Here at Highsnobiety HQ I’m notorious for returning stuff that I buy off of the internet. A clear majority of the orders that I make online will end up being sent back to whoever I bought it from, and, these days, I make a point of only buying from sites that offer free shipping because I know how likely it is that I won’t be satisfied with my order.
I’m incredibly particular, difficult to please, and averse to compromise, but, like most people, my decision to return an order usually comes from a dissatisfaction with the product itself – its fit or feel, or a dissimilarity to the product shots on the site that I ordered it from. But several months ago that began to change.
As I inspected a pair of Air Max 1s that I had been eyeing up for many weeks, I felt an impulse to return them even though there was nothing wrong with the shoes themselves. AM1s are one of about five sneaker models that I wear on rotation, so there wasn’t anything unexpected about my order, and although they didn’t look quite as good as they did online (nothing ever really does, though), they didn’t look bad, per se.
For people that enjoy shopping, or buying nice things, rather, each purchase is supposed to douse the human brain in a quick, satisfying blast of dopamine – which is precisely why so many of us get sucked into materialism – but I simply felt a bit numb. That feeling of excitement that you get when opening up a fresh box of sneakers, or trying on a new outfit, or loading up your Macbook for the first time felt duller, more muted. Comparatively, it was the difference between devouring a succulent steak after not eating all day and compulsively snacking on stale Doritos out of sheer boredom.
The reason for this is because I felt sapped by the relentless churn of consumption that’s needed to power capitalism and its pathological obsession with infinite growth. We’re consistently told to buy, to spend our way out of economic recessions, our senses are assaulted by invasive advertising aimed at making us lust over individual brands and products, and more broadly, the act of consuming. The media that we use, from Instagram to WhatsApp, are defacto marketing channels, and every new collection or Nike sneaker that you see on sites such as this one is essentially an advert.
As humans in the 21st century, I believe that our minds have been conditioned to reflexively consider each potential purchase we’re exposed to, to visualize owning that particular product if even for a moment. Just about every industry from technology to fashion is built upon a model of designed obsolescence and disposable fads, and we’re constantly reminded that what we own is outdated and needs replacing. It’s exhausting. And even if, like me, you consciously choose to reject the hype and see consumerism for what it is, I think it’s impossible to completely immunize yourself to those subconscious impulses that push us to spend. Fighting it often feels as draining as giving in.
I initially referred to what I was experiencing as "consumer burnout," but I soon learned that it fits the diagnosis of a much more widely publicized phenomenon known as “the tyranny of choice.” If you take a quick glance the shelves of a typical supermarket or 7-11 or just about any other store in the Western world these days, you’ll instantaneously be overwhelmed by the number of brands and items on offer, with the average American supermarket housing some 48,750 items on average way back in 2010, a figure that has almost certainly increased.
The orthodox view is that more choice is undeniably better, which to an extent is true – no one yearns for communist-era Romania, where shops only stocked cabbage and pickles (presumably) – but having too much choice, like we do now, is potentially making us miserable.
Ardent capitalists like to equate consumer choice with freedom, but they rarely (or never, rather) mention its pitfalls. More options can also mean more stress, as we agonize over choosing the right one. Think about it: when you want to purchase a new stereo, or a car, or anything that will make a significant blow to your budget, do you simply walk into your nearest store and pick one on a whim, or do you spend minutes or even hours of your life sifting through reviews on the internet, comparing specs and hunting down the lowest price tag that you can find? This is time and effort that could be spent with friends, family, on hobbies or something constructive, but is siphoned away from our lives and converted into profits by brands.
Because cash is essentially equated with survival in the modern world, making the right consumer choice can sometimes become a debilitating pressure that makes you unable to choose at all: according to one study conducted in a California supermarket, when shoppers were presented with 24 options of jam, only 3% of them actually ended up buying one. That figure rises to 30% when the number of jams is reduced down to six. An abundance of choice has the potential to riddle us with anxiety because as our options increase, so do our chances of picking the wrong one.
And what happens when you plump with the wrong choice? Well that obviously depends on how much money you’ve spent. But if it’s a significant outlay, like a crap holiday, you’re left with not only the dissatisfaction of wasted time and money, but also a gnawing feeling of squandered potential.
If it’s a physical purchase, like, say, an uncomfortable sofa, that object serves as an enduring reminder that you messed up. Some people are grounded enough to simply shrug it off and move on, but the more neurotic amongst us will dwell on it, wistfully pondering what could’ve been, visualizing the enjoyment that they could’ve had but didn’t get and thinking up alternative realities where different consumer choices could’ve led to a better outcome. This is markedly different to having limited choice, which can be incredibly frustrating in its own particular way, but at least it allows you to blame circumstance rather than yourself.
Also, who says that more choice is inherently better? As I mentioned earlier, brands, advertisers and other capitalist ideologues like to frame extensive consumer choice as a form of freedom, an expression of the fundamentally democratic nature of the free market, but consumer freedom is a false liberty, one that serves to distract from the uncomfortable realization that we’re unable to make the sort of decisions that truly matter.
We can choose to buy the adidas NMD in what seems to be every single color combination detectable by the human eye, but the 36 million people that came together globally to protest against the Iraq War in early 2003 were completely ignored by their leaders. Never has a U.S. election been contested by two candidates as unpopular with their respective bases as they are this year, and many people will simply be voting for one as a way of keeping the opposition out of the White House. Yes, this is still a choice, but it is a hollow, disempowered one.
These are the decisions that matter, and the decisions that matter are increasingly beyond the reach of normal people. Instead, we’re left to mull over complete trivialities like which filling we’d like in our Chipotle burritos or which finish we’d prefer on our iPhone 7, giving us an illusion of freedom. All our abundant consumer choices are choices of no significance at all.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.