Photographed by Brian Ulrich

“I believe it’s a strategy in some large stores like Ikea to actually so overwhelm the shopper that one feels tired, empty and slightly depressed; to circumvent this emptiness it might seem to make sense to a shopper to fill up on goods.”

(via romuvulcan)

Products and Security

A good friend of mine is helping his parents declutter their home, a process which involves selling or otherwise getting rid of many items they purchased a decade or more ago. He confided that his parents expect to sell these items for only a small percentage less than what they paid for them, and he has had a very difficult time convincing them that their big screen television, no matter its pristine condition, will not fetch $600 when there are brand new HDTVs on the market for the same price. 

In many ways, my friend’s parents represent the last generation that I spoke about in this post, who still regard products as investments. They expect the things they buy to keep their value, and didn’t realize that the world had already begun to move on from that model by the time they bought their big screen television. They believed that buying expensive things was a form of security. 

If this was ever true at all, it certainly hasn’t been for the past several decades. We now live in a world where you can spend a thousand dollars on a device that will be obsolete within six months. Once your product is outdated, God help you if you try to resell it, because along with this revolution in product advancement, we also live in a world where people believe it is natural and acceptable to replace these items the instant something marginally better comes along.

I know what you’re thinking: Apple products. It’s the most blatant example of this kind of consumerism, and it makes charts like this one extra depressing. If I had been able to invest the amount of money I spent on my PowerBook G4 instead (which lasted all of nine months before it broke irreparably and I ended up selling it for parts for $300), the stock would now be worth $120,000. Look at your life, look at your choices.

So where does that leave us impressionable consumers, hungry for security? Well, security has had a revolution too. We no longer want things that will last us the rest of our lives and still be worth something when we’re done with them. We want the newest things, the coolest things, the flashiest toys, because image is security. It’s no longer about having everything we need, or a net worth we can liquidate if necessary. It’s about being able to stay on top of the latest styles, the hottest technology. If you didn’t replace your iPhone 3G with an iPhone 3GS (and then replace that with a 4), you’re a schmuck. If you don’t toss out all your old clothes (which aren’t worth anything now anyway) and replace your entire wardrobe each season, you’ll look like a tool.

Our security now comes through the eyes of others—or rather, through what we assume other people are thinking about us, because we have been indoctrinated to believe our every act is being analyzed by those around us and placed on a scale that will determine whether or not we are worth knowing. This is the kind of psychology that motivates children in grade school. Aren’t we supposed to grow out of it?

Even the top rung on the American dream, home ownership, has lost its sheen of ultimate security, and it’s partially because a lot of people decided they’d rather have brand new stuff all the time than things that last, or money in the bank.

Security is subjective… or at least, it should be. People have to decide for themselves what their form of security means. Is it a big house? A good education? A large savings account? These should be the kinds of questions every human being ponders as they transition to adulthood. But the mass-produced form of security has been sold so effectively to our children that no one even bothers to challenge it anymore, and so we are locked in this mindset for life.

Just so you know, I’m typing this post on a MacBook I bought four and a half years ago (which is obviously a lot more durable than that ill-fated PowerBook), and when my cell phone contract ends this summer, I’ll switch to a month-to-month plan and use my jailbroken iPhone 3G, which was given to me for free by my best friend when she upgraded. Right now I’m wearing a shirt I’ve had for years, and simple leather shoes I bought last year, which I intend to repair as needed and keep in good knick with the expectation that they will last me the rest of my life.

I’m not trying to be preachy when I use myself as an example; I’m just saying I know firsthand that it’s possible to live a different way. It requires thinking independently, doing extensive research, and being conscious of why you make your decisions, which is why most consumers don’t bother. But in the end it’s far more rewarding and less stressful. We may never be able to return to the idea of security embraced by previous generations, but we can address the question of what security means for us as individuals, and reject the harmful parody that is perpetuated by the industry.


The best thing you can do for Earth Day: Stop buying stuff.
Here’s a list of 7 everyday items you can make instead of buying.

This is awesome! (Though to be fair, several of these projects require buying special ingredients you probably don’t already have in your home.)


The best thing you can do for Earth Day: Stop buying stuff.

Here’s a list of 7 everyday items you can make instead of buying.

This is awesome! (Though to be fair, several of these projects require buying special ingredients you probably don’t already have in your home.)

On Kids and Buying Stuff (Part One of Many)

So I’m pregnant, which is proving to be a blog’s worth of content all on its own, but I’m not here to inflict that on the world. While I love complaining to my friends in person about my bizarre appetite fluctuations and the fact that I can’t drink beer until November, I am an unconsumerblogger (crumpets, what an unwieldy term!) above all, and will not be turning into a mommyblogger anytime soon. However, I do see ample opportunity to discuss the intersection of having babies and buying stuff.

