Shopping Detox

conscious consumption

I didn’t intend to stop shopping. It’s just kind of happened slowly over the past 5 years – with the pandemic putting a final nail in the coffin.

Do I miss it? Honestly? Sometimes. I miss the thrill of a bargain. I miss the crinkle of a glut of paper carrier bags. I miss the sparkly white lights that made everything glisten.

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Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

I used to be an avid shopper. Regular, dedicated and prepared. Every December I would audit my wardrobe before scouting Dublin city centre, recording a wish list, complete with model no and size, in preparation for the January sales when I’d drop a sizeable sum building my new year wardrobe.

As recently as 2016 I would visit Dundrum Shopping Centre, for fun, in the evening, as ‘me’ time, but slowly the joy waned. Knowing that every purchase put carbon (et al) into the atmosphere, hastening the demise of the planet and its people took the gloss off that cute kids hairband or Lego branded t-shirt.

That sounds sad, depressing even, and it would be if I hadn’t replaced shopping with something much more rewarding; the thrill of not spending!

I used to get such a rush when I found something on sale, thinking myself very clever for finding such a bargain. Silly me; a €2 notebook isn’t a bargain if I’ve already got 5 at home.

I have to admit to falling into the trap of transferring this addiction to charity shopping pre-pandemic and successfully accumulated a lot of fabulous items that I simply didn’t need.

Now I get a thrill in solving problems without purchasing a ready-made solution. It’s amazing just how inventive we can be when we give ourselves the time to ponder and the permission to get it wrong sometimes.

Creativity is like a muscle, the more you use it the better you get. I fear the overdeveloped world is losing it simply because we just buy our way out of problems, often because we simply don’t have the time to do otherwise.

Time. That’s an interesting conundrum. People assume my sustainable life leaves me with no spare time. Probably because they can’t imagine how to squeeze another activity into their jam-packed day.

But living sustainably is not about doing more things, it’s about doing different things. It’s a choice.

Shopping is sold to us as a leisure activity, something enjoyable to do in our spare time, but is it really?

Think of all the time spent scrolling – and in those glorious pre-covid days – ambling around stores. Trying on. Deciding. Queuing at cash registers / filling our purchase forms online. Travelling home / waiting for deliveries. Trying on. Returning items. Emailing customer service. Repairing badly-made items. Dropping items into charity shops or clothes bins, or worse, skips.  Not to mention all the additional tidying and cleaning created by this mountain of joyful items.

Now I read, I knit, I garden, I lobby, I chat, I bake, I create, I Zoom, I petition, I watch movies, I give talks, I get a Masters.

The other thing it’s given me, which I wasn’t expecting, is a less cluttered mind. The less stuff I have the more mental space I seem to have. Life is calmer, quieter and more purposeful without the distractions of trinketry. I think we really underestimate the negative visual and mental impact of purchases.

I should clarify that giving up shopping doesn’t mean I don’t buy things. It means I don’t shop for pleasure. I buy what I need, and only if I can’t borrow it, and have applied the maxim of ‘use it up, wear it out, make do or do without’. This is what has come to be known as conscious consumption, where every purchase is considered carefully before being made. It might sound onerous but it happens so rarely, it’s not. 

The transition from consumer to citizen can be unsettling and lonely in our over-developed world. It’s at odds with our culture, in which we’re all neatly defined by our socio-economic status. Because conscious consumption goes against the tide, it initially needs more effort, and planning until it becomes a habit.

Reflecting on my own journey I can track how I transitioned to where I am now. I started out by just buying less in regular stores, delighted at my ability to walk out of shops purchase-free. Then I started only buying in sales, justifying it by believing I was saving the item from landfill! Then I switched to charity shops, again with the justification of saving items from landfill. Finally I’m here, limiting purchases to items I need as and when I need them.

Interestingly the pandemic lockdowns has afforded me the opportunity to practice living without retail therapy. Prior to the pandemic I shopped almost exclusive in charity shops, visiting at least 5 a week (I’ve 10 within a 5km radius). If I’m honest it was a bit of an obsession.

Once lockdown came and they shut I was surprised at how little impact no-shopping had on our life, other than to save us quite a bit of money. I should add that I don’t really do online shopping. I find it’s too hard to assess quality and suitability with online shopping and I worry it’ll bring about the end of high-street stores.

If you’re interested in moving towards conscious consumption here’s my tips on how to do it.

