'Since 1970 the number of consumer products introduced each year has increased 16-fold'.82 This is the inexorable dynamic that means retailing must pump up desire and push us to buy more. Yet the mall and shopping as the metaphor for a good life cannot sustain the spirit. Filling emptiness with busyness rarely works, however enticing it may appear at first sight.
In our age of consumption, we buy many things we don't need, at least not to survive biologically. Increasing purchases take on a social function, expressing sexuality, status, wealth and power. For capitalism to keep going, needs must grow and so they must be manufactured. The 'free market' propels the inexorable dynamic to get you to spend. Otherwise the system falls apart. Every sensory means is used and orchestrated to trigger the imagination: sound, smell, the look and feel, texture, colour and motion. It is enticing, it has its delights, it projects pleasure, but it is emptier than it appears. The system could not survive if it was not immensely seductive, and fashion is its name. Yet it is a hedonistic treadmill that drains our energy.
Retailing is the engine of this process, fashion the mechanism and technique, and the manufacture of dissatisfaction the result. It is a double-edged sword, twisting discontent into urges and the desire to want. The shift to compulsive consumption changes the nature of ordinary desire. All-pervasive, it changes the way we relate, so that everything feels it should be an economic transaction. This is a voracious desire that can never truly be satiated. You might retort, 'But you have a choice.' But when everyone around you is wanting, it is hard to go against the grain. In the past we conceived most things as necessities. Treats were less in evidence. We had less disposable money. Today many have little too, but the credit system has expanded to soak up wants, even though it might ultimately hit you and throw you back on the heap. Now treats, surprises and the new have become necessities. Think of humble spectacles or glasses, once bought once and for life. The same for your umbrella or wristwatch. Now there is Swatch and you need watches for every occasion: my dress-up watch, my dress-down watch, my sports watch, my fun watch. Think of functional Wellington boots, just there to keep out the rain for those in the countryside, by tradition usually green and on occasion black. Now they are an urban accessory. They come in bright red, translucent blue or garish yellow, and you need a different colour for every occasion. Everything is turned into a fashion item. The life span of things like clothes once stretched into the horizon. Now they quickly become disposable. Even your home. Now all too soon things are perceived to look tired and worn. This feeds the DIY craze. Even your looks are up for grabs. 'I need a makeover.' Wrinkles no longer reflect experience - they are a cosmetic nuisance. The idea of the beauty of ageing is disappearing. Everything must be young, young, young. In the end, life itself becomes a commodity, but sadly there is only one.
Out has gone the well-worn shirt fraying at the edges - chuck it instead. Or wearing a pair of shoes until you can see your experience etched into them - chuck them. We have lost the sense of small history, the little pieces of personal experience melding together into a textured life. And along the way we have lost the art of repairing and feeling a sense of trajectory and the patina of ages inscribed into things. Old clothes still look smart if worn with a quiet confidence. Instead we have to invent 'shabby chic' as a fashion type, so you have to buy new things made to look old. The production cost of making jeans look old is more than producing jeans that look new. Something always needs to make a buck, otherwise it all falls apart.
In the name of choice there is a continual roll of inventions: new breads, butters, every variation of milk, chocolates. Who thought they needed 40 varieties of candles or that 30 styles of coffee were necessary? Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less documents this and the increasing reaction to wish to simplify things well.83 Schwartz starts with a story of trying to buy a pair of jeans in Gap and talks of the 85 brands of crackers in his local supermarket. He experiences choice overload, a condition that can make you question your decisions before you even make them, setting you up for unrealistically high expectations, where inevitably you fail and blame yourself. This can lead to decision-making paralysis. A culture of limitless choice that implies that somewhere there is perfection leads to a sense of emptiness and possible depression. We are being bred to buy and to give up on the simple pleasures of creating our own entertainment: singing, dancing, playing games, having fun and making our own things from clothes to furniture. This is a loss so strong that it has counter-reactions, which is why activities such as karaoke are so popular.
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