The Overconsumption Problem


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Photography via Adobe Stock

With 2,150 pieces of clothing thrown out every second, Isabel B. Slone asks “Can we ever rid ourselves of the desire to constantly acquire new things?”

Every evening, I perform a fusion ritual with my phone and disappear into a universe populated by tiny thumbnail images of garments I would like to own. Toggling between The RealReal, Ssense, Depop and Poshmark, I imagine what my life would be like if I owned that Rachel Comey jumpsuit or that Cecilie Bahnsen dress — where I’d wear it, who I’d flirt with in it. Occasionally, I am overtaken by a dark force and click “buy,” but more than anything, I scroll. Most of my waking hours are spent playing Purchase Tetris, arranging and rearranging my current obsessions into a structure that allows me to acquire each and every one. Meanwhile, a closetful of beautiful clothing hangs undisturbed in a room nearby.

As a fashion journalist who has been writing at the intersection of culture and sustainability for well over a decade (my undergraduate degree is in environmental studies), I am more than aware of the staggering issues the world faces when it comes to degradation of the natural environment caused by the overproduction of clothes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that textiles accounted for more than 17 million tonnes of the municipal waste thrown out in 2018 (a total of 297 million tonnes). That’s more than 547 kilograms a second — and it doesn’t even consider the egregious human-labour issues baked into the industry. Yet I still shop.

I abandoned fast fashion long ago, and most of the clothing I acquire is second-hand, yet it feels excruciating to accept that my insatiable appetite is actually part of the problem. Experts have long touted learning how to appreciate what you already have, purchasing only when you absolutely need to and trying to do so second-hand as the best ways to participate in sustainable fashion. Yet in spite of the plentiful nature of my closet, I still crave more. Over time, as I have negotiated my own impulses, I have begun to wonder “Is it possible to rid oneself entirely of the desire to consume?”

It feels excruciating to accept that my insatiable appetite is actually part of the problem.

I’m not alone in my concerns. The “say-do gap” — that is, when people purport to believe one thing yet behave differently — is well documented. According to a 2017 GlobeScan survey, 65 per cent of respondents want to support companies that have a moral purpose, yet less than 30 per cent actually do so. While many critics intone that individual actions taken to combat climate change are futile when 71 per cent of global emissions since 1988 have been produced by just 100 companies, we must acknowledge that these corporations are not typically in the business of creating goods for which there is no appetite. “It’s the consumers who actually burn and demand the fossil fuels that these companies provide,” Richard Heede told Vox in 2018.

And yet there are plenty of examples of people who seem perfectly happy not living a consumer-based lifestyle: Buddhists, Amish people, dads who have worn the same Patagonia fleece jacket for decades. The answer I’ve arrived at is “Yes, it is possible to train oneself to desire less — but not without great motivation and difficulty.”

According to Carolyn Mair, a behavioural psychologist and the author of The Psychology of Fashion, the best way to train yourself to not want to buy things is simply to distract yourself whenever the impulse arises. Try avoiding the “buy it now” button whenever the impulse pops up. “Pick up rubbish, volunteer for something, go to the gym, start running,” suggests Mair. “Make fashion less important in your life.”

Carey Morewedge, a professor of marketing at Boston University, notes that completely removing yourself from any stimuli that arouse the impulse to shop is “impossible to do, given advertising.” But there are some spaces you can control. If you notice that familiar tingle in response to Instagram ads or have fallen prey to #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, block any accounts proffering goods you’re susceptible to being seduced by or disengage from the apps entirely.

By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have lost touch with our true selves and fill the void of what is missing with habits like material overconsumption.

However, if deleting your primary source of entertainment sounds absurd or impossible, the most effective long-term way to rid yourself of the desire to shop is to locate the roots of the impulse and disentangle them. Katherine White, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies consumer behaviour, suggests a process called “laddering,” in which you continue to ask yourself why you want something until you have figured out the underlying reason. By repeatedly asking yourself “Why?” you can unearth what White calls “the shining carrot that will get you to change your behaviour.”

If you shop because you feel like there’s a part of you missing, you may be experiencing a condition that shamanistic cultures refer to as “soul loss,” says psychotherapist Eric Windhorst. According to Windhorst, whose practice is informed by ecopsychology, humans are born whole from a shamanistic perspective and then cut off parts of themselves in order to live in society. By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have lost touch with our true selves and fill the void of what is missing with habits like material overconsumption. It is only through extensive therapy and perhaps, as suggested by the woo-woo inclined, a “soul retrieval ceremony” that we can find our way back to who we are supposed to be.

I admit that I still find myself mindlessly scrolling through clothes online most nights. When I feel the itch to shop, I could try harder to curb the impulse by putting down my phone and reading a book or watching a movie instead, but I don’t. It turns out that looking at beautiful things just happens to be one of my main hobbies. But at least I have something to work on: finding total contentment with my place in the world. Just like the dads in their Patagonia fleece, I know that one more sweater or one more dress isn’t going to bring me closer to reaching that goal.

This article first appeared in FASHION’s April 2024 issue. Find out more here.

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