Women love shopping, don’t they? Everyone knows we were born to do it; that left to our own devices we like nothing better than spending all day in some changing room, leaving our menfolk slumped outside in abject boredom, praying for it to be over. Except it’s not true, or certainly not for all women, and almost certainly never has been. Only 29% of women actually say they enjoy shopping, according to the retail analysts Mintel; for most of the rest it’s somewhere between actively anxiety-inducing (especially for anyone uncomfortable with stripping in front of a mirror) and merely rather boring.
Women have been conditioned to envisage shopping as a lovely treat, a guilty pleasure so intense we must sneak around and lie about how much we spend, even though the reality of trudging round shopping malls falls far short of the dream. But while the idea of retail therapy as the ultimate drug is so embedded in female culture that it often goes unquestioned, on reflection I don’t love shopping any more; in fact I don’t love it at all.
When did a Saturday mooching round the shops stop feeling like a luxury, and start feeling more like bad sex; something you thought you wanted at the time, but which swiftly congeals to regret and self-loathing? I can still remember the teenage thrill of trying on everything in Miss Selfridge, but it’s years since I got any kind of real high from the high street. Now the sheer scale of choice feels exhausting, while the business of piling up stuff at home for the sake of it – yet another cushion, dress or lipstick – increasingly borders on the obscene.
Perhaps this odd, deflated feeling is just a middle-aged thing, a sign of having acquired more than enough over the decades. It’s almost certainly a rather spoilt thing, when those watching every penny can only dream of having all the stuff they need. But for whatever reason, this week’s warning from Sir Ian Boyd, outgoing chief scientific adviser at Defra, that getting to zero emissions means not just consuming differently – switching to sustainable cotton T-shirts, say – but consuming far less, strikes a chord. Too much advice about going green involves pushing slightly less toxic alternatives to things we don’t particularly need, to distract us from thinking about whether they were necessary in the first place.
Sure, a reusable metal straw is better for marine life than a plastic one. But who honestly needs a straw? (And yes, I know some disabled people need one to drink; but let’s not pretend the vast majority of straws aren’t used by perfectly able-bodied kids at parties, or to avoid smudging lipstick, or to slurp up milkshakes so stiff with ice-cream they must be vacuumed out of the cup.) Making and shipping a metal object halfway across the world for no particularly good reason is a demented use of carbon, a solution to a problem that for most people doesn’t exist. Going green has to be about reducing what we buy, reusing what’s already there, and reimagining our habits rather than just rebranding them.
The counter-argument, of course, is that this kind of mindless shopping might not be pretty but it keeps people in jobs every step of the way; from manufacturing to distribution, marketing, managing, taxing and selling. When Boyd talks about privileging a sustainable planet over economic growth, that’s a polite way of describing a future where living standards (in the economic sense at least) will be lower than they would have been; a world of prosperity foregone, with real consequences for real people, and especially those on low incomes. If you want to know what lower, slower growth feels like in reality, we’ve just lived through a decade of it, thanks to the banking crash.
But Boyd puts his finger on an awkward truth, which is that we can’t go on blundering towards environmental disaster while telling ourselves that this is what makes us happy, when that simply isn’t true. Too much shopping is, like comfort eating, little more than a means of filling the emptiness inside. Once the sugar rush wears off, a faint feeling of nausea remains, followed by the urge to purge. Fast fashion fixes that get worn a few times and then thrown away are arguably forgivable in 19-year-olds, who still aren’t sure who they are yet and want to dress up as someone new every Saturday night. But for those of us old enough to know better, who could eke out what’s in our overstuffed wardrobes for the rest of our natural lives if only we weren’t cowed by the fear of falling behind fashion – well, something has to give.
For those who can’t bear going without something new, Oxfam has launched a Second Hand September challenge to buy no new clothes for a month; one way to capitalise on the virtuous, beginning-of-term feeling that autumn always brings. If you don’t want to contribute to the already precipitous decline of the high street, then another way of stemming the tide of junk is to shop locally or physically rather than online, and be stern about how much you really need anything that can’t be found that way.
Spending on experiences not tangible possessions is another form of economic compromise, since research suggests it’s the former that actually makes people happy. Personally I’ve never regretted a penny spent on cinema tickets (even if the film is terrible there’s always the joy of ruthlessly postmortem-ing it afterwards), anything done with friends or, to be brutally honest, cocktails. I would add books, if it weren’t for a few mistakes with overhyped titles that weren’t worth chopping down trees for; but really, each to their own. What matters is accepting both that going green means more than an excuse to go shopping, and that shopping less may not actually be the hardship it sounds. In the end, a life is made up of the things we have done, not the things we have bought. Understand that, and there is suddenly so much more of it waiting to be lived.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist