Recently this humorous advertisement for a clothing store popped up in my newsfeed. It’s referencing the very “tidying up” method I talked about in my last stuff post. Ironically, it’s talking all about getting rid of things, spring cleaning and minimizing– while advertising a clothing brand. We’re so weird in America. We can sell more clothes while talking about downsizing and getting rid of clothes.
So hopefully I’m not as overenthusiastic as Busy is in this video ( my husband still has some clothes!) but I’ve been trying to think more this month about the messages about stuff that my culture is telling me. And how most of them are false:
- Your stuff defines you: Whether it’s “being a minimalist” or getting the newest cellphone, or only buying stuff from thrift stores or only buying from the dollar store or only buying from high-end name brand stores– the stuff I have is part of my individualistic self-expression. It’s about identity. And whether you’re a Mac person or a PC person, it’s a little worrying that we’re wrapping our identity so closely to our stuff. Because what happens when trends shift? Right now it’s cool in some circles to upcycle old things, but what about next year when the fashion trends shift again? It’s not that things are bad, or that we should all own exactly the same thing and have no choice in the matter. It’s just that when our identity is tangled up in our stuff, we can’t keep a proper perspective. There’s a hierarchy here, people. I am more important than my stuff. My stuff is useful, or pretty, or both–but it’s just stuff. If I have to take a name brand over generic, just because of the label, there’s something wrong with me.
2. I need to own stuff to enjoy it: Since our stuff gets tied up in who we are, it isn’t enough just to use something–we need to own it. I can’t just check a book out from the library (and, gasp, WAIT for it to become available) I need to own it. I can’t just enjoy a visit to the beach, I need to own part of the beach. I can’t enjoy a cappuccino out with a friend, or even my friend’s fancy home coffee machine, I need my own cappuccino machine. There’s a lie the world tells me: You need to possess this to enjoy it to the full. Possess. It’s a scary word. But I fall for it all the time. There are so many things: nature, art, music, books–that I don’t need to own to enjoy. And in fact, by owning some of these things (like beachfront property) I might be robbing others of the chance to have access to this item, too.
3. You need stuff to get stuff done: Enter weird kitchen appliances, time-saving apps, newer models of iPhones, tool boxes, garden maintenance tools, exercise and dieting fads, cleaning tools and products, weird camping gear… the list goes on. I still remember my senior year of college, when our honors theme was sustainability and we learned that the average hammer is used for something like 3 hours in its whole life. Or think about lawnmowers- they sit taking up space in garages all week, and are pulled out for an hour of use maybe 30 weeks of the year. Our consumeristic culture has sold us the idea that the answer to every need is stuff. One of the most useful things I’ve learned (and I still fail at!) is trying to reframe my needs away from things and towards function. For example:
- I don’t need a hammer. What I need is a nail in the wall to hang a picture. Is there a way I can get a nail in the wall without a hammer?
- I don’t need a lawnmower. What I need is my grass to be cut. (OR, a yard that isn’t hideous). Is there a way to have an unhideous front yard without owning a lawnmower?
- I don’t need a car. What I need is to get to work and the grocery store. Is there a way to do that without a car?
- I don’t need to sign up for high-speed internet. What I need is a way to get my online work done, check email and skype from home, and have something to do when I’m bored. Is there a way to do that without getting high speed internet?
- I don’t need this book. What I need is the information in this book. Is there a way to get that without buying the book? (And the list goes on).
Answering these questions takes creativity. It’s obvious why our default answer to most of our needs is “buy stuff.” It’s what our culture tells us, it’s what everyone else does, and it’s being sold to us every day in the media. Plus, it’s easy.
4. Stuff makes your life easier, and you need stuff now: In some ways this is true. It’s a lot easier to pull a hammer out of the toolshed than walk across the street to borrow one, or scrounge around for something else to get a nail in the wall (we’ve ended up using a wrench end on many occasions). And waiting for stuff is hard. If I can buy a book with one click on Amazon, why would I wait two weeks until a book becomes available in my library? If I can buy these clothes now, and I hate them later, I can just get rid of them. But these are lies. Some stuff definitely makes our lives easier (maybe we should bite the bullet and own a hammer) but there is a trade-off to owning stuff. You have to maintain it and store it. And an excess of stuff becomes overwhelming and soul destroying. And if I can’t wait for something, then I have bigger problems than just the amount of stuff I have.
5. It’s all about you: Another lie we believe is owning stuff doesn’t hurt anyone. Maybe you’re thinking, if I want to own three different pairs of black flats, what’s it to you? That’s my choice. I’m showing this video on poverty to my sociology class this week, and while it’s a simple description of poverty, I like it because it shows how our choices about what we consume DO impact other people. The consumers generate the demand. If I didn’t need the latest iPhone, there wouldn’t be so much slave labor in mines in Africa. If I didn’t need the latest Forever21 spring dress, tons of pollution from the textile industry would decrease, and low wages for workers could increase.
6. Disconnect yourself from what things really cost, and just buy what works for you: We live in a very confused culture. On one hand, we’re being sold overpriced name brand items and falling for it, and on the other hand, we’re unwilling to pay what things are actually worth. Take a pair of jeans. You can buy a pair for $5 at Walmart. Or you can by $600 jeans from True Religion. Maybe your Religion jeans will last you a little longer, but at the end of the day they’re still made from jean cloth. In a factory. I doubt Religion jeans are made by Paris fashion designers hand-stitching them. I doubt they are 120x higher quality than the Walmart jeans. Even if Religion’s materials and process are slightly better the extra money isn’t going towards paying people more, it’s being ploughed into marketing. To be clear, I don’t think the Walmart jeans are fairly priced either. The fact is, I don’t really know what jeans cost. I know how cheap I can buy them–but I don’t know what they cost. My $5 jeans have the same costs as my $600 jeans, it’s just that I’m not bearing the brunt of the cost. I tried to sit down and think about what it takes to have a pair of jeans:
- Farms growing cotton and indigo. One bale of cotton makes 225 pairs. A bale has roughly 500 pounds in it, at 80c per pound. That’s about $400/bale so about $1.70 per pair. The blue color is indigo that has to be grown and processed, too.
- Factories with workers to process the cotton and turn it into denim. Factories to turn the denim into jeans.
- Transporting all these goods around from farm to factory to supply store to retail store.
Here are some of the costs:
- CO2 emissions from transport
- Farming practices that might harm the environment (water pollution, deforestation)
- Chemicals used in processing the fabric (air and water pollution)
- Workers wages at every stage of production up to the sale.
All in all, for me to have a $5 pair of jeans, I think someone has been exploited somewhere along the line. And even if individual people haven’t been exploited in the creation of the jeans, the effects on the environment are still there. And those are not being born by me or the big companies- it’s often the poor. So whether that $5 pair of jeans is sold for $5 or $600, I’m not paying what it costs.
Okay, enough from me! What are some other lies our culture tells us about stuff? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!