The Problem With Online Shopping

Public Domain. MaxPixel

Our brains can't handle it.

Did you know that online shopping is more exciting for the human brain than shopping in person? You get a double dopamine hit from ordering an item and then opening it upon arrival. So there's even a biological explanation for the shopping mania that has overtaken American society.

That does not mean it's OK. As Alana Semuels explains in a new animated video for The Atlantic (embedded below), the situation is quite dire. Consumption has reached an all-time high in the United States. In 2017, people spent $240 billion on random stuff like clothes, shoes, phones, books, and toys – double what was spent in 2002, despite the population growing by only 13 percent.

People spend 20 percent more on clothes now than they did in 2000, buying 66 new garments on average per year. More is being spent on electronics, which is interesting because electronics are cheaper than they used to be. Semuels says, "So, the dollar amount that we're spending is going up, even though the cost of things is going down."

Other factors (not mentioned in the video) are at play, too. Social media drives young people, in particular, to acquire numerous outfits; there's an unfortunate stigma associated with appearing in the same outfit, hence the rise in a valuable counter-movement, to be a proud #outfitrepeater.

Free shipping and express overnight delivery add to the frenzy, encouraging shoppers to buy things they might not otherwise choose. Lloyd has written about how this creates more pollution, when trucks aren't filled to capacity before being sent out, and leads to more congestion on city streets and bike lanes being blocked.

It's a vicious cycle. When stuff is too easy to get, it accumulates in homes, creating physical clutter that contributes to mental stress and a sense of overwhelm. Many people don't know how to get rid of it. I was surprised to learn that 9 out of 10 people reports rarely returning items they've purchased online, even when they don't fit or work. This is because the items are so cheap, it hardly seems worth spending five minutes printing up a return label.

There are enough wardrobe purges going on, though, for it to add up. Every person throws away around 81 pounds of textiles annually, which Semuels says is five times more than in 1980. And yet, the expectation that stuff be dirt-cheap persists. Manufacturers cut corners, create unsafe working conditions, and churn out poorly-made products that lose their shape after a few wears.

It doesn't have to be this way. Clothes and household goods could be redesigned to have multiple uses, to be recycled or reprocessed into their original materials, and turned into something new again. But the impetus for such revolutionary change must come from customers demanding it. That requires us not to settle for online-shopping-fueled dopamine hits and to consider our purchases in greater depth.

I'm a fan of shopping in stores because it supports local business owners and allows me to try things on, have a close examination of an item before deciding to invest in it, and buy package-free.

It's time to rethink our approach to shopping, for the sake of our closets, our mental health, our wallets, and, of course, the environment. Watch the full video below: