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The Good Life, or the Life with Goods?

When more is not better… overcoming the falsehoods of consumerism

It used to be that less is more, and goods or possession did not have the attraction they do. But with the rise of consumerism it appears that what was once considered a good ethic (i.e. less is more) is fading away and the desire to fill life with goods seems to be on steroids. One social commentator’s analysis of the modern consumerism did not mince a word in saying that consumerism has replaced our vision of “Good life” with a vision of “life with Goods”. Indeed, you don’t have to look at a distant to see this. This idea that accumulating a lot of goods makes one’s life good has pervaded our pop culture. Statements such as you’re what you buy, or wear are not uncommon in our discourses. Perhaps a more turning point in this narrative was immediately after the 9/11 tragedy when President Bush declared unapologetically using the old corny line “when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”. This mood-repair mechanism that specialists consider as self-gifting behaviour is a very mainstream idea particularly in the West and certainly in North America. In fact, a friend recently said in a tweet: “not in a good mood, let me get more dresses”. In general, research support the idea that when people are facing dark moments and also when they are in celebratory mood, people resort to purchasing items such as clothing to assist them in their mood-management despite these products being less functional and even less durable. Self-gifting was frequently motivated by mood-repair than self-celebration found the same research. All that this offers is a brief and temporal boost in people’s mood or happiness which is not sustainable. President Bush was therefore appealing to the human innate to accumulate stuff just to feel good. This also appears to be the science behind most of the engineered promotional campaigns by the fashion industry. No wonder our screens are filled with ads urging consumers to buy more stuff to feel good. It is perhaps therefore not puzzling that online clothing stores saw a bump in sales despite the pandemic when people are working from home and almost all events cancelled or postponed. However, as one research concludes “… this [behaviour] may lead individuals to spend beyond their means, deepening their emotional angst, and creating negative impacts on well-being.”

Beyond these negative impacts on consumer well-being, there are also other consequences of our current global consumer culture including production of waste and the crisis of climate change or sustainability. The waste produced by the fashion industry is well documented. The fashion industry is notorious for its impact on the environment – from sourcing raw materials, through processing and garment production to transport and distribution and finally consumer use, every phase of the supply chain has huge environmental effects. In perspective, the industry’s carbon footprint and contribution to GHG emissions is more than both the aviation and the shipping industry combined. To put numbers on this, the industry accounts for about 10% of global carbon emissions, and nearly 20% of wastewater. Surprisingly, hitherto the fashion industry has not faced a lot of backlash and the industry has not been held to higher accountability compared to the aviation where the environmental impact of flying is well-documented and known.

Like many things in life, more is not always better. Same thing is true for clothes or fashion…

Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to reimagine so many things including what we consider essential. Now, more than ever, is the time to perhaps re-evaluate and rethink the modern idea of “Good life” and more importantly to also offer a tough critique of consumerism (or the life with Goods) at many fronts. Hopefully, in doing so we would find the path to redeeming the broken vision of the “Good life”. Like many things in life, more is not always better. Same thing is true for clothes or fashion. So how do we get back to the age-old vision of the “Good life”? This question supposes a definition of what the good life is. Many people have a lot to say about the “Good life”, and none of the conversation explains exactly what the “Good life” is, of course. But we definitely know what it is not: accumulating more stuff to feel good.

Getting back on the journey to repair the broken vision of the “Good life” starts with a rethinking of consumerism. Current conversation on this issue is moving towards ethical consumerism. Ethical consumerism is stopping to think about what we buy knowing that the final product impacts process used to produce them. Indeed, who even believes it’s possible to keep up with trends and stuff and what this breed? It usually sets us on a fashion treadmill, one cloth begets another until there is not enough room in our closet to fill them. This is why there is so much wisdom in the lost art of thrifting and minimalism. Just think about it, if we recovered this art of thrifting won’t we save ourselves a whole lot? Look at how much debt we rack up on our credit card just in our bid to keep up with fashion trends. This is diminished when we decide to thrift. Even more than that we have a good feeling after all we’re actually helping the planet. This promotes a sense of responsibility and ultimately generates contentment (or gratitude). Most people agree that is key in finding the “Good life”.