In my six months of quarantine, there have been many days when I’ve only gotten out of bed to retrieve my latest Lush Cosmetics impulse buy. Getting a whiff of Karma bar soap even before I open my mailbox gives me such a high; perhaps because it reminds me of pre-corona trips to one of the only nine Lush outlets in my country. I don’t care if everyone says the products don’t work well. Lush is a hill I’m willing to die on, and I call all their products by name like the company simp I am.
I only became interested in skincare when I entered college, i.e. when I started experiencing stress like never before. Self-care had to be symbolized by some material object like sheet masks, or else I had trouble doing it at all; it had to be luxury skincare to prove that I was really taking it seriously. That same year, Jia Tolentino wrote about skincare as a coping mechanism: “[I was] unsure if I was buying skincare or a psychological safety blanket, or how much of a difference between the two there really is.”
Had I discovered Lush in high school, I still would’ve patronized it, although for a different reason. It was 2015, when Instagram was only beginning to be the mental health-destroying, excessively curated, algorithm-run nightmare it is today. I was planning my feed like I was being paid to do so, and many people my age bought things just for the ‘gram—specifically from American brands that were difficult to find. The fact that we had them proved that we were embodying the (Western) culture we all idealized.
I cringe at that time now, but even after unlearning that extreme level of materialist reverence, my consumerism is still a reflex. When I had to leave my college dorm and go back home, I dealt with my frustration by redecorating. I bought myself a necklace. I bought Imperialis. Even now, during my (extensive) spare time, I scroll through beauty websites and shopping apps. With just a few clicks happiness arrives in 2-5 business days, and lately I want all the happiness I can get.
Shopping, from a psychological standpoint, has many latent functions. In times of distress (like the current health crisis), it restores our sense of control, giving us the power of choice and the gratification of having this Brand New Thing. The latter is rooted in the natural tendency to visualize our life with that Brand New Thing now in it, and how this new product essentially makes our lives new as well—a coping mechanism useful in our current monotonous reality.
Of course, not everyone can cope this way. There’s a global recession axing the employment of millions. Healthcare systems are so broken and gravely unprepared for a virus of this magnitude that getting infected is both physically and financially debilitating. Many consumers are reducing online orders, bearing in mind the amount of manpower being put at risk just so these items can be delivered. On the flipside, as some countries ease lockdown restrictions, people who weren’t big spenders pre-pandemic are finding themselves checking out more frequently. Before corona, millennials and Gen Z were more likely to spend on experiences—but now that we’re stuck at home, we’re redirecting our attention (and disposable income) to material things.
This is a sentiment mirrored in what many experts are calling “revenge spending.” When the Hermès store in Guangzhou, China reopened in April, it raked in $2.7 million in a day. CNBC reported that many customers “were starved during their quarantine and are overcompensating by splurging more than usual.” Hermès is among the few luxury brands relying on revenge spending to recover from the drastic drop in sales earlier this year.
The fact that the fate of the economy rests on the whims of the elite is a testament to the growing wealth inequality. A survey conducted by Cefuture, a Chinese consulting firm, found that 41% of nearly 1,000 participants said they would spend less in preparation for future crises; only 8% were willing to shop, much less revenge spend, after the outbreak. After all, problems caused by capitalism, like for-profit healthcare and the complete lack of a social safety net, can never be solved by more capitalism.
This isn’t the first time consumers have been urged to exercise their purchasing power to solve a national crisis. After 9/11, President George W. Bush encouraged families to continue shopping and take trips, to “enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.” There had already been a looming recession earlier that year, and the tragedy threatened to exacerbate it. The task of revitalizing the economy was left to ordinary citizens, and it worked: by October 2001 personal consumer spending increased, halting the impending recession.
Consumerism is linked to patriotism in a distinctly American way. In the Philippines, where I’m from, the materialism of the upper and middle class is a byproduct of Western imperialism and colonial rule. (For the working class, which is the majority of the Filipino population, clinging to material things is a survival mechanism, a frugality that comes with economic insecurity.) During World War II, American consumers followed the rhetoric that it was their duty to not buy anything and instead give their extra income to war bonds. Once the war ended, Americans partook in an early iteration of revenge spending, celebrating and making up for lost time. As mass consumption thrived, factories started upping manufacturing; America saw this material prosperity as an opportunity to assert itself as a global superpower.
It was during this global age of capitalism that the concept of consumerism being “good” became culturally inculcated. “Our enormously productive economy demands we make consumption our way of life, that we convert buying and use of goods into rituals,” economist Victor Lebow wrote in the 1950s. “We seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.”
As capitalism continues to rear its ugly head, it becomes clear that it is because of capitalism itself that we seek the refuge of retail therapy. In his book Affluenza, psychologist Oliver James says our ruthless consumerist culture leads to “obsessive, envious, emotional states, making us prone to anxiety, depression, and addiction.” At the same time, the very nature of current production and mass marketing derives its profits from chronic dissatisfaction—it positions retail therapy as a solution, only for it to give rise to more feelings of discontentment. It’s a never-ending cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy benefiting no one but the wealthy.
Ultimately, the solutions—to your personal problems or to bigger issues—cannot and should not be sought from corporate products. Environmental degradation cannot be fixed by trendy reusable bottles and metal straws; Pride Month cannot be celebrated by companies who sell rainbow paraphernalia while continuing to discriminate against LGBTQ+ employees. Corporate social responsibility is an oxymoron. “While companies sometimes can do well by doing good, more often they can’t,” Aneel Karnani wrote in an often-quoted essay for The Wall Street Journal. “Because in most cases, doing what’s best for society means sacrificing profits.”
The point of this essay is not to shame you for continuing to buy things. Refraining from consumption is impossible in a capitalist society, and frankly I’m exhausted of neoliberal narratives that shift the blame to personal choice, ignoring the systemic causes that are ultimately at fault. But it must be kept in mind that retail therapy is a Band-Aid, a quick fix for problems that endure because we insist they can be solved instantly. It’s a testament to the lack of accessible mental-health services and the pervasiveness of capitalist marketing.
What can be done, at least in our capacity, is reexamining our relationship with our consumption. Is our identity inseparable from our materialism? What are other ways to care for ourselves that don’t include a $25 leather-bound bullet journal or overpriced moisturizer? I’d like to think that even if I’m simping over a company, at least it’s for self-care. At least it’s Lush, where everything is handmade and all containers are recycled. But is the “ethical consumption” we subscribe to as apt as cutting back our consumption altogether, or is it just a guilt-free version of the same commercialism? Is the minimalism we try to practice actually urging us to buy less, or to throw things away more quickly because we merely value less?
Our money is better off away from corporations. It’s more productive to look at what’s pushing us to shop compulsively and redirect our resources to help solve it: if we feel anxious about the ongoing racial violence BIPOC are being subjected to globally, let’s put our extra money into mutual aid instead of buying mindfulness apps like Headspace, whose CEO just bought a $7.36 million-mansion in Santa Monica last year. If we want to be more sustainable, let’s make an effort to reuse and recycle instead of buying more; if you’re able, buy small and don’t haggle. (Nile List and Black Nation list Black-owned businesses.) Never buy something for the sake of having it or to show others. Tip your servers and delivery drivers. Donate—it’s more beneficial and gratifying than shopping. Under capitalism, where everything costs money, perhaps the biggest step we can take is not only to withdraw, but give away.
By Andrea Panaligan
Illustration by Taylor Wang