One of my favorite activities is online window-shopping. I have accounts set up with all of my favorite online retailers, and while I browse I save every item that I like to wish lists. Online, I have the wardrobe of a one percenter, bursting at the seams with vintage Alexander McQueen and hundreds of pairs of shoes. I am also an obsessive list maker. I make lists of all of the brands that I like, lists of the clothes that I’d like to save up for. Of course, in reality, I buy very little – if any – of these saved items. Most of it is far beyond what I can actually afford, and I know this as I make my wish lists. That acknowledgement is in the title; this is a fantasy list, never meant to translate into real life.
But what I can’t deny is that the desire is there. Arguably, even if I had the funds, I wouldn’t buy every item that makes it onto my wish lists. In real life, I’m deeply thoughtful about the items that I purchase; I only buy a handful of new items every year. This doesn’t mean that everything that I buy is practical (in fact a large portion of what I own is highly impractical), but I limit myself to items that I truly love, items that make me feel something, or items that I actually need. But this doesn’t change the fact that I covet things – platform shoes and tailored blazers and Edwardian tea dresses and an endless array of costume jewelry – and that this desire is insatiable. I could purchase every item on my fantasy wish lists, and then I would just make new lists.
On some level, this desire is about wanting. But it’s not as cut-and-dried as the typical literature on materialism and consumerism would have us believe. This wanting is not making up for something that is lacking in my life. My happiness is not dependent on material goods, nor do I search for spiritual or emotional fulfillment in stuff. But whereas traditional beliefs around materialism would have us believe that separating my joy from material goods should result in a corresponding lack of need for things – a semi-monastic detachment from excess – this simply has not been my experience. Rather, my experience is that I gain a certain amount of pleasure from the objects that I love. The pleasure of things should not be conflated with the bliss of inner contentment, but it does us all a great disservice to pretend that the desire that we feel for things is not real, or that these things cannot, within certain contexts, provide a very real and very necessary pleasure.
And this, I suppose, is where the confusion about overconsumption comes in. Our desire for things has exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity. We buy too much, and we waste too much. And each of these things that we buy, and that we then inevitably throw out, requires resources to be made (be that soil, oil, water, and so on) and also has larger ranging impacts (releasing toxic chemicals, contributing to deforestation, and so on). Indeed, the most recent 2019 Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report found that the textile and apparel industry is growing at a rate of about 5% a year; a rate that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. And at that rate, so the report states, sustainability initiatives will not be able to keep up. The clothing industry is growing faster than sustainability measures can scale. So the industry, despite the massive improvements that are being made, is actually becoming less sustainable. Growth – meaning more and more clothing being produced and purchased – is outpacing the ability of the clothing industry to adapt.
I sometimes think that I was very lucky to have spent a large portion of my adult life under the poverty line. I had also been brought up with a healthy fear of credit cards, and so I generally did not spend money that I did not have. In this way, I became accustomed to the experience of wanting, and that this was an experience that would, generally, go unfulfilled. Sometimes this has been frustrating. I won’t deny the real pain that this has occasionally caused: being someone who loves fashion, who identifies strongly with what I wear, there were moments of real emotional pain when I did not have the means to dress the way I wanted to, when I did not have the means to outwardly express who I felt myself to be inside. But what this has taught me is that there is a line between wanting and needing. The moments of pain were of a need that was not being met. The fantasy wish lists are a want, which does not need to be met.