Earlier this year, I decided to stop buying leather shoes. This was in part because I’d stopped eating beef for good, and it felt like the right companion thing to do. But I have to admit, what motivated me most powerfully was what for me was the immense relief of reducing possible choices, or as I thought of it, “bounding my consumption universe.”
You see, I really enjoy shoes. My high school yearbook referenced Imelda Marcos and me in the same sentence, and while I’m very far from that now, I still retain a love of interesting (yet practical) footwear. And faced with the bounties of artsy shoes on San Francisco’s Hayes Street, I decided once and for all that having a rule that instantly placed some 95% of the possible options out of bounds would be a relief to both me and my pocketbook.
I’m by no means alone in my longing for a simpler decision space, and I was reminded by this by an NYT piece a couple of days ago. “Shoppers on a ‘Diet’ Tame the Urge to Buy,” describes two Web challenges to go on “clothing diets,” started by women who were tired of the time and money they were spending on deciding what to wear each day.
One, Six Items or Less, asked participants to go for a month wearing only six items (or less) – not including underwear or accessories or sports gear, but definitely including shirts, dresses, trousers, jeans and all of the other staples of the modern wardrobe. The other, the Great American Apparel Diet, asks participants to go for a year without buying any clothing.
2004’s The Paradox of Choice, by American psychologist Barry Schwartz, was one of the first books to popularize the growing understanding that reducing or eliminating consumer choice actually leads to greater happiness. As one participant in the Six Items or Less challenge noted, “Anything that removes complexity or cycles from your day is really valuable. I have freed a lot of bandwidth in my head.”
Now, obviously: this is what the Twitterverse would call a #firstworldproblem. Too many of the 6.6 billion of us sharing this planet don’t have these choices in the first place. Amartya Sen described human development as freedom: freedom to choose how to think and to live.
But this does not mean that “overchoice” – a term I’ve just made up, playing on the trend to talk about “overnutrition” versus “undernutrition”- is not a problem. Quite the contrary – I’m coming to think that “overchoice” and “underchoice” together capture what lies behind two of the most pressing issues of our future as a society: environmental sustainability and inequity.
[To be continued… I’m posting this partially written, as have committed to a dear friend to post whether done or not and she will scold if I do not. Will come back to this – more to say!]