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Is it finally okay to buy the things we want, like clothes, or should we stick to groceries (and toilet paper)?
Last week, I ordered a new piece of underwear. In no universe were they ‘essential,’ but I’d wanted them for a while.
Besides, they were on sale.
After I bought them, I gave money to a food bank, donated to two local charities, and…
Yes, I’m trying – too hard – to justify my decision.
They arrived yesterday, and I love them.
Soft, made of sea-green cotton, it feels like a novelty after many weeks of monotonous uniformity.
And yet, it still feels like a frivolous purchase.
Especially now, at a time when my money could (and maybe should) have gone someplace more useful.
However, I’m not the only one.
Over the last few months, several editorials covering the merits of shopping vs not shopping have hovered around one’s desire to justify self-treating, despite serious reasons not to.
Here Is The Dilemma:
- If we buy non-essential items, are we generating unnecessary human contact?
- Are we further endangering the people who make and box and ship and deliver those things?
- Isn’t this the time to save, or to be charitable instead?
- At the same time, does not shopping provide the much-needed support to crippled businesses that have enacted strict safety protections for their employees?
It all gets more confusing as the economy starts creaking back to life, despite some serious concerns about public health.
Should we stick to groceries and (not too much) toilet paper? Or is it finally OK — even desirable — to buy the clothes we want?
What’s Best To Do?
When I polled my friends and family about this, there was a clear consensus:
“go ahead and shop, but ‘shop small’.“
The logic seems to be that it’s more ethical to patronise smaller companies because you’ll circumvent the more significant supply and delivery chains where the virus is more likely to be transmitted.
Moreover, small businesses are those hurting the most, since they don’t have the cash reserves needed to weather catastrophic downturns like the one we’re going through right now
1. Support Independent Designers
For Lauren Bucquet, the founder of the footwear label Labucq, instituting safety measures for her three-person team wasn’t much of a stretch.
“Initially, some concerned customers about couriers and shipping workers asked us not to send their shoes until early June.“
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But now, the trio fulfils orders from a storage unit in Los Angeles.
“It’s a one-person job, so there’s a low risk of exposure. Also, we’re taking extreme precautions in passing things off to shipping services,” said Lauren.
For Labucq, sales aren’t precisely booming, but they aren’t too bad either.
“It’s a complicated question, where you should be putting your money right now, and how you support certain people without putting other people at risk. But we do rely on sales to stay alive.“
All of this is nice to hear, but not everyone can afford to shop at independent designer brands.
Or has the time to research which ones have ethical labour practices.
Yet, there are goods in the bad of this COVID-19.
By force, the landscape is changing fast.
In fashion, online marketplaces dedicated to sustainable and ethical fashion are opening quickly, curating the products for conscious buyers, ensuring, at the same time, independent designers keep making a living.
2. Think Twice Before You Buy Clothes
“Since pretty much all of our shopping happens online these days, consumers don’t see firsthand what workers are going through,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a political scientist at Columbia University.
With the lockdown, there’s a lack of information.
“Consumers can’t make informed decisions to boycott certain brands,” he added.
So, do we give up and shop blindly, then?
No. But, while our individual choices make a difference, there’s no need to be hard on ourselves.
Plus, people who work under crappy conditions still need paycheques, too.
We are back to the uncomfortable starting point. But, all these problems existed long before the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis feels unique, and it is terrible.
In reality, it is exacerbating fragilities that were already there, even if they were not as obvious to us beforehand.
The broader solution is for consumers to recognise that a universal change is needed.
Seeking a big-business perspective on how we should shop, we called Brian Dodge, the president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which includes more than 200 of the industry’s most prominent retailers that collectively account for millions of American jobs.
“I absolutely would encourage people to shop. The businesses that we represent have a clear understanding of the threat posed by the virus, and they have adopted practices that are safe for both customers and employees,” he said
“Customers should have confidence in shopping as a result, and should buy the things that they want, whether that’s a car, a bracelet, or a gallon of milk.” he added
I wasn’t sure what to make of that advice. But since he brought it up, I mentioned that my mom had planned to buy a new car this year.
Now she’s having second thoughts, even though the model she wanted is available and at a discount.
Should she wait for another year?
Is a new car the best use of her money right now?
Should she get something cheaper?
“I understand the conflict, but I’d suggest buying the car she wants,” said Dodge.
“She’s probably going to get a good deal, and there’s a whole lot of people involved in the sale of that car who would benefit from it.“
And around we go. Spend money, enjoy the thrill of a new thing, support businesses, save jobs, and potentially risk lives.
Or play it safe and try not to, even though it’s impossible to withdraw from consumption entirely.
I can see you wandering between camps, anxiously, in the months and years ahead. But what if there’s a middle ground?
When I spoke to Jennifer Sey, the chief marketing officer of Levi’s, she said that she hopes this period will teach us to consume sustainably.
“Our research shows that consumers want to make better choices coming out of this. That’s because they want to continue the improvements that they see in the environment and the reduction of pollution and waste.“
And that’s true. The air quality has improved dramatically, worldwide, and maybe it will serve as a visual reminder that life can be better with lesser stuff.
And yet, while writing this, for a moment, I caught myself fantasising about buying another thing. Or, maybe, never purchase another item ever again?
In reality, we all know that’s impossible. Moreover, we’re all complicit in the process of consumption, overconsumption, creation of waste and pollution.
When it comes to consumption, there is no ‘right way. It is all about embarking on more careful decisions and make them one at a time.
WTVOX – ‘Voicing the Future of Fashion’
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