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  • Lindsey Millerd

How consumerism stole Christmas

Traffic going to Waikele Outlets during Christmas week

Isn’t it funny how we celebrate Thanksgiving and then almost immediately flip the switch to holiday shopping mode? We say how grateful we are when the occasion calls for it, but our actions once the family dinner is over say otherwise. The National Retail Federation (NRF) estimates that 196.7 million Americans shopped between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday this year, more than ever before.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t be grateful while also treating yourself or a loved one to something nice, but are we using materials as the key to a perfect Christmas? An NRF survey found that the average shopper spends around $640 on gifts and over $200 on holiday foods and decorations. This year, total holiday retail sales are expected to reach over $942.6 billion.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. The music, lights, and gifts make this time of year something I always look forward to. And for me, I don’t mind it being commercialized and swaying from its historical origins. Like most holidays, we’ve adopted new traditions and you can take what you want and celebrate how you please. But it’s worth noticing how the holidays can quickly become a big pile of consumption if you aren't careful.

Consumerism is when people give too much attention to material things and constantly desire more. Unfortunately, I think that perfectly describes a lot of our attitudes this time of year, and it's easy to see why. By early November, stores are already advertising their holiday sales in seasonal window displays and all over social media. A survey done by Lending Tree found that 36% of Americans acquired holiday debt, owing an average of $1,249 in 2021.

Being mindless with our consumption can do more harm than good for ourselves, our relationships, and the planet. Now that the holiday season is coming to a close, it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on our spending habits and see where there may be room for improvement as we enter the new year.

Distracting from the more important things

There’s no hiding that shopping and gifts are often the main attraction when it comes to Christmas. “Black Friday Haul” and “What I got for Christmas” videos flood Youtube and pictures of gifts are all over Instagram. Even if we aren’t the type to post these things, we will likely come across them and have feelings of desire and envy, which can suck the joy out of Christmas.

Even if we are lucky enough to get everything on our wish list, materialism can mask our deeper needs. Especially when it comes to treating ourselves, we might use materials as rewards or call it “self-care” even. There’s nothing wrong with shopping, but there can be negative mindsets attached to the habit. We shouldn’t associate our worth to the things we own or go on a shopping spree as our first line of defense when feeling down.

A video by Leena Norms shares some very important questions to ask yourself when shopping, one being “are you missing something else in your life?” Norms discusses how she catches herself buying more clothes when she’s been lacking creative outlets for herself. The new items feel exciting, but you could probably fill that same void by doing or creating something rather than buying a quick fix.

Giving gifts to your loved ones can be sweet and meaningful. After all, gifts are known as one of the five love languages, and there’s no doubt that a thoughtful or generous present will make someone happy. Once again though, the problem occurs when we rely on gifts as a form of affection and let it distract us from the more important things. 

For example, consider if you are using expensive gifts to compensate for something else that’s lacking in your relationships. We all know those parents who spoil their kids but rarely support them at games and performances, or someone’s partner who seems to use expensive gifts to excuse their problematic behavior. Being there for our loved ones and making conscious attempts to better our relationships should always be the priority before hoping something shiny will do the trick.

Hidden costs behind low prices

Beyond the emotional and social side of consumerism, there are tons of issues to consider on the broader scale. Overconsumption is a constant problem, but the holidays really amplify it. I mean, who doesn’t want to take advantage of the best deals of the year? If you’re planning to buy it anyways, might as well get it while it’s cheaper. But with low prices, we tend to have the “why not?” attitude and often shop more impulsively. Stores play on that with marketing ploys like advertising products as “rare” and offering free gifts with a minimum purchase.

Holiday window display highlighting major store discounts

The rise in online shopping has definitely increased overspending habits in its own distinct way. For example, almost anytime there’s a free shipping promotion I’ll find things to add to my cart to ensure I’ll qualify, despite going onto the site for just one thing. “Payment solutions” are a newer e-commerce tool that allow customers to buy now and pay later, often through installments. Klarna, one of the most popular “payment solutions” and was shown to create a 68% increase in sales for retailers.

The fashion industry perfectly illustrates the environmental and ethical issues of rapid consumption. Fashion is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions and about 20% of plastic production with both textiles and packaging. Fast fashion companies are major culprits, where they focus on high production volumes and low costs.

Shein, one of the fastest of the fast fashion brands, releases about 2,000 new styles a day. It is a prime example of a brand that continues to gain popularity despite their flaws, because they are just so cheap. Shein was the most searched clothing brand of 2022 in over 100 countries, more countries than any other brand.

Another issue with fast fashion is the exploitation of labor. With prices lower than almost anywhere else, you have to wonder how much their workers are getting paid. One loungewear designer that supplies to Shein said they are paid only $1 per garment. With that kind of pay, you can bet they are working as fast and as long as they can to make something they can live off of. Those low prices really are too good to be true.

Striking the balance

The retail industry has its flaws, but let’s face it, shopping is an inevitable part of living in our modern world. I’m not saying we all need to become minimalists and completely detach ourselves from material items. Whether they keep us entertained, make life easier, or act as a form of self-expression, material goods have a value and it's up to consumers to decide how much that is.

Most of us have hobbies like fashion, technology, or the outdoors, and there are physical items that help us enjoy those interests. Liking and wanting certain things doesn’t make you materialistic, but you can easily slide into that category once you start prioritizing those things. It’s okay to shop, but we should all strive to be mindful shoppers. Consider how much you or your loved one will actually use the items and consider the environmental impact of your purchases.

While the time spent scouring the internet or waiting in shopping mall traffic for the perfect gifts is meaningful in its own way, it shouldn’t be at the top of our to-do list above quality time with loved ones. Presents are definitely an expression of love, but big celebrations like Christmas aren’t the only time to express our appreciation for someone. It’s important to show our love year-round, focusing most of our energy on the things money can’t buy.

How to minimize waste during the holidays

Finally, here are a few tips on how to celebrate a little more sustainably. Keep these in mind that these are not only for Christmas, but can be applied toward any other special occasions.

  1. Shop second-hand: I love that thrifting is slowly becoming more normalized, and that should be the same for gifts. Thrift shops have everything including clothing, homeware toys, books, and more. Most items are in great condition and perfectly unique for each individual.

  2. Gift an experience: Concert tickets, a spa reservation, a weekend getaway, all of these are meaningful gifts that can lead to great memories. These are the best if you’re looking for a way to spend quality time with your loved one. 

  3. Get creative: If you like drawing, painting, sewing, knitting, whatever it may be, use those skills! Even if you don’t consider yourself much of an artist, print out some photos and try making a collage or creating an album.

  4. Foolproof gifts: If you’re looking for simpler options, there are a few gifts that will never go to waste. Food and drinks, especially something homemade or a nice drink like sparkling cider or wine are sure to make someone feel special. Gift cards and cash get a bad rep for being “lazy” gifts, but no one will be mad about being able to buy what they want, when they need it.

  5. Reuse packaging: Did you know wrapping paper accounts for around 2.3 million pounds of waste in landfills? Instead, reuse gift bags or nice shopping bags. If you prefer wrapping, save boxes from the mail and opt for magazines, newspapers, or even a scarf or bandana that can double as a gift itself.

  6. Save your leftovers: With many of us going to more parties than any other time of year, it’s important to try and minimize our food waste too. Be sure to save your leftovers, freeze them if needed, and always check your fridge before going shopping for more.

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