Why I Shop

May 4, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 1

It’s warm outside. The trees are in full bloom. The birds are chirping. Momma ducks are escorting their babies in and around the lakes. Spring has sprung, and I’m ready for a new wardrobe.

What did I wear last May? All of my warm-weather clothes look tired to me. I’ve been hanging onto many of my t-shirts and blouses for several years now. And what happened to all those skirts I thought I had? I’m in need of what one New York Times blogger termed “the modern-day ritual of renewal.” She was specifically referring to Christmas shopping, but I’d argue that just about any kind of shopping can serve to rejuvenate the spirit—if only for a short while.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have at least one foot in the anti-consumerist camp. But lately I have been noticing all the good things about shopping (namely, new clothes!). I guess you could say I have “consumerist ambivalence.” This is the term used by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who wrote a book about the evolution of the modern-day consumer, Spent. He writes, “Consumerist capitalism produces almost everything that is distinctively exciting about modern life and almost everything that is appalling about it.”

In his book about the history of shopping, I Want That! Thomas Hine writes that buying material goods is a way for people to express and empower themselves. Through shopping, consumers exercise their freedom to choose—and their ability to forget what they have and keep choosing. We can alter our identity with new clothes and new gadgets, which in turn fill our cravings for progress, excitement, and accomplishment. In the market or mall, we can commune with our peers and get a sense of what’s popular. What goods are available? What are others buying? Most often we purchase stuff that’ll help us blend in with a crowd, or to indicate that we are part of a particular crowd. Hine describes this as “creating a community of taste.” He writes that by choosing certain fashions we are exercising the privilege of participating in culture, in history. How are you going to convince anyone you lived in the 80s, if you don’t have the jellies or neon leg warmers to prove it?

Miller argues that we don’t actually need the jellies. In Spent, he writes that we buy particular goods and services in order to display desirable personality traits, such as physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality. These are the traits we’ve found best attract the support from kin, friends, and mates necessary for our survival. But, in fact, we have evolved to glean evidence of these traits through observation and conversation, without taking stock of a person’s historical wardrobe. Miller calls this the “fundamental consumerist delusion”: Consumerist capitalism “makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits. It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits.”

It seems like Americans are falling prey to this delusion. Hine writes, “Most people are able to convince themselves, at least temporarily, that it is absolutely crucial to buy items they don’t really need. Indeed, our economic health depends on shoppers’ ceaseless lust for the inessential.” That “lust” is certainly what prompts me to hit the mall. I’ve witnessed so much rebirth, regrowth, and renewal in these first weeks of spring that I’m anxious to participate in the most reliable way I know how: acquiring new stuff.

Of course, I will not actually go shopping—at least not for new stuff and not at the mall. And, in the next two months, I will certainly find some other, creative ways to satisfy my yen for freshness and novelty. (I do have strawberries, asparagus, and English peas to play with all of a sudden.) All I really mean to say in this rambling post is that shopping, buying, and consumption aren’t inherently or entirely bad. In fact, as Hine put it, “Making material choices is a privilege, a responsibility, and an essential activity of modern life.” As such, we should take our choices and our participation in the consumer economy seriously. We should pay attention to what we buy and why.

Relevant Reading

Thomas Hine. I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Geoffrey Miller. Spent. Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. New York: Viking, 2009.

Juliet B. Schor. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner, 2004.

Juliet B. Schor. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.

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