As cities around the world start taking steps to resume normal life, on some level, we all can agree that life can never return to the ‘normal’ as we knew it. Education systems have gone online; employers have finally understood that remote working isn’t so bad for their workers, conferences are now being held virtually, flying is almost non-existent and we can barely even go to restaurants. Everything has been altered fundamentally. Most of these changes are regrettable and we look back at the old ways with a mournful sadness. We struggle to accept the new reality, but we continually hope for a return of our old normal.
Despite the foregoing though, there is one area of our daily lives which I am hopeful will have been altered so permanently that it won’t return to ‘normal’; and that is our buying behavior. Most of the life changes we currently grapple with have been mostly depressing but this change in consumer behaviour, from overbuying to buying less, might actually turn out to be in the best interests of everyone.
We produce way more than we need, consume them in rapid succession and we discard them after a couple of uses. For a long time, we have collectively lived a life of over-consumption and waste.
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From fashion to electronics, we seemed determined to see who can buy the most and who can use it for the least period of time. Americans consume nearly 20 billion garments a year, equivalent to 62 garments each. More than 300,000 tonnes of used clothing is then wasted annually in the United States and over 20 million tons of electronic waste has been thrown out this year, so far. On a global scale, we generate about 13 million tonnes of textile waste each year and many of these make their ways into landfills. Wrap reported that £140 million worth of clothing goes into UK landfills each year.
And then, the pandemic happened.
When the seriousness and severity of the pandemic was realized, what happened was in many ways like we see in the movies. Like every apocalyptic movie ever made, massive panic buying ensued. People rushed to the stores to buy food, water, drugs, hygiene supplies and bulked up on non-perishables such as pasta, rice and flour. Except for the toilet paper pandemic in the United States and a few Western countries, this consumer behavior was totally expected. In all we have done to survive this pandemic so far, the underlying principle has been need; we have been forced to make purchases only when necessary and that too, for only what we need.
Not surprisingly, our needs did not seem to include the latest clothing and accessories, new devices or fancy cars. This “new way of life” has also extended into our daily fashion. While at home, the new trend has become the rewearing of simple outfits and more people find this more liberating than expected. Newer clothes matter way less in the grand scheme of our lives these days and the result is that we’re buying less non-necessities than we did. Generally, consumption seems to be falling since the lockdowns began. This in turn, has led to a fall in fast fashion. H&M, for instance, had a 46% drop in sales in April leading to questions as to whether the fast fashion model will survive the pandemic.
We understand better that the insatiable desire to always buy more is essentially a social loop we created for ourselves and encouraged by marketers and advertisers. We better understand that as much as we want to make fashionable purchases, we should make them according to our needs, not necessarily our insatiable wants. We see now that the itching desire to latch onto the heels of fast fashion can be absent in our lives, and we can still maximize our efficiency in our daily tasks. You don’t need a new dress every few weeks and the past few weeks have amply demonstrated that. When push came to shove, we knew what we needed and we bought only that.
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But of more interest than the inability to purchase new things due to lockdowns or social distancing, is the mental shift that seems to have occurred. In the period since then, a general awakening seems to have happened; people have come to value their families, their love and the time spent together. Will this new found comfort in ourselves and the gratitude and appreciation for what we have prompt a need to buy less? I am optimistic that this will be the case.
At the same time, I also fear that some people will come out of the pandemic with the opposite philosophy; let us buy all we can because tomorrow is not promised. This means that if we hope to sustain the gains of this period, we must maintain a state of continuous enlightenment and strive to do better post COVID-19. It is sad that it has taken a pandemic to get us here but it is even sadder that I feel the need to still ask –
Now that we know what is important, can we buy less?
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