Some thoughts on compacting, materialism and retail therapy

When I first started researching my book I began to read about what is often called 'affluenza' -- a kind of frenzied materialism that has a corrosive effect on society. That there were three books (I've read two of them) with this word in the title is indicative of how it has taken off as an idea. But I found with both the books I read I had differences with the authors.

Both books, one by Australian cultural commentator Clive Hamilton and one by English writer Oliver James, bemoan materialism and society's obsession with shopping. This is perfectly understandable. Australians now collectively owe $41 billion on their credit cards. I don't know what the US figure is but I bet it dwarfs that one. The spiritual malaise that such a figure suggests attracts the ire of both authors. Sharon Zukin, a US sociologist, describes this malaise well, suggesting that shopping is what people do to find value -- in the deepest sense -- in today's world. And from an environmental and social perspective, unbridled materialism is disastrous. Think of the greenhouse gases dirty Chinese coal produces providing energy to manufacture all those cheap goods, not to mention the obscene number of Chinese miners who die each year extracting it. There's no doubt that shopping sustainably and going green are both environmentally and socially responsible.

Compacting is one way of countering Western nations' obsession with shopping. Compacters buy no new items apart from those in a few specific categories (eg food, hygiene products, underwear). They buy or borrow secondhand items. I heard lifestyle commentator Maggie Alderson on Melbourne radio recently talking about how useful compacting had been for her in breaking her compulsive shopping habit -- she's no longer a compacter, but is now more disciplined about what she buys. Again, I think this practice is great as a way of breaking long-held consumer habits and forcing people to be more resourceful about how they meet their material needs.

But my problem with this whole anti-materialism thing is that in some instances it may avoid or evade one central fact: that shopping is fun. Of course, there are many qualifications to that statement. I'm talking specifically about leisure shopping, and even that may not be fun if you're strapped for cash, shopping with children, or a compulsive shopper. My point is that we need to address the fun aspects of shopping if we want to change our own shopping habits, let alone other people's.

Both the writers of the books on affluenza I referred to are men. A majority of men don't enjoy leisure shopping and can't see the point of it. When it comes to shopping they tend to get in and get out and engage as little as possible. Although younger men do enjoy leisure shopping, it's women who make up the bulk of those who see shopping as recreation, in Australia anyway. Also -- and this is a huge generalisation -- men often don't have an appreciation of the aesthetics of fashion to the extent that women do. Aesthetic appreciation and the search for novelty are both important reasons why women in particular love to shop.

In my book, then, I'm trying to address those people who have no intention of giving up leisure shopping. I want to show them that they can shop more mindfully, and that they don't have to seek retail therapy blindly. I believe that as people become more conscious shoppers, many of them, budgets permitting, will start to make more considered choices about what they buy and where they buy it from. But I'm not going to deny the delights of shopping. I want to open the field -- to let people know that they have a great deal of choice, in the wider sense, about how they approach and deal with their material needs and desires. My book includes advice about waiting, about practising frugality and budgeting, and about staying away from the shops at certain times; but it's all given in the context of encouraging people to use their intuitive sense -- a sense that goes beyond emotions -- to make shopping decisions.

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