The Number One Reason
For my no-buying and low consumption year:
In three words it can be summarised as ‘Shame and Guilt’.
I am over-thinking and over-feeling walking sack of Shame and Guilt most of the time. The Guilt of Privilege and Helplessness – OMG what can I do about Syria? About the kleptocracy in Malaysia? I have the Mother of All Guilts, Mom Guilt. Fellow moms would know, dudes, you can’t touch this Guilt. It is mega. But the guilt that has determined my 2017, this year, is the guilt and shame that goes with being a consumer. Everything connected to my feelings about environmental degradation and waste and sustainability finally peaked at the last few months of 2016. I guess it was a long time coming.
It probably took three epiphanies/incidences before it really hit me:
- The Souvenir Scam – circa 2005/06 : I bought a lovely and authentic turquoise-decorated ring from a Turkish market as a travel keepsake. About a year later I was to find the exact same ring … in a market in Cambodia. So very authentic. Not long after that, I would just stop buying people souvenirs in general. Unless a friend specifically asks for something from the area I am going to, I am no longer buying ugly things that force my friends to uglify their homes in the spirit of friendship. Friends don’t do shit like that to each other.
- The Qipu Lu epiphany – 2011 : The Londoner and I travelled around China for four months in 2011 – partly to see if we could live together like that and still want to be together, partly due to immigration frustrations, and partly because we just wanted to travel la. We had so much fun and learned a lot in China. But it did trigger something within me. It was in Shanghai, in the craziness of this area of Qipu Lu – foreigners called it ‘Cheap-u Lu’ or ‘Cheap Street’ – that I had a visceral reaction. There were buildings, these wholesale malls, of stuff. The cheapest, most unsightly, most throwaway stuff you had ever seen were in rows, heaps and bundles everywhere. From clothes to shoes to tourist knick knacks, it was a visual nightmare – so much, so wasteful, so unnecessary. We were there with friends and had wanted to see what it was like at first, and maybe get a bargain or two. But the scenes there, and the amount of things everywhere – I ended up feeling distressed and nauseated. I didn’t buy anything. It was in China that I rethought stuff in general. I did not buy much at all from China.
- The London/Malaysian Experience – 2014 to 2016: After China I did change my consumer habits quite a bit. My tastes had also changed. I just wanted better quality, more classic-looking things. After moving to London to be with Anh, I had also gone through several rounds of packing and unpacking, and that tends to shame and guilt you into looking at the stuff you have accumulated over the years. I actually already experimented with a shopping challenge in 2014, vowing not to buy anything from the high streets – Top Shop, Zara and the like, for about 8 months. As a reward, I would then be able to buy some higher end things I actually wanted at the end of the year – during the Christmas/Boxing Day sales. At least that was my plan. Come December and I realised I had changed. I had developed a repulsion towards Sales. I realised that everything they parade for you in their sales, even branded goods, were pretty awful. You may be an Alexander Wang top but you ugly as fuck. This is why you are on sale, and you is still ugly, and you is still bloody expensive! I would look at the rows of the sales items – in all their wrong size and unsellable glory – and be reminded of Qipu Lu. At the end of that year, I bought one beautiful bag, one that I had been dreaming about for four years. It was expensive. It was classic. And I made sure I made buying that item an experience. And that was that. I was happy.
Come 2015 though, I had popped a baby. And everything went crazy. I went crazy. I think the doubt and madness and sleeplessness throws you into this weird haze and stupor. I developed an insane relationship with Amazon.com, buying everything and all I thought would help me be a better mother, wife, person, anything. From baby gadgets to tops to make me feel better, I bought so many things I know now I just did not need. I threw away so many things, I wasted so many things too. My husband patiently put up with me with it all, I think he knew I was just trying to survive this insane new motherhood phase.
In 2016, everything had stabilised somewhat – my baby was still alive and thriving, and as a mother you start feeling more like a human being again once you realise the kid is alive and thriving. Once baby became a toddler, I felt more like myself again. And my brain was back. (A little) Back enough for me to rethink things like wastage, the environment and consumption again. I remember being back in a Malaysian mall at the end of 2016, walking into a huge Mango store, and I felt that familiar nauseated feeling. There were 70% OFF signs everywhere. Everywhere. I remember walking around, mumbling to myself things I had been agonising about in the past – OMG who will buy all this crap. And why 70%? Should they have been produced in the first place then? And when all this cannot be sold, where does it go? WHERE? Moved around to where? And this is just one Mango shop in one small town in one city in one country, imagine all the crap that is everywhere in the world!
And then a few days later, I sat down to watch the documentary The True Cost. And all the things I had been distressed about in the last few years just clarified, the puzzles fit, it all made sense to me. I cried, damn it!
The human and social element of rampant, unthinking consumption greatly distressed me, but what really upset me more was the cost to the environment – those landfills, our rivers, our groundwater, our air. The chemicals needed to grow all that cotton. There are many lessons from the documentary but the ones that stood out most for me is that even if you donate your things to charity shops, only 10% get sold. The rest need to be moved again, as junk, elsewhere. Also buying more expensive things may not necessarily be better – the materials or parts required still have to come from somewhere, and it may not just be Italian leather.
So there you go. After that I couldn’t turn back, I guess. I just needed to do something, or at least try. I am so not perfect, I am so shit at all this. I know how entrenched I am with this consumerism, this capitalist system. But I can’t not just try.
If you don’t do anything else, at least educate yourself more about what is really happening out there, and just have a think or two whenever you buy something. At least a more considered thought, that is all. It seems like such an insurmountable system to overcome. But we can always just try.
Please spend some time watching The True Cost in full here.