Vol 8, Num 3 :: 2009.01.30 — 2009.02.13
They start the moment I walk in the door. “You!” they call, “Yeah, you! What are you wearing? When did you get those jeans? 1992? First, your body is just the wrong shape, and second, let’s be honest, you’re ugly.”
The voices have been laying in wait for just such an opportunity. As I make my way from anchor store to anchor store, they size me up, find that place where I am most vulnerable and attack. Sometimes they shout, but other times they quietly taunt their gleeful seductions.
“Ah, hello there. Come on in, we can give you a little help with that. We all know you’re only as good as the sum of your parts, and we have something here to fix each one. Besides, there’s a sale-the more you spend the more you save! Isn’t that what plastic is for? You work hard, you deserve it!”
Every time I enter a shopping mall I find myself face to face with an embodiment of the empire, and it’s not a pleasant experience. Although it may speak with a loud voice at the mall, the empire of mindless consumerism, heartless capitalism and planned obsolescence permeates the world around us. This empire steals our collective imagination, hands us impossible ideals and turns our focus inward. The empire twists truth and jumbles our priorities until we find that we mold our methods and principles to the market’s demands instead of creating a market that conforms to ours. When we find ourselves co-opted by the empire, we become so preoccupied by our own superficialities that we not only forget the needs of those around us, but miss the deeper needs inside ourselves as well. The empire keeps us distracted from a true life-to-the-full so that we remain pliable to its whims and available to feed its voracious appetite.
There are countless ways to subvert this empire, and I know people who make a point to live as distant from it as possible. These folks sometimes find vocations in art, organic farming or new monasticism; others simply end up homeless. Regardless of exactly how they live, those who choose alternative lifestyles find ways to shine light into the shadow the empire has cast over the rest of us. While I live a life that looks rather average, I too find my own little ways to stand against the empire. One of my favorite forms of subversion is thrift store shopping. When I shop secondhand, I take back my imagination and put it to better use. I imagine a new way to shop and a new way to look at myself. I adopt a new ideal of sustainability, and I dream up a new kind of capitalism that is compassionate and serves human need.
I was introduced to thrift store shopping by my sister, a creative and subversive spirit whose lifestyle proclaims, “Damn the man.” She taught me the cardinal rules of buying clothes at the thrift shop, without which no amateur can persevere, and she helped me imagine a whole new way to shop. The first thing my sister encouraged me to do was to open my imagination. She combines creativity with true skill and can convert a t-shirt into a skirt or an oversized sweater into a cute little cardigan with a couple of hours at the sewing machine. My creativity pales in comparison, but suits my style just as well. At the thrift shop there are no marketers trying to make me hate my body enough to buy their product, and there are certainly no clever displays proclaiming the superiority of the latest trends. As I wander through the aisles, I find that I am content with myself and am also freed from the need to place judgment on those around me.
My sister also taught me to grab anything with a gleam of potential and give it a shot. For every ten things I try on four might fit and two are actually worth looking at a second time. Shopping at the thrift store rewards patience and diligence, two other things it is easy lose practice at in our society. The experience often feels a bit like a treasure hunt: I follow the clues, weed through the false leads and find the one shirt I was meant to have. My sister has named this experience as well; it’s called “the destiny theory.” If it is meant to be, that perfect party dress will find you, if not today then surely the next time you’re in.
When I make secondhand shopping a way of life I not only imagine a whole new way to shop, but I champion sustainability as a primary virtue. Although I work full time, I do not make enough money to both pay full price for all of my material needs and eat three balanced meals a day. I could capitulate to the claims of the credit card companies and finance my life on plastic, but instead I choose something more rewarding-a life that is both financially and environmentally sustainable. When I buy pre-owned goods I subvert the empire that thrives on overactive materialism and reject the cycle of planned obsolescence that demands I always buy the latest and greatest. When I’m done with something old I donate it and when I need something new I buy it recycled. I simultaneously conserve natural resources and the limited funds in my savings account.
A trip to the thrift store requires an imaginative approach to shopping and living sustainably, but it also helps me imagine a kind of capitalism I find acceptable. As an American citizen of the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to escape the fact that my comfortable lifestyle depends on the exploitation of cheap labor somewhere around the world. There are people who persuasively argue that these labor practices are simply unconscionable, while others proclaim that sweatshops are a necessary precursor to any form of economic development. I have not yet figured out how to reconcile these divergent voices that vie for my allegiance. However, I continue to hope for an alternative form of capitalism that gives the compassionate consumer as much power over the economy as the unfeeling, mechanical hand of the market. Buying fair trade is one way to live towards a human-centered capitalism and shopping at the thrift store is another.
When I buy fair trade I know that my money supports a living wage for the person who produced the good. In a similar way, when I buy clothes or a desk lamp at a shop like Goodwill I get something I need but I also support an organization that works for the good of the community. These organizations operate a capitalism seeded with compassion and their practices make room for mercy within the marketplace. I can spend money at these stores knowing my purchase helps provide a job for someone who needs a second chance rather than supporting the continued use of sweatshop labor. Whether I buy fair trade or secondhand I use my purchasing power to vote for a sustainable, life giving form of capitalism and do my best to accept responsibility for my place in the global neighborhood.
There are times when attempting to buy secondhand is less than convenient. I can spend three hours looking for a few good sweaters or wait several months before the right winter coat comes along. Sometimes I end up with a lamp that is decades old and obviously hand painted. But the satisfaction I feel while walking out of the thrift store with purchase in hand far outweighs any inconvenience or slight compromise I make in the process. I may not consider all of the reasons for my sense of peace every time I shop, but somewhere in my soul I know that I am just a little more free. I’ve found both a sustainable way to shop and a conscientious form of commerce that enhances dignity all along the economic chain. As I clear my mind from the clutter of the superficial I find I have more mental space to consider all of the things that truly matter. My individual stand may not take down the empire, but it loosens the hold the empire has on me. It is only as we each embrace a new liberated ethos that we create a collective culture of freedom that strengths us each to step out from the shadow of the empire.