In our modern consumer-driven society where each day over 4,000 ads flash before our eyes, we often find ourselves buying things we don't actually need. Although a minor and nonthreatening issue of which we’re all guilty, the scale is enormous: people across the globe buy things they don’t need all the time and, due to the inessential nature of most items, dispose of them too frequently. Consumption grows globally and obsolescence escalates, creating serious environmental issues: resource depletion, waste mismanagement during production, and waste buildup after consumption.
This is a brief exercise attempting to understand why we buy things we don’t need and how we can tweak our behavior to consume with more consciousness.
1. Evolutionary Psychology
The human desire to accumulate resources can be traced back to our evolutionary history. In prehistoric times, gathering and storing food, tools, and materials were essential for survival. The urge to acquire and stockpile possessions is an innate trait that helped our ancestors thrive, but in today’s world of accessible abundance, this behavior faces an environmental mismatch.
By abstaining from buying things, we hopelessly battle our nature, and instinctual behavior always beats willpower. If you need to scratch the itch to buy, try shopping secondhand and giving a new life to an existing garment. Let’s leverage the urge to accumulate by acquiring pieces that make use of existing, idle resources, that stimulate a local economy, that come from a healthy and overall beneficial production process instead of one tarnished by resource depletion, waste mismanagement, and exploited labor.
2. Emotional Gratification
Shopping and acquiring new possessions trigger the release of dopamine in our brains, the "feel-good" neurotransmitter. This reward system encourages us to repeat the behavior, making shopping a pleasurable experience. The act of buying can provide a sense of accomplishment and happiness, even if the items aren't strictly necessary.
But guess what? You don’t have to buy something to achieve that dopamine release. In fact, a clinical psychologist at Cleveland Clinic revealed that window shopping or browsing also triggers dopamine release. In fact, there’s joy in saving up for a purchase. Having something to look forward to creates excitement and a release of dopamine over time.
We’ll interpret these findings as approval to save up, meditate over a purchase, and pull the trigger on an item that’s worth the splurge.
3. Social Influences
Consumerism is often fueled by social influences. Advertising, peer pressure, and societal norms can drive us to purchase items that we believe will improve our status, appearance, or happiness. Brands and advertisers are experts at tapping into our emotions, creating a sense of need where none previously existed.
4. Psychological Triggers
Consumers often buy items they don't need due to various psychological triggers. Sales and discounts can create a sense of urgency, leading people to make impulsive purchases. Additionally, the fear of missing out can push us to buy items we might not truly desire.
5. Emotional Shopping
Retail therapy is a well-known concept, and based on scientific (and empirical ;)) evidence, it works. A 2014 study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that making shopping decisions, whether theoretical or actual, reduces lingering sadness.
Sadness, more than any other emotion, is linked to a perceived lack of personal control over one's surroundings. When people are sad, they often attribute outcomes to external factors rather than their own actions. Shopping– actively choosing what to purchase and controlling what one does and doesn’t buy– remedies sadness by substituting perceived powerlessness with control and by offering a distraction from the source of stress or sorrow.
If you’re engaging in retail therapy, we encourage you to at least buy something nice that you’ll want to keep forever.
Excessive consumption of consumer goods in general can lead to the following nonexhaustive list of environmental problems:
1. Resource Depletion
Excessive consumption leads to the overexploitation of natural resources, such as water, minerals, and forests, which are essential for manufacturing and packaging consumer goods.
2. Energy Consumption
The production, transportation, and disposal of consumer products require a substantial amount of energy, often sourced from fossil fuels. This contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
3. Waste Generation
Excessive consumption results in the generation of vast amounts of waste. Improper disposal can lead to environmental pollution and damage to ecosystems.
The production and use of consumer goods can release pollutants into the environment, including air and water pollution. This can have harmful effects on human health and ecosystems.
5. Loss of Biodiversity
The conversion of natural habitats for agriculture and the extraction of resources to meet consumer demand can lead to a loss of biodiversity, endangering various species and ecosystems.
