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