So, as you may know, but probably don’t because this is the second real post I’ve done, I’m an environmentalist. I finished my MSc in Environmental Change and Management back in November. I can discuss the physics of radiative forcing, or develop a multi-criteria analysis on the benefits of green versus grey infrastructure for climate change adaptation, or debate the ethical merits of using the social cost of carbon as a way to quantify the damage of carbon equivalent emissions. However, there was a running joke between my friend on the programme and me about how we’re terrible environmentalists because we loved things so much. I. LOVE. THINGS. A month into the programme, a new department store – Westgate – opened up in Oxford. It was a seven-minute bike ride from my student housing, and it became a place I frequented when I was bored, when I was stressed, when I had just scrolled through Instagram and saw a sweater I liked, when I just wanted more things.
I remember one day right before I went back to the States for Christmas 2017. I’d been trying to find a pair of Levi-style jeans for cheaper, and I went into & Other Stories with my friend, proceeding to try on basically every pair of jeans that they had in stock at the time. I had been planning to buy a pair of jeans for a few months, and I just really wanted to find a pair that worked. While I was there, I also saw a shirt I liked, similar to one I’d seen on Instagram (OH THE IRONY). I’d just finished my first semester, it felt like a good treat yourself time. But then I spent about 20 minutes trying on all the jeans, and was getting increasingly stressed knowing that my friend was waiting for me and probably getting kind of annoyed that it was taking me so long. So I panicked, and I bought a pair that didn’t really blow my socks off, but because I’d been so dead set on finding a pair of jeans, I just did it, so whatever. I also bought the shirt because I was like ah it’s so cheap and I’ll figure out how to wear it eventually. I walked out of the store with immediate buyers’ remorse. The next day, I went back to the store and returned both, running into the same sale’s woman who gave me a raised eyebrow look like “you’re back?”
I’m a conspicuous consumer and I’m working to change that. Not only is that because I feel that I have a responsibility to do so given my chosen vocation, but I also feel that it’s antithetical to my values. Sure, I like to look good, but at what cost? And I mean cost in so many ways, to my own wallet, to the planet, to the people who make the clothes I wear. But the fact is, it’s a difficult cycle to break, it’s called retail therapy for a reason – and part of the reason I started this blog was to be transparent about this aspect of my life, and to have space to write and unpack the forces that shaped me to want things so damn badly, and to feel marginally better when I get them, although always tempered by guilt for buying things I don’t really need, to impress people I don’t know, with money that would be better not spent. It seems a bit ironic – going on Instagram, taking pictures of my clothes, and preaching about buying less. But, for the few weeks I’ve been doing this, it’s actually been an amazing space to learn how other people work towards zero waste and sustainable fashion. Mainly, I want to make other people feel less guilty about not being perfect at living a sustainable life, and to connect with like-minded people working toward similar goals.
So, for the rest of this post, I think it would be worthwhile to unpack a bit of my own experience with conspicuous consumption because it’s the habit I’m working to break and a big reason why I started this blog – I have to hold myself accountable if I’m sharing this transparently with other people.
Conspicuous consumption is something I’ve been privileged enough to grow up with. For one, shopping was just something I grew up around. My mom would take my sister and me together or separately to the Bloomingdales on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago. When we were kids and then pre-teens, we would go to the twelfth floor and shop for jeans and shirts and shoes in the children’s section. Then, we’d go down to the second floor to J.Crew and my mom would get a new season of workwear. She would let me pick out some things as well – my go-tos were varying shades of J.Crew sweaters. At the time, I had no notion of the value of money, that a cashmere J. Crew sweater was a ridiculous thing for a 13-year-old to have, especially because I grew out of them in either fit or style within a few years, and only have one that I’ve kept since I bought it (subtle plug for the quality of J. Crew clothing that that sweater’s still kicking after ten years).
