Saturday, February 17, 2007

Shopper stop

I rarely have any spare cash. This is a situation I foresaw even at the cretinous age of seven, when my mother found me weeping with worry about how I was ever going to pay rent. That’s not to say that I don’t spend money when I have it: I buy durables and life infrastructure like mobility and communications, and am a shameless spendthrift when it comes to experiences like food and travel. But I’m not a great consumer otherwise. Besides books and movies, I don’t tend to buy too many things.

This is partly because the things I really covet, like art and silk carpets and the best wines, are magnificently beyond my reach, and if I’m not buying an item of superlative aesthetic or technological quality, it’s really six of one or half a dozen of the other, and I can’t be fussed to spend time fine-tuning my purchases.

My first year in a college in the US, I went out to the local supermarket to buy toothpaste and found row upon gleaming row of toothpastes, scores of brands in dozens of variations, all screaming Pick me! Pick me! I had never seen so many things in my life, let alone so many kinds of so many things. Each was made in a factory, distributed by gas-guzzling transports, and fated to wash up in some nasty landfill. It all seemed very exhausting, and all I wanted was some damn toothpaste, so I picked the cheapest tube and got the hell out.

That pretty accurately defines my consumer profile: unadventurous skinflint. I enter and exit shops like greased lightning and only when necessary; pick one brand of everything and stick with it; and have never owned a credit card, except for one brief stint during which I didn’t use the thing, and refused to pay the annual fee, which caused the bank to revoke it, which was just fine by me. Most of what I own by way of furniture and clothing has been either gifted or handed down to me. All in all, I’d say I have the same relationship to shopping as a vampire to garlic.

So a couple of days ago I startled myself by spending a significant amount of time selecting and buying a very expensive shampoo and conditioner. By expensive, I mean that those two quite small bottles cost more than the going rate for part-time domestic help in my neighbourhood. And by startled, I mean gobsmacked, because I hugely enjoyed the process, and even contemplated buying a totally superfluous bath gel by the same company, and was saved from doing so only because I became distracted by an attractive toothbrush in clear plastic with coloured bristles even though I have a perfectly serviceable one at home.

Over the last couple of months this sort of thing has been happening more and more. I’ve bought, without any necessity, a jacket, an iPod and, at the risk of over-sharing, my first selection of new underwear in many years. This, in my life, is rampant consumerism, and I have the disconcerting feeling that there’s more where it came from. I’ve merely experienced the first groggy yawn and stretch of a sleeping giant deep in my soul.

And now, just when I was tasting the pleasures of retail therapy for the first time in my life, Al Gore has gone and put a big fat dampener on it all over again with his movie An Inconvenient Truth, which is about the clear and present dangers of global warming even though it is also a lot about Al Gore. I have no idea why I feel so guilty when it is the US that contributes one third of all global warming, but I do. I’ve promised myself not to run riot anymore.

But maybe, if I’m good in every other way, I can keep buying this shampoo.

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