Thoughts of Things

by Tara* Kaushal Question-of-Consumerism-Sahil-Mane-Photography

I spent a whole year without shopping. Here's why, and what I learnt. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

We consume more in every successive generation, more as we get richer, more as quality of life improves, more as the population explodes, more as mass production makes things cheaper, and so I'm compelled to believe that environmental concerns aren't alarmism but plain common sense. I, you, we're the target audience for millions of brands owned by thousands of corporations, vying for our attention—that they often get, along with our money, begging the question of indoctrination and the commercialisation of our tastes, needs and wants. And these corporations big and small… who are we making rich and what ethics do we end up supporting, literally buying, with our money? (Slaveryfootprint.org has a simple, if simplistic, survey to tell how many slaves work for you.)

Truth be told, I've never been overtly concerned with possessing or attached to things, and it's not like I shop a lot. I'm no ascetic: I dress up to look good and pander to the pull of fashion, and I've spent as much on the experience of a meal, a holiday, an adventure, rescuing an animal, surprising a loved one, a massage, as others do on jewellery, clothes and gadgets. Plus, I bought two houses as soon as I could: homes to fill the emotional void of an unstable childhood. And how can you ignore the better utility of a Mac and iPhone vs the PC and Blackberry, irrespective of the cost and show-off value. Of course, I need to feed my pride and ego with other things, let me not be confused for a saint. But brandishing brands, having things for the sake of having things, keeping keepsakes, ascribing objects with emotional value… never and decreasingly has that been for me.

Things, however, have always found me. Circumstances conspired to make me the proud owner of a houseful of hand-me-down things, courtesy my parents' migration to Australia and my ex-husband's transfer to Indonesia. At 23, in a house the size of a matchbox, in a new city where other strugglers like me slept on mattresses and could count on one hand the dishes they owned, I drowned in sofas and Kenwoods, artefacts, a king-sized bed, a sofa set and a rocking chair. Eight years later, my home is almost purged of all these expensive things, once pregnant with memories and too precious to give away (though not necessarily necessary nor my aesthetic).

While I've brandished this personality trait about as a matter of pride—a disinterest in the abject materialism that characterises our age, a sort-of bastardisation of the Hindu detachment ideal—there was a flip side. I'm not sure whether this is an Indian or generational trait, a bit of both perhaps, but my grandparents held on to the things they bought, treating them lovingly and maintaining them: they still use a sewing machine that they got as a wedding gift over sixty years ago. Unlike them, I took my lack of attachment to things to mean a use-and-throw attitude, never bothering to maintain them, replacing them easily and cheaply (I've always been a street shopper, even when I could afford not to be) when they broke or tore. Then, didn't this make me consume as much as others who glutted on things?

Plagued with these macro and personal realisations and questions, on the first of May last year, I decided to go on a no-shopping experiment for a year. There were rules, of course: I could replace something that was irredeemably, unfixably broken in my wardrobe and home; I could buy something if it was truly needed (not only wanted); the rest I would make up as I went along. Obviously, groceries weren't part of this moratorium. I found that my learnings at the end of this year are closely aligned to my reasons for embarking on this embargo in the first place.

Shopping, Happiness & Addiction

They call it ‘retail therapy' for a reason. It's been proven that shopping makes you happier, and even the most disinterested shopper can't help but feel a frisson of excitement at the buying and savouring of new things. That high can be quite addictive.

May was okay: I was newly motivated, plus I replaced my badminton shoes that were truly broken. In June, I finally picked up some things that had been with my tailor since February. By July I was craving hard, the withdrawal symptoms at their peak, but I didn't cheat. And, you know what, like any addiction, the craving faded away.

And though I found myself looking forward to my birthday and anniversary presents with an unhealthy, feverish excitement, I learnt a few things along the way.

  • While retail is therapy, studies have shown that the happiness from an experience—watching a film, travelling, enjoying a meal—is much longer lasting. This is true, and what I've believed all along.
  • When you buy what you truly, truly need/want, and not just when you give in to a craving, there's a special thrill in an occasional indulgence (I bought a pair of shoes for a wedding in January, a bag in March).
  • A surprisingly effective way to feel the same joy-of-the-new is to ‘discover' something you haven't used in a while—when I finally got to a tailor with my bunch of things to mend, and when they finally came back, voila, I had a whole lot of things I hadn't worn in a long time, good as new.
  • I've also started an informal barter system with a couple of friends, trading things I'm bored of in my wardrobe for similar stuff in theirs. Oh joy!

Choose Quality Over Quantity

Or spend more time, effort and energy maintaining stuff that wasn't built to last.

Maintain & Mend

I now wash clothes by colour groups, follow the ‘stitch in time' adage, get the oil checked in my car and pack my laptop away at night (on more than one occasion before, I've woken to the sound of it crashing to the floor, from beside me on the bed). New India is at the beginning of the consumerist cycle, with newfound spending power and the lure of glittering foreign brands and aspirations. That less is more, and the idea behind the developed-country-cars-public-transport quote are lost on us. In the meanwhile, counterculture movements across the world, including veganism, are going back, growing a certain ‘awareness' of things and seeking fulfilment beyond them—back, ironically, to the ways of my grandparents.

Borrow

July last year posed a challenge: I had a Big Fat Indian Wedding to attend, and my wardrobe's sparse Indian selection would just not suffice for the six functions. Even if I considered this a mitigating circumstance, I reasoned that I'd only be buying clothes I'd only rarely wear again. I borrowed almost everything I wore from friends and family, and it worked!

At the end of this year, I am certainly richer (much richer) in wallet, but poorer in wardrobe (which has certainly started to feel the pinch, and I've truly been struggling for fresh clothes and shoes). I do need new upholstery, and a fresh bunch of cushion covers will certainly be welcome.

Of course, I’m not recommending that we all become monks or even that you spend a year living without shopping. I am just saying that we each need to think more deeply about the choices we make. A dear friend, who once held down a high-powered job in the fashion industry, is now a raw food eater and avoids multinationals like the plague. While this year has not set me on her extreme path, I've come away a little more mature, with a little more mindfulness and with better priorities.

2014: Less is More.

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