Support. I found it very useful to surround myself with like-minded people on my journey. Also reading books about the impact of consumption on the psyche and society were useful in giving me distance and perspective on the issue. Here’s a few suggestions on books on the topic that you might want to borrow from the library when it download from the library app Borrow Box

You also might want to check out these websites;

There are also some buy-nothing-new groups on Facebook. Some offer a place to vent while others are simply freecycle groups, which is great if you need items but terrible if you find it hard to pass-up free items. That said if you use it as a crutch in the early days (like I did) it’s less destructive than buying new.

Limit your Exposure to Ads. It’s really only when you start trying to avoid sales messages do you become acutely aware of just how many we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. I carefully manage my exposure to advertising but even then I can’t avoid it completely. Advertising is so clever and manipulative, and successful. Even if you don’t want the particular item being promoted it’s hard not to be lured in by the promise of increased social standing hinted at by an ad’s seductive language and imagery.

I limit my exposure to advertising by unsubscribing from newsletters and avoiding women’s magazines, which appear to be mostly ad rags these days.

Reward yourself. Conscious consumption needn’t be penitence. Indulge in the benefits of purchase-free living. Allow yourself that lie-in on the weekend or lounge on the sofa reading a good book.

Build a community. You meet some really fabulous people when you start borrowing / lending and rehoming items. Only this week did I rehomed some hair accessories to a singer who’s going to wear them on stage at her next gig. I’ve also found borrowing from neighbours to be a great way of reinforcing bonds, making me feel more connected to people around me which does wonders for my sense of well being.

Shift your perspective. All the stuff you own used to be money, which used to be time. It’s a falsehood to say we buy things with money, we actually buy stuff with hours of our life, hours we can never get back. Want to hear more, here’s a very thought-provoking piece on the time-cost of our purchases.

Allow yourself spending breaks. The goal is to break the dependency of recreational shopping, not to deny yourself. Even now I find the constant call to ‘shop’ at Christmas difficult to resist so instead of trying to resist, failing and feeling bad, I now plan to purchase necessary things at this time. I don’t go crazy but these little pockets of conscious consumption make me feel like I’m not missing out.

Embrace scarcity. During the recession, when money was really tight for us, nothing tasted as wonderful as a gifted bottle of wine. Primarily because we didn’t have it otherwise. When our financial circumstances improved wine on the weekend became the norm, causing it to lose it’s specialness and desirability. In an era a plenty sometimes you have to create scarcity to really enjoy things.

Find novelty elsewhere. Sometimes we shop out of boredom. I know I have. But it’s possible to scratch this itch without spending, the trick is to find what works for you. For me it’s a good book (non-fiction), travel programmes (Michael Palin style), discovering non-mainstream music & artists, and contemporary dance videos. An eclectic mix I know. Have fun finding out what yours is.

Switch from ‘getting-rid of to ‘rehoming’. This small move has huge implications. When your focus flips from clearing clutter to keeping things in use, you have to approach things differently. Gone is the quick bag drop to clothes bank or charity shop. You’ve got to personally find people to take your unwanted goods, which takes time and effort and is the whole point. Once you realise just how quickly stuff devalues and how hard it is to rehome it you’ll never look at purchases the same again.

Don’t lose perspective. If you bond with friends and family through shopping then you’ve an extra challenge on your hand.  Post-covid, you could suggest a spa day or day-trip to a hotel for lunch instead, but if they’re adamant about a shopping then don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Human connectedness is what makes life worth living. You don’t want to damage your mental health in the pursuit of sustainability.

Till next week


PS – If you like this article you might also like these ones

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

6 thoughts on “Shopping Detox

  1. I would have thought myself a non-shopper pre covid, boy was I wrong! I hadnt realised the amount of time I shopped in charity shops – even just browsing – and then hoarded the buys in my work room for remaking or if I didnt use them, I could redontate (or just hold on to them) which was really just feeding a cycle. So I am fairly determined break that habit.

    I did find RB Digital for womens magazines (free via library) really useful for me – as I still like to browse at styles – as it can propel me into making, and inject a bit of colour.


    1. Me too! I really felt withdrawal symptoms with charity shops closed during the first lockdown. Ironically I found this lockdown easier, I think because I broke the habit of browsing them during the first lockdown. I’ve used RB Digital too in the past. I’m all for finding what works for you. I like looking at music videos when I need a bit of energy into my life!!!!


  2. Love your quote in this “Creativity is like a muscle, the more you use it the better you get.”. Works in so many other contexts too such as being more sustainable in general. Really conveys that lots of this is not just a binary on off switch but something we work at but at the same time get better at and becomes enjoyable/rewarding.


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