The Sunday Magazine·Point of View

I made a vow to stop buying new clothes. It's harder than I thought

Our economy is built on consumer capitalism, but endless consumption takes a heavy toll on the planet and our bank accounts. Dorothy Woodend tells of her efforts to end her love affair with buying stuff in her essay, “Shop No More.”
Dorothy Woodend, not shopping. (Submitted by Dorothy Woodend)

Special to CBC Radio

It's a lot harder than I thought. 

Earlier this year, I made a vow to stop buying new clothes. With the exception of shoes, underpants and toiletries, I wouldn't buy anything new. 

My decision to stop shopping wasn't sudden. Every prediction of planetary doom, the evils of fast fashion, and the havoc wrought by consumer culture enforced the notion that something had to change. But for all of the global attention paid to the problem, the thing that finally jolted me into action was quite small. I simply ran out of closet space. 
At first, the shopping diet went relatively well. But it wasn't long before tiny slivers of rationalization began to wiggle in sideways. 

It's such a good deal! 

This new dress will be the anchor for my new capsule wardrobe. 

I'm actually helping old brick and mortar stores stay open in the face of online shopping. 

If I buy quality items will, they last longer, be worn more often, and in the end justify a higher price tag.

Suddenly I had four new pairs of shoes, a half dozen lipsticks, and a couple of very expensive dresses. And even less room. 

You can Marie Kondo till the cows come home, but it doesn't change that capering little urge at the base of your brain, stamping its feet, demanding newness, novelty, more stuff! 

Dorothy Woodend as a kid in the Kootenays. (Submitted by Dorothy Woodend)

I didn't grow up shopping. When I was a kid in the Kootenays, it was a two-hour drive to the closest strip mall. But there was always the Sears Catalogue. There were two big seasonal editions — The Dream Book at Christmas and the Back-to-School issue in the fall, from which my sister and I got to order new school clothes. 

We worked all summer, getting up at 5 a.m., picking cherries and selling them in our family's roadside stand to Albertan tourists. It was hard work, but it was worth it for the opportunity to pick out new clothes. Many of these outfits are permanently embedded in my brain — a green faux denim ensemble, worn with knee socks pulled high, and purple running shoes. A floppy disco hat with an embroidered satin baseball jacket and matching satin jeans. I remember putting on this blindingly shiny outfit and wandering along Highway 3A, hoping some passing motorist would notice my sweet style and drive off the road. 

It wasn't until I was a teenager that clothes became more than things to put on my body.  Suddenly they entailed status and power. What you wore determined who you were and fashion became an obsession. When I had my first summer job that didn't involve picking fruit, I saved my earnings and blew all my money in an orgy of shopping at the West Edmonton Mall, then the largest shopping centre in the world. 

As I got older, shopping became a way to stave off boredom, to reward myself after a bad week, to reward myself after a good week. It was a social, fun indulgence all in a nice shiny bag. Sometimes, it was simply to have something to look forward to, even if it was only the sleek swivel of a new lipstick.

'It wasn’t until I was a teenager that clothes became more than things to put on my body.' Dorothy Woodend as a teen (right). (Submitted by Dorothy Woodend)

Changing the shopping habit is not easy, Lord knows. I am right in the middle of trying to alter my ways, and I'm having a hell of time. You have to stop doing the things you've done since you were a teenager, don't read Vogue Magazine, don't go to the mall, don't look at billboards, avoid all forms of media, lest you stoke the fires of desire.  

Sometimes I had to give myself a safety valve.  For me, it was thrift shopping.  I still got  the hit of novelty, and I bought things that might otherwise have ended up in a landfill. Thrift shopping has also gifted me some of my very favourite items of clothing. A Salvatore Ferragamo quilted jacket that makes me feel like an English equestrian lady. A vintage Pucci dress in silk charmeuse, swirling with colour and pattern. A Rei Kawakubo cardigan in the darkest navy. Dries Van Noten, Ric Owens, Issey Miyake — when you're trolling the racks of a thrift store, good design comes leaping out, like a neon sign, electric and glowing. 

Even when I couldn't possibly justify buying more stuff, I still did. Until it just got to be too much. In the end, it felt I like was drowning. But then, isn't it always at rock bottom that you discover what's truly up? 

For me, and a great many other folks, shopping is one of the few compulsive behaviours that is not only socially sanctioned, but wildly encouraged. It's an economic good, a civic duty, celebrated on Pinterest and Instagram, the star of a thousand haul and unboxing videos on YouTube. (For the uninitiated these kind of videos involve people gushing like geysers as they open packages and details the things they've bought.) 

Consumer culture has feasted upon this ancient hunter gatherer instinct like a tic, swelling to gargantuan size,  engorged and bloated. I am now beginning to figure out that stuff may well be the end of us all. So how do we — you, me, and all the pinterest fanatics out there — find a way to stop, find a new way to exist in a world? 

I don't have a final answer yet, and like any major change, it takes time, but in stepping away from stuff, I feel lighter, less encumbered, and ultimately more free.

 Click 'listen' above to hear Dorothy Woodend's essay, "Shop No More."