I often struggle with this upbringing because I feel as though it’s something of a personal failing. I was a spoiled child, that’s just a plain fact, but being spoiled implies a general asshole-ery on the part of the child, of Violet Beauregardian screaming and tantrums. I don’t think I was an asshole. At least, I would like to think I wasn’t an asshole. I didn’t scream, I didn’t throw tantrums, I didn’t ask for anything that I thought was outlandish because my parents to some degree indicated what was acceptable. Did I want to look through the Delia’s catalogue and mark what clothes I liked? Yes, I did. But I didn’t demand a Louis Vuitton purse or Gucci shoes. To be fair, I didn’t want them. I’m not sure what would have happened if I had. I didn’t know that my standard of normal was not, in many cases, normal. To be sure, there are plenty of families much wealthier than mine, but in the grand scheme of the total population and wealth distribution of the earth, we have it really fucking good. (Actually, the entirety of the US is in the top 1% of the world’s wealth distribution, but that certainly doesn’t discount the increasing income inequality in ‘developed’ countries).
I understand why shopping was a serious endeavour for my mom. She grew up working class in Illinois. Her family would buy powdered milk when they couldn’t afford it fresh. My dad, too, grew up during the tail-end of the depression, living in a single-family house in Rochester with reams of extended family piled on top of each other. While neither had an exceptionally unhappy childhood, I understand their American dream-y desire to give their children both opportunities and physical things that they were unable to have. My mom tells me this often when I express how guilty I feel about having wasted so much of their money on unnecessary J. Crew sweaters. She wanted to make sure my sister and I felt like we ‘belonged,’ like we were never wanting like she was. It is interesting because my guilt can bring out a defensiveness in her, as though I’m insinuating she should have raised us differently, as though I’m ungrateful. It’s not that I’m ungrateful, it’s just that I feel undeserving.
To be sure, I do appreciate style as a standalone thing (although I separate style from ‘fashion.’ I haven’t really thought about my feelings on the fashion industry of fashion, for example, because I think that’s a separate thing from how I view style…maybe more on that later?). For me, style is not just about proving a point about what I can (and cannot) afford or to fit in with a certain crowd of people. At least, not consciously – I suppose there is always a certain amount of unconscious signalling that goes into what we choose to wear (or what we choose not to wear). Bottom line, I do like how clothes make me feel, and I know this is true for a lot of people. I bought an Anthropologie shift dress for my senior year Turnabout Dance (see below), and something about that dress was a revelation to me. Compared to others around me wearing standard mono-colour dresses with rhinestone, tulle, and lace embellishments, I just felt cool. I wore what I liked and it worked. I like the confidence that feeling good in what I’m wearing brings.
But that, in many ways, comes back to this quote I read in my professor’s book Doughnut Economics (although the quote itself is credited to Tim Jackson, who wrote Prosperity Without Growth): “People are persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about.”
And that’s absolutely true! Most of the time, I don’t get why I give a shit if a random stranger passing me on the street thinks I look good. I mean, I know why, it’s socialisation and the fact that as women we’re implicitly encouraged to make ourselves pretty from a young age (amongst a whole host of other things, of course). I recognize that, but it’s not as if I can just turn that switch off. I feel confident when I know I look good. However, what I do think is important for me to address is spending money I don’t have on things I don’t need. Or, indeed, spending money I do have on things I don’t need.
There’s a line, I suppose, between feeling confident in what you’re wearing and buying in order to feel more confident, or to feel less stressed, or better in some way is the personal problem that I’m aiming to address. It’s a problem when I’m sad or feeling unmotivated or stuck and my response to that is to buy a shitload of clothes I end up wishing I didn’t buy a month later. It’s a problem when, if I have extra money to spend, I feel like I can buy a shitload of clothes because I can. And it’s a problem when the values for which I advocate in my personal and professional life are not congruent with the way in which I lead my own life. Seriously, Antje, don’t let The Beauty Myth and conspicuous consumption pull you into the whirlpool of waste (both material and monetary). There are other things you can spend your money on. Like beer, or books, or concerts, or new guitar strings, or indeed you could just not spend it at all.