On Shopping: Ethics and Cognitive Dissonance

As I’m sure you are all aware, SATC2 premiered last week and there has been a reveiwer backlash against the movie for, among other things, its rampant consumerism, which is gendered specifically female. Rad at The Cohabitating Closet recently opened up the debate about this response to the film and her statements, plus the comments, make for a rich read on the gendered approach to disposable spending.
So I won’t talk about the movie, which I haven’t seen.
But this did get me thinking about shopping. Many of you are expert thrifters, employing a reduce-reuse-recycle approach to fashion and coming up with some bijoux ensembles that are a far cry from the high street. I used to be able to do this too, but I seem to have lost my edge. For my teens and all of my twenties I bought almost everything at Goodwill’s buy-the-pound. I distinctly remember weighing in piles of floaty skirts, weirdly-patterned dresses and holy (with holes) cashmere cardis at the cash and hoping against hope that the whole thing came to less than $5 because that’s all I had. I honestly didn’t think about the ethical implications of shopping this way–it was an economic necessity for me.
Now, however, when I am lucky enough to have more than $5 for a clothing allowance, I find myself trying to think more about what I buy and where it comes from, though this is not always easy and, while I think about it, I don’t always follow through on the ethical, local designer, conscientious choice in the ways that I should. Sometimes these options cost more than I can comfortably spend, sometimes these options are not entirely work-appropriate, but I am nonetheless aware that I often buy items that are produced in conditions I would prefer not to support. Yet I do it anyway; call it retail cognitive dissonance. I don’t have a decent excuse for this behaviour but I know that I do it and I need to think more deeply about it each time I find myself at a cash register. And I also know that I am speaking from a position of privilege when I examine my shopping habits in this way and I discover that I am not so different from the privileged ladies of SATC (obviously with a much smaller budget, but a budget nonetheless). In any case, at the moment I am trying to curb my shopping, and to think about my shopping, with offsets.
That said, currently I am resisting these babies:

They are Toms, which, as I’m sure you are aware has a One-for-One approach to shoes: for every pair of Toms sold, Toms provides a new pair of shoes for a child in need.
I have known about Toms for awhile, and I love this approach but until now, I was not thrilled with the “bedroom slipper” aesthetic their shoes had going on. The brilliantly hilarious Daddy Likey has reviewed them here.
These fantastic wedges are available in a colourful array of solids and stripes and they look like the perfect summer shoe, with the added bonus of helping a child in need while shopping.

But, I already own these brightly-coloured canvas wedges (Keds):
And I can make a donation to any charity I like, at any time. This is not to disparage the excellent business model at Toms, which I think deserves my custom; this is just to say that I don’t have to buy myself something in order to be charitable and maybe I should remember that too.
So SATC(2) can’t be all bad if discussions about it remind me that Toms, and companies like Toms, are out there in the retail landscape as well and that consumerism doesn’t have to look the way that it looks in the movies. The thing is, most of my best times have been spent shopping with my girlfriends, even if I didn’t buy a thing. And that, to echo the campaign of a well-known shopping enabler, is priceless.
What else do you get–besides pretty things–that is of value when you shop?
Toms has not compensated In Professorial Fashion in any way. I admire their business model, and now their shoes, independently.

8 thoughts on “On Shopping: Ethics and Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Great topic and question. I like to think that my pledge to just thrift and make my own clothes (and I haven't stayed within budget once) makes me more ethical, but in other ways, it just perpetuates consumption. I donate everything I don't wear anymore, and I would like to believe that this too gets recycled, but this may be wishful thinking. I've decided that the best way to deal with this it is to really commit to the fact that I don't NEED to buy anymore. I really get the cognitive dissonance thing. I teach about the politics of global production in one of my classes, including a small unit on sweat shops and campaigns against child labor. Many of my urban students, who love brands like Nike, are angry and shocked. But at the end of the day, we all continue our regular shopping habits (including Chiquita banana, buying petrol from companies that pollute, etc.) As a class exercise, I have them brainstorm ways that we can become ethical consumers and it's a difficult task on purpose. The point is that making ethical choices as consumers can be a good thing, especially when it is done on an organized level, but often it requires enormous costs (time and money) on the part of the individual consumer. I tell them that there is no solution, as even getting a government on board (Prez Clinton was big on the anti-sweatshop front, and that obviously did nothing) doesn't do much. Educating ourselves, curbing our personal consumption, pressuring governments and multinationals seem to all contribute to making a very small difference, but it's unclear how effective these changes can be.Even if our individual actions don't necessarily matter much in the end, I do think it's important to recognize and cultivate an ethics of consumption.

  2. I also used to think about shopping and buying as get-away time, friend time, and/or "me" time. Browsing, trying, and buying wherever helped me relax, to connect with friends, or to get the kind of esteem boost Anne describes. A little over a year ago, I instituted a "One In,One Out" rule in my closet. As in, if I buy one skirt, one skirt goes to charity. This is helping to cut down my shopping, to a degree.What I discovered simultaneously, as the One-in-One-Out rule forced me to think more carefully about my purchases, was that trying things on and perhaps even carrying them around the store afterward, but then ultimately opting not to buy gave me the same feelings I got from shopping-and-buying. But it didn't come with the post-shopping guilt.Teaching Feminist Cultural Studies has also forced me to think more critically about my consumption patterns as well as my performances of "professional woman" and/or "academic woman." I still struggle, however, with what I suppose is my middle-class-in-the-global-industrialized-north sense of entitlement to "things." But the little voice in my head that whispers about how I "deserve" certain items also seems an after effect of those times when, like D-Med discusses above, I couldn't afford even the things I really needed. A very unfeminist, apolitical side of my brain wants to convince me that all those years buying too-short pants at the Sally Ann and remaking them into "winter capris" because otherwise, I'd have no pants, was a process of dues paying. And now that I've paid my dues for all those years, I can finally get the things I couldn't afford, then.And I know I shouldn't believe the voice, just like I shouldn't consume just because I can for other politically charged reasons. But I don't always successfully resist.

