To Shop or Not To Shop?

I was in the USA recently on a far-too-brief trip to do some publicity for one of my sponsors. That sounds so fancy now I’m writing it! Had you asked me even a year ago if I’d write a blog that says that, I’d just have laughed at you. But anyway – the daily disbelief of what I’m doing is the subject of other blogs.

  Photo: Kelvin Trautman

Photo: Kelvin Trautman

We were driving back to the airport past multiple strip malls – low brown buildings flanked on all sides by large expanses of grey tarmac car parking spaces. The loud signs, colored and in cursive or slanted script caught my eye – advertising for these huge stores I’d never heard of, and can’t remember, and names for malls like “Paradise Mall”. 

As I watched the procession of gleaming cars driving in and out of the mall, I realised that this was the first trip to the USA where I hadn’t bought a thing. Not a thing – not clothing, not chocolates, not sports or outdoor gear (my usual downfall).

Decision to purchase

Don’t get me wrong. I had been tempted. I’d looked online before I left Australia and ogled at some beautiful cotton shirts which I knew wouldn’t be helpful in the wilds of RunningDry, but which I reasoned would be good for, well, somewhere. And I’d found some spectacular dresses which I thought I couldn’t live without. I’d passed by the mall near our hotel on multiple occasions and realised it was only a 5 minute walk away. And I’d seen one of my favourite outdoor places, REI, was an even shorter stroll by foot. 

And yet I didn’t buy any of those things I had found, I didn’t step close to the mall, and I didn’t go to visit REI.

Why?

I could have pressed that buy button on the computer and with “one click” had the clothes sent to my hotel. I could have given up a swim and made time to go to REI.

One of my friends who is experienced in this said to me once:
“Decisions to purchase an item are governed by 3 things – Price, Availability and Quality.”

I don’t deny this is true in most cases – after all he’s an expert in behaviour change and this had come up in the context of trying to shift purchasing behaviour to reward positive environmental actions by a manufacturer of a product.

Two questions

But in my case, all of those things were present: good products at great prices (the ones I was drooling over were over 50% discounted) and available to be dropped at my doorstep without having to leave my hotel.

And yet I didn’t buy. I didn’t buy because two things lurked in my mind:

  1. Did I need these, or just want them?

  2. If I just wanted them, did I want them enough that I was prepared to be responsible for the environmental impact that would entail?

Ultimately I realised that I didn’t need any of the items I was looking at. They would likely hang beside other shirts – a shiny new item amongst the dully familiar. On occasion they would be brought out and worn: an unnecessary option to a closet that with a little imagination has enough items for me to be able to find something to wear.

But they were beautiful, and I really liked them, and after all , I could definitely see a moment or two when they would be perfect.

A capsule wardrobe

Here’s the thing. When I started to understand our invisible water footprint, and how much water went into everything we use, buy and consume, I decided to streamline. I downsized – giving away things, recycling things and figuring out alternate uses for things I had accumulated over the years. I read about creating a wardrobe capsule, and decided to try it out – if it worked, it would vastly reduce my water footprint.

I made lists, and made a commitment to myself to only buy what was on my list, to buy quality over quantity and to make sure that whatever was in my closet, I absolutely loved.

That was over 2 years ago. I’ve simplified to black, white and grey. I’ve focussed on streamlining my choices, and I’ve realised something in the process – not only has the water footprint of my clothing reduced but with a smaller wardrobe, so has the stress of making decisions about what to wear in the mornings!

Want vs. need

When I make a decision to buy something, I think carefully about whether I want it or whether I need it. If I need it, I carefully consider the water footprint. I’ve asked bewildered shop assistants about whether the cotton in a denim skirt was sustainably sourced, and sent emails to company to ask about their environmental footprint. I’ve checked websites like my friend Diana’s Positive Luxury to see how brands compare, and I’ve tried to understand which option amongst the numerous available is truly the best.

Just to be clear, I’m not anti consumption, or anti shopping. I’m not against buying something you’ve fallen in love with but know you don’t need. Indeed, the consumer element of our economy is responsible for millions of jobs, GDP and economic growth. It’s an important engine for our communities and our societies.

Environmental impact

But what I’m worried about is the ongoing environmental impact of those purchases. The water consequences of poor cotton production, manufacturing and transport. The impact of the sheer number of cardboard boxes used to get those products to us in the most convenient way, and the plastic packaging that surrounds them to make sure they arrive in pristine condition.

So I decided that on this trip, until I knew the true environmental impact of what I wanted to buy, I was going to leave my wallet in my pocket. Instead I spent that brief time in quality conversation with friends and colleagues, catching up and brainstorming plans to solve some more global problems. 

At some point, I’ll need that shirt, but until then – I’m going to send some emails to the retailers to find out more about their environmental impact, relish time with my friends and enjoy the unintended consequence of having more money in my pocket to spend with a clear conscience that I’m also looking after our planet!