Well friends, we’ve arrived at the most quintessential of American of holidays — the one that so beautifully reflects our values and progress as a nation.
After spending Thanksgiving, or a portion thereof, being grateful for the abundance we have, millions of us will race out, or to our keyboards, to snatch up yet more: Last year, we spent $6.2 billion online on Black Friday and $7.9 billion on Cyber Monday. Some queued up in the dark to save on televisions and slow cookers. A few got into fights, because bargains. Many got further into debt, because bargains. All trudged home with more stuff to cram into their already-stuffed homes and overflowing self-storage units, because bargains.
Good job, America!
Look, shoppers, I’m not judging you. Or maybe I am, but I’m judging myself too. I’m as big a sucker for a good deal as anybody — especially when it comes to clothes. I don’t leap up from the Thanksgiving table to hit the mall, but I’ve celebrated thousands of my own mini-Black Fridays over the years.
I have two large closets groaning with the fruits of my sale-rack foraging. Some of the clothes therein still have the tags on, testaments to my unfulfilled ambitions, poor judgment, and lack of self-control, including a never-worn, perfect-for-fancy-dinners black dress I bought almost two years and 12 pounds ago.
There is a loaves-and-fishes thing going on behind those doors: No matter how many bags full of garments I donate, the racks bow under the weight of what remains, color-coded and crammed together with as much dignity as Red Line passengers at rush hour.
And don’t get me started on the shoes, which I just counted, and I’m sorry, but the number is too humiliating to share (Let’s just say it’s north of 50 pairs, and leave it at that).
How did I get here? Well, I grew up in a family full of girls that was both struggling financially and obsessed with fashion. The wardrobe that was beyond my reach growing up is now easily amassed, given how much cheaper and more plentiful clothes have become. Knock-offs of edgy designer clothes pop up within weeks of runway shows, and at prices so low that quality and durability seem irrelevant.
In 1930, the average American woman owned nine outfits. Today, the average is 30, which seems low to me and my closets. In 1990, we bought an average of 40 new items of clothing each year, which already seems like a lot. Now it’s about 70 new garments each year — one every five days or so. And we spend a lower share of our income on those clothes now than we did decades ago, because they’re actually cheaper in real terms.
Ah, the hours I’ve devoted to contributing to those massive totals, sifting through the sale racks (real and online) at Banana Republic or Marshalls, patiently amassing arms-full of dresses and shoes, spending long afternoons in fitting rooms scrutinizing every angle, running up obscene totals in increments of $50 or less (I had a hard rule on that).
I did it when I was bored or busy, unhappy or in the mood to celebrate; when I gained weight and lost it; when I had an hour to spare between assignments and on holidays, when I should have been gardening or doing nothing. It was a hobby, and I was really good at it, meeting compliments with boasts about the crazy prices I’d paid. Once, under my expert guidance, one of my sisters emerged from a full-day expedition at Marshalls with 13 dresses. Even I felt a little sick about that.
But slowly, it dawned on me how much my bargains actually cost. I had spent so much time on the hunt over the years, and so many thousands of dollars, I could have used for more important things. I got queasy about all the stuff I had, which was taking up mental and physical space I needed for other things.
We’re not just talking about first-world problems here, however. My $20 dresses had consequences beyond my own closet and finances. Low wages and lousy working conditions made every irresistible, mass-produced, bargain possible. The garment industry accounts for almost 10 percent of the planet’s carbon emissions, and is the second-largest user of its water supply. Microfibers from synthetic fabrics and other pollutants befoul our rivers and oceans. More than 10 million tons of textiles — including unsold and discarded clothing — end up in US landfills each year. It simply is not possible to buy a new, $6 T-shirt without inflicting pain on somebody — and, ultimately, everybody.
And so, a year ago this week, I put myself on a buying ban: I would purchase no clothes, shoes, or accessories for a full year.
I unsubscribed from paper catalogs and e-mail lists. I avoided malls and, in fact, all stores like the plague: no window-shopping, no nothing. I no longer procrastinated by scrolling through page after page of sale items and adding to various wish lists and shopping carts (sadly, I just found other ways to waste the time). I told everybody I could about my sacrificial goal, to make sure falling off the wagon would be good and embarrassing. Some people were supportive. Others were concerned for my sanity.
But I did it. In fact, it was pretty easy — fun, even. For somebody like me (utterly lacking in willpower), resolving not to buy anything at all is easier than trying to cut back. It’s also quite liberating. I feel a jolt of joy whenever the UPS truck drives on by my house without making one of its previously frequent stops. When I don a worn but not-yet-fallen-apart T-shirt, I think, “Victory!”
I must disclose, however, that I was good to my vow, but not perfect. My performance was marred by an $11.36 gift card purchase of Darn Tough socks (All of my other athletic socks had holes in them, and these last forever — not that I’m making an excuse, which I am). Still, it turns out that, with a little practice, even somebody as far gone as me can get out of the habit of mindless consumption, particularly when she has more clothes than she can possibly use in what remains of her lifetime.
Which is why I’ll keep going. My ban might be less absolute from now on, but I still don’t really need anything, or at least not enough to go back into the breach, cyber or otherwise.
At the risk of seeming un-American, I’m done with all of that.Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.