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Add to Cart, Checkout, Add to Cart: Why we can't stop buying things and how we can learn to be thoughtful consumers

In the movie, 'Confessions of A Shopaholic', Rebecca Bloomwood is stuck in a vicious shopping cycle, completely disregarding her debts and the consequences of acquiring more possessions. The audience gets to see the world through her lens as she tries to overcome her addiction and combat her heavy reliance on materialism. The filmmaker has not used adult Rebecca as a lens but instead has chosen to dig deeper into her childhood and uncover how her constant need to shop comes from a place much more profound; it can be traced back to her childhood and has helped shape her identity while growing up. Fast forward to the present, and Rebecca becomes a person who equates all the finer, material things in life with her happiness. 

"When I shop, the world gets better, is better. Then it's not anymore, and I have to do it again." she's caught saying in the film.

Rebecca cannot stop chasing the high – the dopamine release that comes from hopping on current trends and possessing whatever the ongoing iteration of 'cool' and 'fashionable' is. Just like her character, there is a deep-seated, unreasonable shame present in society today for not having whatever everyone else has. We have begun to seek 'tangible self-worth' through our consumerism practices. It has, therefore, created a distorted sense of reality in us, causing us to overlook our materialistic tendencies for what they are and focus more on how we define ourselves through them. She describes feeling "alive, happy and confident" when she shops and who among us cannot relate to this feeling?

If we take a moment to be honest with ourselves, we can bring ourselves to admit that it is not that cute blue sweater that we are after; it is the narrative that we build around ourselves and how owning that sweater reflects on us, on our personalities, values and morals. What does it mean to us to wear that sweater? Whatever the answer, that's what it is we are after. It's redundant, it isn't very sensible, but we enjoy every second of it. Why? Because it doesn't ever seem to last too long, and once the highs go low, we're always left wanting more. These wants are understandable on a superficial, human level because it is normal human tendency to want things and with a high-speed internet connection, the availability of countless offers and discounts and shipping to our doorstep all at the tip of our fingers, it would almost be rude to blame ourselves for our impulsive shopping decisions. 

We've gotten ourselves deep into trouble since we began attributing our identities and sense of self to the things we buy. We have even started letting companies emotionally manipulate us into changing how we see ourselves based on buying patterns. What's worse is that we don't even buy for ourselves anymore – purchasing things for the self is ancient history, and what we buy is for the whole world to see. Indeed, everything we buy is a lens through which we see ourselves, but sadly, it has also become the lens through which to be seen and perhaps the only way to be seen even. Our identities are now directly tied to the items we own, and our individuality seems to have drifted entirely into the realm of consumption and materialism.

Mindless and impulsive buying isn't just an individual blemish; it is the byproduct of consumerism and an essential component without which the system would fail to work. It is much bigger than us; our economy relies on it, too. Mass consumption has brought with it several benefits – jobs, financial security, new ways of thinking and connecting. The costs of the same have been staggering, however. The sharp increase in products on the market has exacerbated global warming, pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation, and depleted non-renewable energy and water supply, contributing to the extinction of animals and the disruption of the food chain. While it is easy to acknowledge how we have profited from mass consumption, we must not look away from the fact that the system is highly unsustainable and destructive, not just to the environment but also to our growth.

By thoroughly understanding what triggers us as consumers into adding to our carts, checking out and coming back to add more every so often, we can identify and recognise our weaknesses as human beings and what keeps luring us back into the world of overconsumption. 

Self-reflection is always the first step in the process, and it is an ongoing journey to continue to learn ourselves better. Once we begin to self-reflect, we start questioning and asking ourselves if a product really means anything to us; if you reallytruly want to let that item into your life and if you do, then why?

It is indeed hard to go from constantly buying to not buying at all, and it seems like an impractical solution. Baby steps are what we need. Perhaps we could all consciously decide to wait 24 hours before buying anything online. That wait time is more crucial than we realise because it gives our brain time to sit with it for a while and eventually helps stave off our hunger to make quick purchases and seek instant gratification. It is easier to resist buying when we know that our brains are trying to create a narrative around us owning a particular item. With an issue as big as overconsumption and compulsive buying, it helps to have a framework that can be employed to navigate it. Knowing our motivations to buy and sometimes the bizarre and absurd reasons behind them is a great place to start.

While these packages might be the most effortless, most accessible pleasures in our lives, we must find ways to seek that pleasure elsewhere – through conversations, experiences, activities like cooking, cleaning, drawing, writing and anything that doesn't involve impulsive decisions, excessive and thoughtless money spending and burdening the environment more. Because it is always the feelings we are after, not the items we are buying themselves. And it is certainly possible to look for those feelings in other places.

It's important to remember that nothing is genuinely sustainable in this world – that's why it's so important to just buy less stuff. And there are many, many ways to be more thoughtful as consumers; we just need to start thinking in that direction. 


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