Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Be Careful What You Ask For...

I'm finishing up the second draft of my dissertation today, so here's a guest post from Megan, formerly of Fix fame and fortune. Megan spent a year doing essentially what I did, which was to not buy any new stuff for a year, only I'm pretty sure she one-upped me and nixed going to restaurants as well. Here are some reflections from her, over a year after her challenge ended.

In response to the question, does Megan ever shop recreationally?, I’ll reply with a little anecdote. Recently, pondering some big decisions and an overwhelming to-do list, I found myself with a couple of hours to kill in the heart of SoHo, the land of crushing crowds and soul-crushing stores. I brought a book of required reading but instead of finding a coffee shop to sit in, like a distractible kid I drifted into an international chain with CHEAP CHEAP clothes. Now, I’ve said goodbye to H&M (except I keep getting gift certificates from work that I can’t politely turn down!), I felt sad for one second, knowing this was exactly the same thing – and said hello to the retail smell and freezing air conditioning. Almost immediately, I convinced myself that if I just had a little dress my summer in NYC would be sooooo much better. And it’s on special for 10 dollars!

What I really needed was to make some decisions and prioritize my to-do list, but it was so much easier just to buy something. Control over retail actually produces some sense of control over life, at least for a second. And it feels good. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory – I know I need to generally cut myself more slack, not less. Still, advertising – which includes commercial movies, television, magazines, and music, in addition to the actual commercials and advertisements appearing in each of these media – tells us that buying produces real control. And neglects to tell us about the costs (social, environmental, personal) of this postmodern happiness. Blah blah, we know all of this. But I’m always surprised by how primal it feels, how specific the feeling of clarity in the moment of decision to buy. I haven’t owned a tv or listened to commercial radio in over a decade, yet when I’m sick or depressed or overwhelmed, this beast comes out and overrides all of the critical thinking I’ve done in recent years about consumption and its costs.

What can we do to give ourselves the instant gratification we crave and perhaps need in these moments? Do a dance, sing a song, have sex, eat a chocolate? I guess if I stay in major cities I can eat a chocolate basically anywhere – but I’d rather it be local, organic, fair-trade, etc. and that is not yet basically anywhere. When I’m sick I don’t necessarily want to put on my favorite music and dance around. Clearly building up friends and connections who can provide me with a special smile or a funny joke or words of encouragement are part of the answer, but sometimes I’m alone and Anthropologie seems like a better friend than the one who hasn’t called back in days. So I’m open to suggestions – any ideas on better ways to fill these momentary holes, or eliminate them in the first place? Is it possible to eliminate them altogether?

If the world was filled with ethical local enviro stuff, we wouldn’t have to. But for now, I have to buy new things here and there, and while I try to use Etsy and local fairs, and the greenmarket, I can’t always. Plus, I am ashamed to say that occasionally I absolutely love eyeing someone’s bag, asking where she got it and if she thinks it comes in pink, and going straight to the store to get it. My other purchases from that restless day included shoes replacing a pair I’ve had since 2004, and a t-shirt and shorts from a local designer. When I moved a couple of months ago, I got rid of about two-thirds of my worn-out and stained clothes obtained from swaps, the thrift store, and H&M. It turns out, I actually need to wear clothes when I leave the house, and I wanted a couple of new summer uniforms. I can’t get too upset with myself when I view it this way, but I still wish I had the patience to wait and go thrift store shopping, or the skills to immediately repurpose the things I’m tired of.

I’m also transitioning to a fixed income for the next few (SEVEN?!) years, so in the face of no.money.at.all, I bought two of my favorite bras and two of my favorite flip-flops – both a little on the pricey side. They aren’t produced by companies with any “green” credentials, but they are comfortable and they fit, so there’s no risk of them going unworn; I will throw them away in tatters. In anticipating what I might need in the next year or two, I have purchased another pair of shoes, a backpack, and some books. I know that one’s “needs” expand to the money available, so I am justifying the shopping by expecting not to buy much of anything in the coming years. By the end of Fix, I determined that not buying anything is also not sustainable, displacing the need to buy by a certain period depending on how much stuff you already have. I try to keep my loves, my life, and my interests very active, so I’m busy doing and learning and creating – and don’t feel the need to buy. But, as you know, it happens.


knutty knitter said...

One could get very smug and say 'I didn't buy anything' but there is always a small voice saying 'yes you did! It just wasn't clothes.'

I just stay away from shops altogether and only go down town for real necessities. Same with eating out. But then I think about the shop workers and their jobs....I know how I feel when nobody buys anything in my shop.

Perhaps everything in moderation - get what you need rather than what you want and support local where possible.

I don't think there is any one right answer really. Just a swamp full of suggestions.

viv in nz

Anonymous said...

Almost shopping as in looking at whats available but not buying works sometimes. Things can be admired without being acquired.

Put stuff you think you want on a list and leave them there for a week, a month, a year. Still need them?

And it's not necessarily true that "one’s “needs” expand to the money available,". Saving is a habit we can all practice.

Anonymous said...

"So I’m open to suggestions – any ideas on better ways to fill these momentary holes, or eliminate them in the first place? Is it possible to eliminate them altogether?"

I don't know if it's possible to eliminate them. We are all human. This was the question I pondered at the recent BlogHer conference swag feeding frenzy. What is this emptiness we each feel? Why such a big hole and can it ever truly be filled with "stuff"?

With your statement, "If the world was filled with ethical local enviro stuff, we wouldn’t have to," I have to disagree. Even if the world was filled with stuff that did little to no environmental damage, we'd still be desperately trying to complete ourselves by acquiring stuff. And after years of attempting this myself, I know it doesn't work.

Meditation? Yoga? Running? I would love to have the answer. But I have a feeling it's the kind of thing most of us just have to live out and hope to learn from experience before we die. I don't think there are any easy answers.