You Are What You Buy
by Vivian Morellon
Take it from me: spending money is just too easy. But that’s why we work to begin with, right? At least that's what I tell myself when I impulsively spend, trying to play down the guilt that surfaces once I realize I won’t be able to save that month.
But I can’t avoid spending completely, it’s a part of the weekly routine – a part of the “work-life” balance. Before and after work I try to make room for exercise, socializing, and consuming – and guess what: each of these activities costs money. Most importantly, they are lifestyle choices: spending choices that later become habits, which finally ends up defining me.
Most of these spending choices can be attributed to us simply paying attention to the countless marketing strategies we are exposed to daily. Social media, blogs, vlogs, targeted ads, influencers, email blasts, collabs, giveaways, SEOs, and even store windows (too name a few) clutter our headspace with product literacy.
Influencers drop a name, we flood to the website’s shopping page. Artists are seen coming out of a restaurant, you suddenly can’t get a reservation for weeks. The top models are showing skin – it’s time to drop the weight and buy a gym membership. These marketing efforts work because of two reasons. First, it tugs on our self-obsession; how do we want to brand ourselves and what do we want to show to the world? And second, it plays with our emotions and need for an instant mood booster.
So we buy into the idea, the concept, and therefore the product. We end up spending money on things we believe will place us on the same level as those we follow and admire. Suddenly, almost instinctively, we’re seen spending ridiculous amounts of money on hype.
But who gives brands, influencers and companies the credibility?
Us. The Followers. And the more followers something/someone has, the more prone we are to notice.
But is this truly the best way to validate our purchases?
So even without the product push from marketing campaigns... what makes us buy the things we buy? Basic psychology and our need for instant gratification!
Going back to the work-life balance concept, consuming is an activity to pass the time, allowing us to create an activity (or experience) and socialize. Think about it: dinner with family, drinks with friends, shopping, traveling… all monetary choices. Even errands by yourself can give you a fake idea of community given that you end up sharing sharing space with strangers who share the same interests as you… pulling on your emotions and manipulating this activity into a feeling of belonging.
Emotions end up playing a massive part in our consumption behaviors. Marketers have already tapped into this through selling us the lifestyle, but it can be simpler than that. For example, we feel sad, we see an ad for a beauty line claiming that self-care equals self-love and we buy it! It appeals to our desire for instant gratification and has us believing a certain product will fix or elevate our moods – tapping into our impulsive behavior.
But why should we break the cycle? Is a little retail therapy really that bad?
While some impulsive buys are harmless, certain spending habits translate into who you are and what you value. If you buy organic, you can claim you value your health, right? The same applies when buying clothes. So when you purchase the cheapest clothing in the market, can you just as easily claim you value unsafe labor practices?
When phrased like that, we think twice about where our dollar goes.
This is dollar voting, the concept that our money impacts (and molds) society by voting out the “winning” products and “loosing” ones. Considering that larger movements – like politics and socioeconomic factors – influence the products we’re exposed to, dollar voting becomes a powerful concept. One that can potentially re-shape the market.- like actual voting.
Consuming means participating in an intricate web of suppliers, corporations, employees, cultures, laws and many more aspects that we are aware of. This means we’re not just voting on final products, we’re also approving (or disapproving) of these multiple backend practices and regulations.
For example, we might simply be buying a L’Oréal lipstick but what we actually end up voting ‘yes’ on their continued use of animal testing, price fixing, nanoparticles in their cosmetics and of course, its relationship with another sketchy giant: Nestlé.
Unbeknownst to us we end up supporting products, relationships, and behaviors after having bought just one item. Do to this, our consumption choices have now become our new code of ethics- one that is reshaping us individuals and as a society.
But how do we separate ourselves from this vicious consumption cycle?
Education. Thanks to the Internet and easy access to public information, it’s now easier to identity what we support if we simply research how each company produces what they produce. For example, most products list their ingredients or manufacturing origins- giving us quick insight into their practices.
Companies like Bloomberg and Reuters provide financial reports and company ratings (also known as “environmental, social, and governance” ratings) provide consumers with information regarding sustainability, labor practices, and social responsibility. This allows us to trace back companies’ practices and get informed.
The information is out there and it's our social responsibility to find it and make informed choices.
Climate, sustainability, and diversity are among the top categories many ESG ratings focus on, but ethical consumerism can be as simple as paying attention to mission statements and labels. In fact, we’ve already been introduced to certain labels such as: Fair Trade, Organic, Local, Vegan, Rainforest Alliance certified, Recycled/recyclable and Union-made. While these labels are common, some products are harder to analyze, but nonetheless, the information is available.
So assess your own code of ethics – “what do I stand for?”
Trace your purchases back, and find out how the products you support align with those values. After you identify what’s good/bad, you can choose to boycott (avoid specific companies or behaviors) or participate in positive buying (which focuses on solely buying companies that have a positive impact). Either tactic works in voicing your concerns and reshaping our society’s consumption habits.
Instead of blind and impulsive purchases, consider the ripple effect.
With a simple purchase we hold the power and the choice to fund companies, movements, products and personalities. These will only flourish if we demand it, if we impulsively vote on it. So demand positive change, hold companies accountable and put your money where your value is.