Over the holidays, I joined the extended family in a trip to the Jordan Creek Mall outside of Des Moines. The excursion was primarily designed to let the kids let off some steam, to eat some famous local burgers, and to stretch our legs. What I didn’t expect were many bigger reflections on consumerism.
A bit of background: My mall-going days were concentrated in my youth and, to this day, retain a haze of teenage uncertainty and discomfort. Pop culture told me that as teenage girl, I was supposed to count ‘shopping’ as a past time. Shop ‘Til You Drop was a beloved after-school game show for my brother and me. The Mall Madness board game was a particular favorite amongst my peers. And for the entire decade of the 1990s, the mall was simply the cool place to hang out. For me, however, anytime I went to the mall (or shopping more broadly), I felt like I was self-consciously playing a role. Wasn’t I having fun buying earrings at Claire’s? Didn’t I love trying on clothes all day and finding the perfect thing? Wasn’t it great to arrive without any particular plan, but to treat yourself to something you didn’t know you wanted? I know that many people enjoy shopping, but it was never fun for me – and it took me until my twenties to figure that out.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve designed a very different relationship with shopping. Versus the in-person shopping of my youth, Liz and I live an Amazon-enabled life. We assess and agree upon our need before buying each item. We research the best item in each category, whether through a quick spot-check of Amazon reviews or more extensive online diligence. And, we are quick to return items that don’t satisfy our needs, packing them up and shipping them back. In short, there’s no such thing as an impulse purchase; it’s all overarchingly intentional.
The result of our narrow online shopping habits is that we exposed to the breadth of American consumerism. My visit to the mall this holiday season took me out of my Amazon bubble and brought the broader landscape back into focus. A few observations from my mall wanderings:
First, I was struck by the sheer volume of items for sale: iPhone cases, laser-cut cat images, Christmas ornaments, clothes, clothes, clothes! So many things! Who would buy all these things? Where did they come from? Who made them? And where would they all go after they were used and loved? The volume of merchandise for sale made me think about their lives before these shelves – the raw materials, the producers, their working conditions – and their existence after these shelves – the joy or utility these items might bring, the landfills and recycling centers where they might end up. Receiving my single, intentionally-purchased item in a box on my doorstep focuses me on this sole item and my use alone; walking through the mall reminded me of the broader life cycle of this vast array of goods.
Further, in the intra-holiday period, I was struck by the dominance of the deal. Nearly every store had a sale: 65% off! Buy one, get one! Everything $1! I could viscerally feel their allure; I too wanted to stock up on $3 Bath and Body Works soaps and $1 turtlenecks. Thus, while I typically buy things with intention, my mall trip reminded me of how frequently we buy things by impulse. It’s crazy how even when we’re trying hard to be thoughtful, it’s difficult to say no to an experience designed to maximize spending, regardless of need.
To be clear, living in the online shopping bubble does not make me immune from the negative sides of consumerism. For every pair of jeans I buy online, there’s still an immense amount of textile waste generated. And I’m certainly guilty of generating a pile of cardboard boxes nearly every week. But my mall trip prompt me to reflect on the aspects of consumerism often hidden to us online shoppers – and to recommit to how I want to buy items: In the face of all these things to buy, I want to purchase only quality items with responsible sourcing and a long usable life. In the face of impulse buys, I want to be even more thoughtful about purchasing only the vital few items we need.
It’s good to look around once in a while.
Wishing you a wonderful New Year,
Here’s a bonus clip re: the mall for all the “How I Met Your Mother Fans” out there. It’s a fairly accurate representation of mall-going in the 90s. Who doesn’t love Robin Sparkles?
And the trailer for a documentary entitled ‘Minimalism’ that channels how I’m thinking about consumerism. Thanks to Alyson Madrigan for the tip.