Why We Buy….

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

2977425354_37f91822aaI’ve read several interesting posts recently on shopping habits and it’s got me thinking about why we buy what we do and how we got there.

In the early 2000s I was a student, and I spent a lot of money on clothes. I was a High Street Honey, not a Designer Diva, but those purchases all add up when it’s going on an overdraft, and credit cards, and straight off your student loan, and, finally, when I worked part time at River Island, on the dreaded Store Card and catalogues.

By the time I graduated meeting those repayments was a real struggle

The final straw was when I finally left a job that was making me truly miserable. Rather than looking for a new job I decided to give self employment a go and started selling vintage and second hand clothes eBay as Retro Chick.

Such a huge drop in income made me drastically review the way I shop, as has an increasing awareness of environmental issues.

I love fashion now, probably more than ever, but I have rediscovered something that I had lost somewhere between my thrifty teens and the conspicuous consumer I became in my early 20s. I have discovered some of the creativity you can apply to fashion and clothing you might otherwise dismiss.

I buy second hand and vintage clothing for a lot of reasons

  • It’s how I make my living.
  • I can’t afford to shop new.
  • I am aware of the environmental and ethical impact of the disposal of unwanted clothing and the production of new clothing.
  • I love that buying “thrifted” items or recycling my own old clothes means I can put together a more unique look than a lot of the identikit High Street clones.

There are probably more that I find harder to put into words.

Each time I shop I balance several things

  • Do I NEED that item or WANT that item?
  • Can I get it cheaper second hand? By looking on eBay for instance.
  • Can I buy more ethically by looking second hand?
  • Could I delay this purchase until I can afford to save up for a better quality or more ethical alternative?

Primarily what influences my purchases is budget. Unfortunately if my shoes are letting in water and I simply can’t afford to buy new ethically produced shoes for £50, and I can’t find what I need second hand or in a sale then I shall go to Primark, or Peacocks, or another low priced retailer.

I can’t deny that style plays a part in my decisions too. I won’t buy ugly shoes just because they’re vintage and therefore better for the environment. What I will do is look more carefully at things. Are they really ugly? Can I adapt them or change them in some way? I’m continually amazed at the difference a well chosen belt can make to a dress I might previously have dismissed.


So, that’s my story.  I know many people don’t shop second hand because they don’t have time for the random aspect. If they need a dress for an event and have 2 hours to shop thrifting might not be an option. Some people opt for vintage because they like the look of a certain era (I personally have a soft spot for 1940s and 50s styles), ecological and ethical considerations don’t even cross their minds when they shop for that special vintage piece.

Back in March I wrote a post on cheap fashion which highlighted that the alternative to working in sweatshops in developing countries was often a lot less appealing and that refusing to buy clothes produced in those countries could see workers ending up in far less savoury conditions.

Balancing ethics and green issues isn’t easy either, an issue highlighted by Ashe Mischief in her post where she discusses the environmental impact of “ethical” vegan bags.

Other issues include the impact on the economy. Only buying from small scale local producers is an option, but large scale production is an essential component of our economy and small businesses that do well often become big businesses. Lush Cosmetics and Innocent Smoothies spring to mind in the UK, so where do you draw that line?

I believe all we can hope for is to achieve some balance in the way we shop, the way we eat, and the way we live.
That we take a little time before we do any of these things to ask ourself if we are making the best choice we can given our personal circumstances and the way the world is at that moment in time.
If we all did this then maybe ultimately we could make the world a better place to live and shop.

What choices do you make when you shop and how do you make your decisions?

Photos courtesy of Simon Pais-Thomas and me and the sysop

22 Responses
  • Ashe Mischief
    August 12, 2009

    I think you & I had very similar shopping patterns in our early 20s. I’m still carrying a lot of debt from post Hurricane K, too, which added a lot as I emotionally shopped (and shopped to rebuild my life).

    I still have to use my credit cards now, because I make so low a wage. But at the same time, I try to be more conscious of what I buy. If I buy a pair of shoes because I “want” them, I wait until they’re on sale, I try to save for them, and I try to buy a nicer quality.

    It’s a really tough place to be in in many ways– 50 years ago, I don’t think there was as much to think about in this regard, because at least in the States, I know much of my parents & grandparents generation made their clothes, owned only a few outfits, etc. It creates a new level of thoughtfulness when shopping, and in many ways, there aren’t any guidelines or people to go to because it is a relatively new problem (new being the past 20 years).
    .-= Ashe Mischief´s last blog ..Quality vs. Vegan/Environmentally Sustainable =-.

  • Retro Chick
    August 12, 2009

    See, they just won’t give me any more credit so in the end the choice was taken away from me. My cards were all maxed out and I couldn’t meet the minimum payments.

    Hurricane K must have been really hard, I was an emotional shopper too, and still am in a way, I often buy small things, even if it’s food!

    Good point about older generations, in the UK it was even more so as in the 40s and 50s new clothes just weren’t available as we were rationed.

    Fashion moves so fast now as well that if you like to follow fashion even a little bit it’s easy to feel disatisfied with things almost before you’ve even bought them!

  • Fi
    August 12, 2009

    This is an excellent post, RC. Over the last few years and the accompanying financial difficulties, I’ve found myself sacrificing my own wardrobe for my growing children (‘s wardrobe) and only buying when it is necessary. I’ve even learnt to sew, *cough* use wundaweb.

    In the 80s and 90s (can you tell how old I am?), I didn’t bat an eyelid at spending half my salary on clothes. If only that were true (or possible) now.

  • imran
    August 13, 2009

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  • lisa
    August 20, 2009

    Very interesting post; I like the balanced approach you took with looking at all sides of the issue and the rationale behind shopping cheap, shopping high-end, and shopping vintage.

    I enjoy shopping but I try not to let it run my life, and like you, I ask myself what I want vs. what I need. As much as I love a new handbag or drool over a pair of shoes, there are so many other things I can enjoy in life–travel, good food, etc. I don’t have a lot of expenses because I still live at home and I make a decent salary at my job, but that doesn’t mean I spend every single paycheque down to the last penny either. I’ve put myself on a savings plan for the last 2.5 years to ensure that years from now I’ll be in a comfortable financial position.
    .-= lisa´s last blog ..Fine Lines =-.

  • MY Fashion Frenzy
    August 20, 2009

    Love the credit card in-the-mouth photo. Ha
    .-= MY Fashion Frenzy´s last blog ..Betsey Johnson Speaks About the ‘Retiring’ Rumors =-.

  • Retro Chick
    August 21, 2009

    Lisa – That sounds very sensible, I wish I’d been like that eariler when I had the chance. I think there’s a lot of pressure on people now to have the latest things all the time and buy them cheap.

    My Fashion Frenzy – Me too 🙂

  • Annie
    September 14, 2009

    I think one of the most difficult things to do is to decide where to draw the line because our economic system is so opaque. If we had a more transparent system, one that identified, for example, the amount of energy it takes to make a dress and ship it to the store, or what exactly the materials are and how they impact our environment and our personal health, we’d be able to make more informed decision. For example, lots of faux leather belts, shoes and bags are made using PVC – polyvinyl chloride – a plastic that off-gasses really nasty chemicals that are a danger to human and animal health, doesn’t biodegrade and can’t easily be recycled. Since I learned of this, I try not to buy faux things make with that material but it’s not always labeled. I think it’s hard for us to make the “right” decision when it takes so much time and energy to figure it out. If we made our systems transparent, we could make those decisions more easily.