How much of what we buy do we really need?

Erma Bombeck, an American humorist, observes that “the odds of going to the store [supermarket] for a loaf of bread and coming out with only a loaf of bread are three billion to one”.

Money available, chances are high that one will come out with a loaf of bread, plus margarine, newspapers, chocolate, crisps, yoghurt, soda, and Rock Boom. Consumerism is here with a bang!

Middle-class urbanites are increasingly defining wellbeing by consumption – not just consumption to satisfy needs, but shopping as a lifestyle or a hobby.

Do we realize that we may actually not really need over 50 percent of the stuff we impulsively buy today, but that we are made to believe that we can’t do without them? Our minds are on strings under the control of manufacturers, especially through their marketers that have keenly studied the motivation of the human psyche.

We are bombarded with all sorts of adverts everywhere we turn – in taxis, on TV, radio, newspapers, buildings, billboards, loudspeakers, electric poles, places of worship, and on human bodies (clothes).

This trend could be good for expanding our knowledge and improving choice in the market. But, in a highly-gullible society, the negative effects sink deep too.

Advertisers are becoming shrewder at the art of persuasion, lure, embellishment, and deceit. If one is not strongly restrained in their impulse to buy, every day you feel there is another thing missing in your life to complete the equation of happiness.

Just like a cigarette addict yearns for another stick, today’s consumerist experiences a constant urge to visit the malls for no particular reason. The ‘modern’ person is thus attuned to be forever unsatisfied with what they have and to be in perennial pursuit of more of what they are made to think they badly lack (perceived needs).

The more we acquire, the more we realize how much more we need to purchase. Annie Leonard, the environmentalist behind the famous ‘Story of Stuff’ project, has called this ‘manufactured demand’. It may even sometimes involve buying what one already has.

For instance, all the ‘mineral water’ we buy yet we can well boil water and move with it in water bottles! We are made to attach high class to sipping purchased bottled water and to feel odd about carrying our own.

Adverts of celebrities pretending to sip away their thirst are meant to drag us into buying in association with the celebrity feeling. In effect, we spend more on less while unnecessarily adding to the garbage burden.

Consider the jellies, creams, hair oils, and sprays that line our dressing tables and bathrooms. Before one is halfway into one oil, they are running for another with a new trending advert featuring nice-looking ladies/babies that may actually never have used what’s being advertised.

We then get frustrated that our skins/hair do not get to look like in the adverts – thinking that something could be wrong with us. In the process, we are accumulating stuff and wasting resources!

One has all the clothes they need to be clothed and decent. But adverts keep screaming at you that you are behind fashion, that something ‘new’ and stylish is on the market. A fashion sense of not accepting to be left behind is pumped into you, even when you know that all the other cloth will add is just a psycho-social feeling of being ‘up-to-date’.

In this fashion frenzy, perfectly fine clothes, shoes, bags, and gadgets are thus piled and abandoned in wardrobes and suitcases.

‘Up-to-date’ – but who sets the ‘date’ that we are in constant pursuit of being up to? The manufacturer knows when we have bought enough of something and when the aura is going out of it. That’s the point at which they introduce a slight twist to keep the buyer in the chase.

It is crazy how some of us chase phone models even when the allegedly added functions are not anywhere within the functions we need. But we want to flash them to as well announce our arrival at the iPhone X rendezvous. Just before you even learn how to use it properly, another model is being announced!

In an ill-regulated market like ours where goods of any quality can find space, to keep us buying, some items are designed for quick dump. It is not simply by poor workmanship that some ‘goods’ break down so fast. Neither is it merely because that’s what we can afford. Even cheap goods used to last a little longer.

It’s all part of the capitalistic scheme to keep us buying. The DVDs that get wasted at a slight scratch, flash disks that keep begging to be formatted to work, shoes that break before their heels tilt, radios and phones that won’t allow to be repaired, … It’s all by design!

One would argue that only cheap goods of low quality break this easily, hence condemning their buyers to perennial shopping. But the high-end shopper is not exempted either because of the way technologies change. Look at the junk floppy disks, video decks, tapes, printers, cassette players, CDs, hatchback TVs, etc!

Some new technologies are deliberately made to be incompatible with old ones. New software refuses to install on older computers, requiring one to buy a new machine! An old good printer fails to install on a new computer, sometimes with no possibility of updating drivers.

You either stick to an old compatible computer or dump the fine printer that is forced into obsolescence! Whereas technological growth necessarily comes along with such hiccups, not all we are pushed/persuaded into dumping is due to inevitability.

And, most unfortunate, in the dumping chain, Africa is the final destination for most of the world’s junk produced both from genuine technological elimination and runaway consumerism.

[email protected]

The author heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

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