When we told my parents they were going to be grandparents, my mother started planning all the things she would buy. When we told my husband’s parents the news, they made it extremely clear that they would not be buying us anything. This is in part because our respective parents occupy completely different socioeconomic realms, but more importantly, the longtime occupation of their realm has contributed to my in-laws’ philosophy that “babies need food, love, diapers, and not much else.” 

I’ve been nannying part time for a lovely family over the past few months, and their now eight-month-old daughter is the youngest child I’ve ever had to care for. At first I was terribly intimidated. I’d done diapers before, but never had to look after a child who wasn’t capable of sitting up on her own. I quickly found out that my in-laws are right: babies are simple creatures with simple needs. If the kid starts crying, a) she is hungry, b) she is wet or poopy, or c) she wants me to pick her up and walk the entire length of her house seventeen times.

She has many impressive toys that light up and talk, but she prefers that I roll a ball across the floor so she can crawl after it. (Yes, I play fetch with a baby. Shut up.) She has a technologically advanced high chair which I cannot even begin to master, but for her this is just a flat surface where I put bite-sized pieces of avocado which she gnaws with her only two teeth. She is ambivalent toward the television shows her older sister loves so much, and would rather grab my hair and laugh at me. If she is playing with a particular toy and it ceases to entertain her, it is because she is tired of toys, not because she wants a different one. She cares not a whit for the adorable clothes in which her mother dresses her. In many ways, she is my hero.

Meanwhile, my mother is acquiring clothing and equipment and storing it in her basement, since we don’t have room for it in our house. She took me shopping last week at a consignment store and then Target’s baby section, and I was overwhelmed. I don’t even want to think about this stuff right now; I’m in my first trimester and this fetus is the size of a thumb and it takes enough energy for me just to remember to take my prenatal vitamins. After twenty minutes or so of staring at row after row of strollers, all I could think was that it really doesn’t matter which one I use. My future child will not care

My mom explained her buying frenzy by telling me that she wanted to do all the things for my child that she didn’t get to do for me. From what I can tell, “all the things” includes buying stuff and maintaining a savings account for future college expenses. She thinks her shortcomings as a parent were financial in nature.

Did I notice when I was a kid? Of course not. I had a great big yard and a library I could bike to, and in the summer we traveled to a different art show every weekend, and when I was ten I got the Jurassic Park Command Compound, and that slaked any consumer desires I may have had for the next ten years or so. When I was a baby, I did not care that my crib didn’t grow with me, or my sippy cups didn’t have cutting edge spillproof technology. I was a baby. The only people who cared, who thought they were somehow falling short because they couldn’t provide me with all the things society insisted I should have, were my parents. 

We clever humans have turned every aspect of every stage of life into an industry. You no longer prepare for parenthood by reflecting on your own life, considering the choices your parents made and thinking deeply about what you would do differently. You prepare for parenthood by buying the right things. The consumer choices you make have serious repercussions, for the safety of your child (bottles and teething toys with harmful chemicals in them, death-trap cribs, flammable onesies) or the approval of your peers (you mean you didn’t spend $250 for a three-wheeled convertible jogging stroller with integrated car seat?!). Buy cloth diapers and you’ll be stuck doing laundry all day every day for two years. Buy disposables and you’ll singlehandedly generate a brand new landfill. Also, your baby will secretly hate you. 

For a parent-to-be, the only thing worse than buying the wrong thing is buying nothing.

Not for the first time, I wish I had any skill with a sewing machine. Blankets, diapers, onesies, and plush toys would be abundant and practically free thanks to my hardcore DIY spirit. I’m going to hand sew a few things over the next several months, and some friends are making other items for me as well, but there is still so much I will be forced to buy. Breast milk is free, fortunately, and that’s the only thing that keeps me from seriously resenting my recent expansion. As for toys, I do not believe in the educational value of flashing, brightly colored, musical, or otherwise stimulating items, nor in the proposed value of educational videos, so that’s a whole section of the market I can avoid. I may take up woodcarving as a new hobby and whittle some simple toys and spoons and such. 

When I helped out at a Waldorf daycare last year, the lead teacher gave me a stack of literature to read so I could “understand the aesthetic we’re going for”. There was a catalogue in the stack, full of beautifully minimalist objects meant to spark a child’s imagination. The prices were atrocious. Even a philosophy as beautiful as Waldorf, set as it is on raising children independently of a society based around materialism and vapid entertainment, is not immune to the compulsion to consume. 