6. Plastic Pollution
The overuse of single-use plastics, driven by consumer culture, has led to widespread plastic pollution in oceans and other environments, harming wildlife and ecosystems.
7. Water Scarcity
High levels of consumption can exacerbate water scarcity, as water is needed for agriculture, manufacturing, and other processes related to consumer goods.
8. Climate Change
Excessive consumption is closely tied to increased carbon emissions, primarily due to energy consumption and transportation related to the production and distribution of goods.
Mass market goods require an excessive amount of inputs, and their disposable nature then creates an excessive amount of waste. Acknowledging the resources behind each product should encourage us to hold onto the product longer, or abstain from buying a product that faces immediate disposal.
To combat the negative mental effects of excessive consumption, it's important to practice mindful and intentional shopping.
In an effort to shop more mindfully, you can ask these questions before purchasing something:
1. Do I need this?
Chances are you don’t, but it’s good to acknowledge this before buying.
2. Does this piece compliment and elevate the existing clothes in my closet?
Avoid the Diderot Effect– the consequence of buying a luxury piece that then diminishes your satisfaction for the existing items you have.
3. Will I be able to wear this on a weekly basis?
A truly beautiful garment encompasses the holy trinity of style, comfort, and function.
4. Will this retain value even when I’m done wearing it?
From what we’ve seen, unique vintage pieces and designer garments and accessories are resold and sold out most frequently. If these items are already successfully sold secondhand, chances are you can resell your unique vintage and designer garments and accessories.
5. How long do I see myself keeping this?
Can you wear that beyond college and into your 30’s and 40’s? A Gucci purse, yes. Platform high heels from Fashion Nova, maybe not.
6. Does it match my personal sense of style?
If it doesn’t, you run the risk of not wearing it. Plus, nothing is worse than not feeling quite right in your outfit. We should invest in pieces that elevate our unique selves.
7. Am I in love with it?
You shouldn’t buy anything that you don’t absolutely love. You should love the way it fits, love the way it feels, and love the way it looks. Avoid buying the things you like to save up for the few things you love.
And of course, question the history behind the item.
8. What materials is this made of?
What does the afterlife of those materials look like? Polyester is going to take a few hundred years to decompose, while natural fibers like cotton, cashmere, and wool are all biodegradable. Furthermore, synthetic materials shed microplastics and require petroleum in their production. (Disclosure: cotton, although a natural material, is also resource intensive to cultivate.)
9. Where was this made?
Think about the labor behind the garment. By purchasing a piece of clothing, you are directly supporting the conditions that produced it.
10. Will I wear it?
Guilty as charged, I buy things I do not immediately need. My order history at TheRealReal is evidence of my engagement in momentary impractical purchases. But out of instinct, I know that sooner or later, I will wear the item. If I see a one-of-a-kind piece that compliments my personal style, that matches items already in my closet, and that flatters my physical features, chances are I’m buying it. And chances are (and results have been) that when I need a fun piece for a concert or party or dinner, I reach for the frivolous purchase. And I find that I’m so happy and grateful to have it.
And on that note, we should be buying pieces that elicit happiness not only at the moment of purchase but far beyond, when we see the item in our closet and every single time we wear it. A beautiful piece of clothing can leave lasting impacts on our self-perception, confidence, and identity.
Lastly, not a question but a recommendation, always embrace quality over quantity.
It’s no secret that our propensity to consume extends far beyond mere necessity. Instead, evolutionary psychology, neurochemical releases, social influences, emotional underpinnings, and psychological triggers all motivate us to shop, to acquire, to accumulate.
Your willpower stands no chance against these influences, no offense. But hopefully you’re walking away with an understanding of why you want to buy, of how to think critically about your purchasing decisions, and of how to engage with the desire to shop in a healthy way that gives new life to old garments, that elevates your current wardrobe, and that emphasizes your individual beauty and taste.