Saturday, December 7, 2013
Last week provided an interesting juxtaposition in the context of my shopping sobriety project. It was, of course, the official start of the Christmas/Christmas shopping season (I like to make the distinction), but it was also a week that NPR aired series of shows done by the Planet Money crew in which they attempted to "make" and bring to market common t-shirts. They spent time in the American south where t-shirt cotton is commonly grown, in Bangladesh where that cotton is turned into clothing, and other places as they tried to replicate a process that we take for granted in a big way (how many of you are wearing a t-shirt right now?) They even did a fascinating segment on shipping containers. Who knew?
One of the most provocative features of this week-long series was the photo stream they posted of t-shirts they found for sale in Nairobi--promotional shirts that probably look a lot like a stack in many American drawers: advertising turkey trots and other road races, fundraisers, high school sports teams, a bat mitzvah and an orthodontist. And of course, somewhere right now, someone is unloading the last of the "St. Louis Cardinals 2013 World Champions" t-shirts that never got out of their boxes in October.
I was so grateful to the Planet Money crew for the timing of their work--airing this series during my six-month experiment, that I have to give them a shout out and hope any readers not familiar with their work will get to know them. They appear on the pubic radio show This American Life (where they started) and elsewhere, but you can also subscribe to their twice-weekly podcasts .
I've learned a lot about the American and global economies from these passionate professionals and am constantly quoting them (just the other day, I casually dropped "credit default swaps" into a conversation, thanks to Planet Money). So if you have room in your life for more information, they are worth it.
Anyway, back to making room in our lives...Black Friday came and went much the way it does every year: news stories about its approach, ads from retailers about extended hours and low, low prices, more news stories about the backlash from people who resent having to work on Thanksgiving (and the bosses that support them, like Indiana Pizza Hut manager Tony Rohr) and then the economy-related pieces. Were sales robust or just plain bust? A cycle repeats a few days later with "Cyber-Monday." I didn't partake in either to any great degree. I did find myself in Best Buy the Wednesday before Thanksgiving purchasing a new printer and watched as the staff prepared for the coming deluge of bargain shoppers. And then I went home and gave my credit card the weekend off. I saw in the news that sales were disappointing nationally, but I don't think that's totally my fault. I hear from more people each year that shopping on Black Friday has become so fraught and unenjoyable that they skip it entirely.
There is, of course, a difference of opinion and preference. My friend Kate said her family members were discussing shopping plans over Thanksgiving dinner and several were planning on some late-night/early-morning shopping, reporting that the savings they would enjoy because of the various sales on those days would save them hundreds of dollars on their Christmas shopping. I imagine that's good motivation for a lot of people, which retailers count on. Retailers also count on the obsession we have with Christmas shopping in general, of course, and it seems from news reports of slow Black Friday sales that our economy depends on that obsession as well.
But does our happiness depend on that give/get scheme as well? I recently had a fun night out at a great little restaurant called The Whisky Room in Burlington, VT, in the company of four smart and savvy (and fashionable) women. The conversation turned to this blog/experiment, as it often does (Betsy has clearly missed her calling, which was to be someone's literary agent). Two of the four women at the table, Betsy and Paula, knew about Clothes Down, but the others, Deb and Joanne, were hearing about it for the first time and seemed intrigued and a little puzzled. Joanne observed that fashions change quickly enough that a six-month moratorium could cause you to miss out on the most recent and interesting items I couldn't argue with that. Every season brings us new items or variations on items. Pants are loose and baggy...then super tight...then loose. Remember when pants that hit your leg above your ankle were too short? When shirts that pulled at the buttons were too tight? All of us who have paid even the slightest attention to fashion recognize the cyclical nature of certain trends (Peasant dresses, anyone? Mini-skirts? Platform shoes?). And the expiration date of certain trends seems to arrive more quickly now. Again, retailers count on us buying, and buying into, this pattern of planned obsolescence.
This is not so much a criticism as an observation. I've watched "The Devil Wears Prada" enough times to have absorbed the great speech Stanley Tucci's character Nigel gives about Vogue being a "shining beacon of light for..oh, say, a boy from Rhode Island..." and to recognize that fashion is an expression of the human aesthetic sense just as much as art and music. But the phrase "a slave to fashion" is part of the English vernacular for a reason.
I'm not proposing that people stop paying attention to fashion and fashionable attire. I think what I've come to realize is the importance of paying attention to the paying attention, if that makes sense--to recognize and operate with some self-agency in the land of retail. There are items that we buy and know we will not wear beyond the season because they are so out there, so edgy. And there are things we buy that we will wear for years and love more as time passes. Retailers like Lands End and LL Bean count on our affection for the latter. But what if, when buying clothes or shoes, we made a more conscious determination that something is "for the moment," and something else is destined to become a worn item (in both senses of the word) in our closet for years? Would we make different choices? Hard to say. The balance of one versus the other might shift a bit, especially as we consider the volumes of clothing that end up in landfills. And unlike t-shirts, which are universal in their practicality, there probably isn't much of a Nairobi market for brightly-colored skinny jeans from last year's Hollister collection.
As I write this, I am testing out the new washing machine that was delivered to my house this morning. It's working well, thank you. It replaced a Whirlpool machine that was four years old. Four years old!! And trust me--I don't do a ton of laundry. The repairman who declared it not worth replacing told me, of course, "They don't make them like they used to." So now I have a new GE Hydrowave with Quiet Agitator Wash Cycle (no, don't envy me--but it actually is pretty quiet and can double as a soothing wave machine should I want to take a nap in the kitchen while it's running), and the Whirlpool is on its way to recycle heaven (one can hope, at least). I did what I had to do--bought into the system of planned obsolescence. My pathetic protest? Slam Whirlpool in this year's Consumer Reports survey that I faithfully complete every year because I want to hold businesses accountable for their products (and laud them when they make great products; I am an equal-opportunity reviewer).
Speaking of accountable, if any students have gotten this far, I hope you'll go back to studying for your exams. I don't want to be implicated in your procrastination. For those of you lucky enough to not have exams, please return to your holiday preparations. I'll do the same...once I figure out what they are. My almost-5-months of a shopping moratorium has rattled me to my retail core. It might be the year those I love get home-baked goods instead of the usual fare. Know that it comes with love nonetheless.
I'll be back with an update after the holidays as I round the turn and head for home, February 1--the end of this experiment but probably the beginning of something else.