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The big picture: Why are we so dependent on Retail Therapy?
Opinion

The big picture: Why are we so dependent on Retail Therapy?


On April 10th, 2019 our tiny blue dot floating in space received historic news. Thanks to wide-scale and in-depth collaboration amongst the international science community, astronomers were able to capture the first-ever image of a black hole. It is nothing short of astounding and a game changer for astronomy and our continued understanding of our Universe (believed to be a Multiverse). It’s a fun challenge to try to wrap one’s head around all the physics around what’s needed to capture a force so great that nothing, not even light can escape.

How do black holes tie into sustainability?

If you’re familiar with the waste hierarchy, then you know that before recycling, it’s better to reuse, and even better than reusing is reducing. “Marie Kondo” is now a verb, and she has built a tiny, tidy empire off the concept of reducing and decluttering. But what’s with this pattern of accumulation anyway?

Why do we collect so many things in the first place?

If we start to unpack these questions, we end up going down a rabbit hole that leads us to something resembling the equivalent of a black hole in the human spirit.

It was several years ago sitting beside a pond in Northern Rhode Island with a couple of dear friends talking about ‘the void within’ when these pieces started to come together for me. We were exploring what need or desire in us we are trying to fill with physical stuff and possessions. Our American creed to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has warped into protecting the pursuit of profits.

We are now part of a global economic system that dehumanizes us by viewing us as consumers before citizens or individuals.

How did we get here? And how are so many of us docile enough to stay here?

Is this the inherent clash between the East and the West? Are we at odds with each other due to our worshipping of materialism and their faith-based living? If we are to get at the root cause of some of the drivers behind our slow destruction of the planet that sustains us, I think we need to be asking these larger questions.

In the words of Annie Leonard, I’m not anti-stuff. In fact, we should be taking better care of our things, and in short, favoring quality over quantity. But the Walmart-mentality persists.

The majority of us prefer to go the cheap, convenient route so that we can get our dopamine fix that comes with having something new. Hence the term “retail therapy”, and there’s now a double dopamine hit we get when we shop online, first when we order and then when we receive the package.

Materialism is hard-wired into us, serving as status symbols so we can subconsciously convey our place in the pecking order. Whether it’s cars, watches, jewelry, bags, or shoes, we use these status symbols to not only express our personal sense of style but to also project our level of wealth and success.

We’ve gone from keeping up with the Joneses to the Kardashians. This shift has been deemed “the vertical expansion of our reference group” by Juliet Schor, a scholar, and educator who studies the psychology of consumerism.

We no longer only compare ourselves to our neighbors but thanks to TV and social media we compare ourselves to celebrities, old money families and co-workers, right beside acquaintances we went to high school with.

The self-storage market is now a $38 billion industry with 50,000 facilities, employing 144,000 people in the U.S. From reality TV shows like “Storage Wars” to “Hoarders”, we are over-consuming to a point that edges on psychosis. We know the effects of overconsumption lead to a reduction in the planet’s carrying capacity, but what causes overconsumption?

Part of the answer lies in the notions of planned and perceived obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is essentially when a product is intentionally designed to be discarded after a short amount of time. Some of it is becoming so blatant that governments are starting to take action, most recently with Apple and Samsung getting fined by Italian authorities over slow phones.

Perceived obsolescence is more along those lines of the expanded reference group and keeping up with the Kardashians. It’s also one of the driving forces behind “fast fashion”, further fueled by advertising and media. We are barraged on a daily basis with commercials and advertisements trying to convince us that we are not good enough as we are and that some widget, app, or whatever is being sold to us will make us more complete. And so, we’re buying it. Could this be our vain attempt to fill up the “God-shaped hole” referenced in AA? Whether it’s alcohol, shopping, sugar, social media, the list goes on, our vices keep us looking away at our own mess.

black hole
Credit: Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

In a day and age where nearly all of us are in need of some form of therapy, I can’t help but wonder if we’re experiencing the side effects of secularism in a society that favors the material over the spiritual? Given this context, it seems that one of the most radical approaches to sustainability and a greener life then is to be grounded and confident in who you are, and satisfied with all that you have.

What can be more subversive than that?

With that, I leave you with these lyrics to contemplate…

Jeff Buckley’s Rendition of “Satisfied Mind”


How many times have you heard someone say,
“If I had money, I would do things my way.”
But little they know, that it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten, with a satisfied mind.

Money can’t buy back all your youth when you’re old,
A friend when you’re lonely, or peace to your soul.
The wealthiest person, is a pauper at times
Compared to the man with a satisfied mind.

When my life is over and my time has run out,
My friends and my loved ones, I will leave there’s no doubt.
But one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time,
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind.

But one thing’s for certain, when it comes my time,
I’ll leave this old world with a satisfied mind mind mind, mind mind,
Satisfied mind.


Jeff Buckley’s Rendition of “Satisfied Mind”

Photo: Andy Blackledge, Flickr

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Lisa Pellegrino
Lisa Pellegrino is a self-professed "zero waste geek". She takes great pride (and joy!) in transforming waste streams into supply chains, through fulfilling TerraCycle's mission in eliminating the idea of waste. She got her MBA in Sustainable Systems and manages business development for the Zero Waste platform, a turnkey solution for recycling any hard-to-recycle product or packaging. Lisa enjoys collaborating with others to shift the mental model from seeing waste not as garbage, but as misplaced resources. When she's not absorbed in the world of waste elimination, she loves reading, riding her bike, and singing & playing music with friends. View all posts by Lisa Pellegrino

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