The Mindless Religion of Buying

An Op-ed written by Tony Scigliano via The Daily on 12/7/2017

Talk to someone about gift purchasing plans this season, and prepare for a distressingly long checklist of presents that need buying, errands that need running, cards that need signing, and receipts that need saving.

Let’s face it: We pay lip service to the worthy notions of minimalism and modesty, yet we’re imbued with a sense of Western obligation to shower gifts on our nearest and dearest when December comes around. For evidence, look no further than the retail industry, which generates nearly 20 percent of annual sales during Christmas season (the writer should know, as he works in retail and bears witness to the holiday hordes).

“Consuming isn’t inherently a bad thing,” Dr. Linda Nash, associate professor in the UW history department said. “Consumerism can be empowering, and has offered us a way to forge new identities. It’s the extreme degree that it’s expanded to that is the problem.” 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with thoughtful gifts for those we think about. Yet when the average American expects to spend nearly $800 on Christmas gifts — impersonal items such as Xboxes, Bluetooth speakers, pajamas, and gift cards cashing in as among the most commonly purchased — our consumerist paradigm begs to be reassessed, both for our own health and for the health of the planet.

“Sometimes our only common experience is in the goods we consume and the places we shop for them,” UW history professor Margaret O’Mara said. “However, consumption levels have been increasing as Americans have access to a superabundance of affordable goods manufactured overseas.” 

Some historical background helps set the stage.

“People want to know when it started, but I feel there is little point to asking this,” Nash said.  “We have been consuming ever since we gave up a lifestyle of total self-sufficiency. That said, there was a rise in consumer culture during the late 19th century. The idea of giving presents during the holidays really began during that time as well and was pushed heavily by retailers.” 

Consumerism took a quantum leap forward during the post-World War II era with a widespread fear of a Depression-era economic collapse and wartime industries becoming obsolete.  

In acknowledging the human construction of holiday obligations, can we rehabilitate our mindset of unbridled materialism and revamp traditions steeped in “stuff”? 

Though a nuclear option to some, many are opting out of purchasing gifts entirely. Is this an ungracious approach to confronting materialism? If coupled with increased effort to show love and generosity to friends and family throughout the year, this approach seems quite sensible. If you are one who generously gives gifts, foregoing the tradition sends a powerful message: What matters isn’t just the material goods exchanged and traditions can thrive without perpetuating overconsumption.

If this approach seems drastic, consider downscaling the extravagance of your gifts while increasing their meaningfulness. For instance, try the time tested method of making a whimsical card that carries sentimental value. It’s also healthy to remember that spending time with another person will be enshrined in their memory far longer than any object. 

UW student and retail employee Chris Ip had another suggestion: “Think hard about the individual you’re buying for, about what they may already have, and whether your gift will essentially promote waste.” The sheer volume of waste that is inevitable in our consumer culture is one more powerful reason to downscale our consumption.

Nash expanded on this idea.

“It’s important to be aware of the full lifecycle of what we buy, and where it ends up,” Nash said. “The stage of a product’s life where it is sold as a commodity is only one small phase of its life span.” 

This is a good mindfulness exercise, but its implications extend beyond personal growth.

“When you trace the commodity chain down to its core, there’s usually a community that’s paying for it,” Nash said.

Finally, if we aspire to live in a society less saturated in consumerism, a shift in policy toward a greener outlook on consumption is necessary. Environmentally responsible policies would prompt changes in consumption patterns that may not achievable if we hope to see change on a moral basis. This would have immediate benefits for our own health, as studies support that consumerism is inversely proportional to personal happiness and satisfaction.

Whatever your angle, a good mantra is to simply buy less and understand that we could probably do with so much less.

Matthew Wisner