I am still trying to sort out exactly what this baby will need, and what I don’t have to buy. Even without all the accessories, the costs of delivering a child are high enough that no one escapes unscathed (least of all me). And while babies, or their parents, may need slightly more than food, love, and diapers, there is simply no justification for the proliferation of blogs out there that prey on new parents’ insecurity and desire to make their babies’ lives as comfortable as possible in order to sell them all manner of products. Babies are simple. Anxiety, unfortunately, is not. 

More to come…

"The truth is that there is no way to change the world through shopping."

On Gifts

So how were your holidays? No, don’t wince like that—I’m not here to guilt trip you about all the money you almost certainly spent on presents. And even I was not immune this year; a card-carrying* anti-Christmas activist, I still bought my parents a bottle of port. Using the credit card. Which my husband will have to pay back. Woe betide!

Now, for the past few years my attitude toward the holiday season was that nobody should give each other gifts of any kind. I hated Christmas and all the rest because people were pressured into being nice to each other for one day out of the year, after which they would go back to ignoring and/or despising each other. I’m referring chiefly to families here—everyone knows brotherly love and good cheer at Christmastime doesn’t apply to your fellow shoppers, drivers, or pedestrians, which is why I saw a lady get pepper sprayed in the Wal-Mart parking lot**. 

As I’ve gotten older***, I have come to understand that the part of the holiday that truly irks me is not necessarily the pressure to pretend to be nice to people, but rather the pressure to pretend to be nice to people by buying them things. The idea of giving gifts isn’t even necessarily the problem, I realized as I watched the pepper spray incident through my windshield and wished for popcorn. The problem is we don’t think of them as real gifts unless they were bought in a store. 

Problem number one with holiday gift-giving is that not everyone likes getting gifts that much. I’ve never really been a fan, at least not after my parents got me the Jurassic Park Command Compound when I was ten, in part because nothing could ever top that (I mean come on!), but also because nobody else in my family has ever really known what to get me, which resulted in year after year of origami sets and makeup, and my current phobia-level aversion to six-inch squares of paper and eyeshadow. All that aside, I do give some credence to the idea that there are at least five love languages, of which giving and receiving gifts is only one. There are other ways to show people you love them. 

I spent a lot of time this past month thinking about gifts that don’t require consumerism. I’m a naturally creative person, and I’ve given quite a few handmade books to friends and family over the years, but that’s gotten old. A few times leading up to Christmas, I found myself standing in front of my messy crafting desk, gazing at ephemera and raw materials and wondering if I could possibly turn any of it into something my friends and relatives would respect, let alone treasure for years to come. The week before Christmas I even tried candlemaking, and I discovered two things about myself during this attempt at stretching my artistic boundaries and creating something I won’t use but someone else might. A) I am allergic to cheap paraffin wax, and B) I am really bad at making candles. 

So where does that leave us? In Not Buying It, Judith Levine could not come up with a decent gift idea for her niece, and ended up giving her a family heirloom. I think this is beautiful. It’s not for everyone, though. Giving personal possessions is an incredibly intimate act, and requires a certain amount of overlap in taste and personality between the giver and the recipient. When it comes to family members we haven’t talked to at length in years, whose interests and tastes are a mystery to us, we’d probably be better off giving a gift certificate. 

There are always gifts of time. You can give certificates that entitle the bearer to, say, an hour of tech support or computer tutoring, or assistance with housework, or a knitting lesson. Time banks (like this one) offer structured ways for members to exchange services, but you can create a small-scale version of this within your own family. As before, not everyone would be thrilled with such a gift, and giving gifts of time requires you to know your recipient.

But that’s really what makes these gifts so much better than anything you could get in a store. They require the giver to actually know and understand the recipient. Gifts like these work because there is already a meaningful relationship in place, and the gift is not some shiny trinket which planned obsolescence will soon render garbage, meant to stand in for actually knowing that person.

I can make something for my best friend because I know who she is as a person and I know what she’d like. The only things I know my cousin would like are products. Products are safe that way—you don’t need to fear rejection when you buy someone something that everyone wants. It takes courage to offer your time, to give something of your own, or to make a gift. It takes understanding. It takes love. 

* Not really. 
** Really.
*** Mid-twenties instead of early twenties! 

When you must buy, this is how to do it. If we can approach our shopping with this level of care and thoughtfulness, we will spend less in the long run and be consistently happier more satisfied with the things we purchase. 
(via The Church of Stop Shopping)

When you must buy, this is how to do it. If we can approach our shopping with this level of care and thoughtfulness, we will spend less in the long run and be consistently happier more satisfied with the things we purchase. 

(via The Church of Stop Shopping)