by Njoki Mahiaini 22nd March 2016
I am now over three quarters of the way into my online shopping fast. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have given up online shopping (excluding the purchase of tickets for essential travel) for the duration of lent. Initially my motive was simple – to see whether my penchant for shopping online was desensitising me to the dark side of commerce. However, the unintended consequence of this experiment has been the realisation that many of my non-essential purchases were not so much spontaneous as stimulated.
Back to my motive. Like millions of people around the world, I was deeply moved by the collapse of the Rana Plaza, a clothing factory in Bangladesh in April 2013. With an overcrowded and structurally-unsound building holding workers on dismal pay and in worse conditions, this really was an accident waiting to happen. Yet why was nothing done? Why were over a thousand lives forfeited? Cheap clothing. Thousands of Bangladeshi people were traumatised, injured or killed at work because the rest of the world wanted cheaper clothes.
During this experiment the thing that has surprised me most was how aggressive and manipulative the shops I frequent can be in tempting you back. I’d had barely a fortnight of abstinence before the “We’ve missed you – here’s 20% off” emails began flooding in. This was doubtless because the installation of cookies meant they knew I hadn’t been on those sites and it was something of a wake-up call to see the effort invested in just getting me to visit again. They would tap into our human desire to be cared for with phrases like “You’ve been quiet” or “You deserve a treat...” mimicking genuine friendship and demonstrating that pester-power isn’t always contingent on kids. Nevertheless, I’m proud to say I’ve barely browsed. I’ve come to realise that too often we are prompted into purchases by the offer of a discount or a personalised offer in the post (a £10 off gift voucher arrived from a popular online retailer but with a pre-Easter expiry date, I promptly binned it).
What has become increasingly apparent is how little we actually need. Even if I am free to shop (and I am free to shop as our offices are directly opposite Cambridge’s most popular mall), I tend to wear the same dozen or so outfits to work. Even with a long-standing ‘one-in-one-out’ policy in my wardrobe and an aversion to hoarding, there are surplus clothes in my wardrobe not to mention unread books on my kindle and unwatched DVDs on my shelf. In fact, as I cycle almost everywhere, the only thing I actually need to buy each week is food and that’s something I’ve never been particularly extravagant with as cooking for one is rarely much fun.
The result of my online detox has been an offline peace. I have saved so much time by not browsing aimlessly online and surprisingly, not turning an online habit into an offline one. Those hours have been spent on phone calls with loved ones, more mid-week exercise, a more structured prayer life and a regained sense of power over the insidious influence of mass-marketing. Still, best of all has been a notable decline in covetousness and discontentment. I consider myself a very content person in general but it was only in deciding not to shop online (which, for me, is essentially not shopping at all) that I realised how much spending time looking at material goods robbed you of that contentment. Drifting through Amazon would remind you of the new Samsung mobile phone which was ‘coming soon’ or tell you that the box-set of the new ‘must-see’ show was now available. Even if you didn’t feel a burning need to buy, just knowing there was new stuff ‘out there’ feeds the narrative that we are in some way missing out – what the youth of today call ‘FOMO’.
Crucially, my experiment has given me a heightened awareness of the various elements which dictate sale patterns including advertising, season and mood. It has also opened my eyes to the complex nature of global supply chains and made me much more conscious of the tacit approval passive purchases can give to unjust systems. I’m certain this new perspective will remain with me far beyond Easter Sunday.