the Paycheck Fairness Act (the PFA). I first wrote about this issue in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 23, 2010, “Unequal pay harms U.S. women.” (It appeared on this blog in October 2012.)

In the five years since my SF Chronicle op-ed appeared, nothing has happened. When the House of Representatives still had a Democratic majority, the House passed the PFA. But because it never passed in the Senate, it never became law.

Now, post-2014, when the Republicans hold a majority in both the Senate and the House, passage of the PFA seems impossible. But let’s not throw in the towel just yet. Because it’s such a vital issue, affecting millions of American workers and their families, I, like Senator Mikulski, am once again climbing on my soapbox and doing what I can to promote its passage.

I’ll begin by asking this question: How many working women think they’re paid fairly for the work they do? Right now, with the economy improving but still struggling to provide good-paying jobs for all of those who want them, some women may be happy just to be employed.

But women are still paid only 78 cents for every dollar men receive, making unequal pay a continuing problem for American women and the families who depend on their wages.

Did you know that women are now the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households? This fact makes closing the wage gap a crucial issue for all of these families, not merely for working women alone.

Why is the PFA so important? Because it would level the playing field for working women.

It would amend the Equal Pay Act (the EPA), which was enacted over 50 years ago in 1963 but hasn’t gone far enough to do what it was supposed to.

The EPA made it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to those who perform substantially equal work. That sounds great, doesn’t it? So why hasn’t it made a real difference? Because of a startling failure in enforcement.

Enforcement by the EEOC during the past five decades has narrowed the wage gap to some degree. But the gap still exists because the EPA’s enforcement tools are outdated, making the gender-disparity in pay almost impossible to eradicate.

While other federal civil rights statutes have been amended numerous times, the EPA has never been amended. That’s why passing the PFA can make a real difference.

Let’s understand something right off the bat: The PFA doesn’t give employers a lot to complain about. It wouldn’t create an onerous burden because it wouldn’t give their employees any new rights. Employers are already required to comply with the EPA. The only difference is that under the PFA, women would be better able to ENFORCE those rights.

Many of the bill’s provisions make no demands on employers whatsoever. One provision would merely create a grant program that would help women and girls develop better skills at salary negotiation. Another would improve the way the government collects information from federal contractors.

Other provisions focus on the role of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For example, it would give EEOC staff additional training to do a better job identifying and handling wage disputes.

Of course, some provisions do directly affect employers. Most significantly, the PFA would give women the same remedies as those available to employees discriminated against on the basis of race or national origin. Currently women can get only limited awards like back pay. The PFA would allow women to get compensatory and punitive damages for pay discrimination. These are the kinds of damages those suffering from racial and national-origin bias already get.

The PFA would also prohibit employers from retaliating against women who share salary information with their coworkers. This kind of information-sharing helps employees get vital information about wage disparities and discrimination at their workplace. But right now employers can retaliate against women who share such information. Women can be fired or suffer other repercussions for sharing the kind of salary info they need if they’re going to discover how much less they’re earning. This has to change.

Under the PFA, an EPA lawsuit could also proceed as a class action under the rules that apply to other federal lawsuits, instead of the restrictive 1963 rules that have never been amended.

Finally, a significant loophole now keeps women from winning cases brought under the EPA. Employers who are paying women less than men for equal work can claim that the difference in pay is based on a “factor other than sex.” This language is far too broad. It allows employers to make claims that have little or no merit. For example, this language has been used to argue that male workers have stronger negotiation skills and for that reason can negotiate higher salaries. Does that sound right to you? Should arguments like that allow men to earn more than a woman doing the same work? I don’t think so.

That result is NOT what Congress intended when it passed the EPA. The PFA would alter this language and allow different pay for men and women only when an employer can show that the difference relates to job performance and business necessity.

It’s time to shake things up and put women on a level playing field with their male co-workers. Women and men need to speak out and demand passage of the PFA. If we don’t speak out, we have to ask ourselves: When will Congress make pay equity a reality for America’s working women? And what did I do to try to make it happen?