  3. Great topic and question. I like to think that my pledge to just thrift and make my own clothes (and I haven't stayed within budget once) makes me more ethical, but in other ways, it just perpetuates consumption. I donate everything I don't wear anymore, and I would like to believe that this too gets recycled, but this may be wishful thinking. I've decided that the best way to deal with this it is to really commit to the fact that I don't NEED to buy anymore. I really get the cognitive dissonance thing. I teach about the politics of global production in one of my classes, including a small unit on sweat shops and campaigns against child labor. Many of my urban students, who love brands like Nike, are angry and shocked. But at the end of the day, we all continue our regular shopping habits (including Chiquita banana, buying petrol from companies that pollute, etc.) As a class exercise, I have them brainstorm ways that we can become ethical consumers and it's a difficult task on purpose. The point is that making ethical choices as consumers can be a good thing, especially when it is done on an organized level, but often it requires enormous costs (time and money) on the part of the individual consumer. I tell them that there is no solution, as even getting a government on board (Prez Clinton was big on the anti-sweatshop front, and that obviously did nothing) doesn't do much. Educating ourselves, curbing our personal consumption, pressuring governments and multinationals seem to all contribute to making a very small difference, but it's unclear how effective these changes can be.Even if our individual actions don't necessarily matter much in the end, I do think it's important to recognize and cultivate an ethics of consumption.

  4. I also used to think about shopping and buying as get-away time, friend time, and/or "me" time. Browsing, trying, and buying wherever helped me relax, to connect with friends, or to get the kind of esteem boost Anne describes. A little over a year ago, I instituted a "One In,One Out" rule in my closet. As in, if I buy one skirt, one skirt goes to charity. This is helping to cut down my shopping, to a degree.What I discovered simultaneously, as the One-in-One-Out rule forced me to think more carefully about my purchases, was that trying things on and perhaps even carrying them around the store afterward, but then ultimately opting not to buy gave me the same feelings I got from shopping-and-buying. But it didn't come with the post-shopping guilt.Teaching Feminist Cultural Studies has also forced me to think more critically about my consumption patterns as well as my performances of "professional woman" and/or "academic woman." I still struggle, however, with what I suppose is my middle-class-in-the-global-industrialized-north sense of entitlement to "things." But the little voice in my head that whispers about how I "deserve" certain items also seems an after effect of those times when, like D-Med discusses above, I couldn't afford even the things I really needed. A very unfeminist, apolitical side of my brain wants to convince me that all those years buying too-short pants at the Sally Ann and remaking them into "winter capris" because otherwise, I'd have no pants, was a process of dues paying. And now that I've paid my dues for all those years, I can finally get the things I couldn't afford, then.And I know I shouldn't believe the voice, just like I shouldn't consume just because I can for other politically charged reasons. But I don't always successfully resist.

  5. For me, shopping is a nice break and distraction from everything else that I have going on in my life. I don't always have girlfriends to go shopping with, and sometimes it's nice to go alone. It's a couple of hours every now and then that I get to focus on just me.The other thing of value that I get out of it is usually a self-esteem boost. Sure, there's always things that don't quite fit or look right, but if I find that one perfect piece while I'm out – be it a new dress, jeans that fit like a glove, fantastic piece of jewelry, pair of shoes or even a new bra – I feel really good about the way I look. I know it's unfortunate that sometimes it takes buying something new and pretty to make me feel better, and that probably goes against a lot of feminist ideals, but that's definitely the biggest thing I get out of shopping.

  6. I think a lot about consumerism and the limitations and benefits of exerting a sense of consumer politics. I do think that the notion of voting with one's dollar can have a demobilizing aftermath where people feel their primary form of civic participation is via consumption, not to even mention the classism inherent in the phrase, "vote with your dollar," since stratification is inherent to the disparate amount of voting dollars people have. On the other hand, people should care about issues of corporate social irresponsibility and organized boycotts and outcries can absolutely make an impact. I am thinking specifically about the consumer movements of the depression era in the US, a time when the dollars people had with which to "vote" were precious and few. Regarding shopping and value: I struggle to remind myself to be critical. It is difficult to acknowledge and feel reflexive about the fact that that part of why I consume is because the messages surrounding women and girls reinforce misogynist ideas connecting our worth and value to our appearance and our adherence to feminine norms. It is privileged to be capable of participating in this approved, acceptable version of gender performativity. And in participating, I need to be mindful of the ways I reproduce and reify the expected behaviors about femininity in a heteronormative landscape. The feminine body is always marked in some way, but I can appear less threatening to patriarchal hegemony by wearing the flowery dresses and skirts I feel as though I inherently love. The reality is likely that years of conditioning have trained me to believe that women who can afford to, should love clothes and should dress a certain way. It bums me out because I do enjoy fashion and style but I also realize that without a dissertation length disclaimer I am reproducing all sorts of norms that make me uncomfortable on behalf of people even more marked than a feminine woman. I'm thinking specifically of Halberstam's feminine masculinity and the policing and hostility it provokes within heteronormative patriarchal cultures.

  7. I also have known about Tom's for a while, too, but I've never purchased any of their shoes. While I'm drawn to the boat shoe in theory, I'm not sure that it goes with my style in reality. And like you said, I can (and do) donate to charities of my choice throughout the year.I'll have to think more about what I get from shopping besides pretty things…. Thanks for the provocation!Oh, and thanks for the sweet comment about my new hair style!

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