Ecofeminism, Subsistence Living & Nature Awareness

August 2, 2010

Are We Trapped in Recreational Shopping?

Filed under: Ecofeminism,Economics,Subsistence Living — Paula Mariedaughter @ 6:43 am

This huge bale, or mitumba, of fabric heading out of sight

I shop for treasures in unlikely spots. I enjoy my time browsing through thrift shops and flea markets. As a lifelong admirer of quality fabric, textiles are a weakness for me. I can almost always think of a possible use for an attractive piece of cotton or silk. As a quilter, the range of possible uses for a particular pleasing textile is unlimited. I love fabric—whether it is a richly colored teeshirt, a vibrant plaid, a large scale floral or a swirling batik, I want it in my life! Imagine my shock when I arrived at the parking lot of the local salvation army and saw tons of fabric compressed like junk into two huge bales. Each bale was as large as a railroad car! At first I did not know what I was looking at: it seemed to be new wall beyond the building. I looked closer and grabbed my camera because it was an unbelievable sight. When you look at the pictures I took that day, you will see the fluttering corners of hundreds of white plastic bags among the flattened clothes. I experienced it as a chilling, unworldly sight.

As a regular shopper here, I had never seen such a sight. When I inquired inside, I was told that they ship several bales this size every week. They send it “overseas”. The worker explained that most of the clothes they receive as donations will not be purchased, so they move it on as quickly as possible. In a recent book, Fred Pearce wrote, “On average, each of us buys around 75 pounds of textiles a year. We eventually throw about 65 pounds of that into the landfills and hand over about 10 pounds to charities….” It seems that most of those charities bale up most of their donations and many sell the bales to raise money for their other projects. Often the bales are sold to importers in African nations who then sell the individual items to poor people for a profit (emphasis mine). “In Tanzania, they call old shorts and shirts and skirts and socks mitumba, meaning a bale. That’s how the clothes come, in bales unloaded from shipping containers at the Dar es Salaam dock.” Mitumba is big business in Tanzania where most of the ordinary people wear the Western world’s cast-off clothes. This invisible connection to the consuming lifestyle of most Americans has been traced by Fred Pearce in Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff. The author offers you an extensive research on the life of stuff once it leaves your hands.


Closeup of the bale with all the flapping plastic bags

Compulsive consuming often involves “recreational shopping”. Recreational shopping was a central part of my girlhood and family life in the 1950s and 1960s. What is recreational shopping? The easy definition I use describes recreational shopping as something to do when you are feeling down, something to do to celebrate an occasion, and something to do if you are just bored and want to get out of the house. Shopping becomes central to existence.

I noticed this recreational shopping phenomenon in my own life only after I became actively involved with the Women’s Liberation Union in Kansas City, MO in the early 1970s. There I learned about the power of capitalism to dominate the lives of us ordinary people. At the same time my mother had been divorced by my father and was struggling financially. She observed, “You can’t go out of the house without spending money!” She was experiencing the limitations of her reduced income, and noticing a phenomenon she had not seen before in her own life. These were the early days of consumerism—credit card use was not yet wide spread. Today we are now consumers rather than citizens or neighbors. We live in markets, not cities or towns. Have you even noticed this change in terminology in the media?

My values and consciousness were changing as I examined many parts of my life. My good friend Kate Kasten wrote a guide to the thrift shops in the Kansas City area in the mid-1970s. We enjoyed searching for “finds” and “necessities” along Main Street’s bargain spots. When each of us purchased vintage houses in downtown KC we shopped for furniture and appliances with a past life. It was great fun for me to search for items that caught my eye and pleased my sensibilities. I was not buying what was being promoted at the furniture and department stores. Often I bought better quality than was available new! I furnished my 1888 Queen Anne Victorian house with style!

Thirty-five years later I still get a thrill looking for unique items at thrift stores and flea markets. Fashion is irrelevant to my life. Quality fabrics and well made furniture and tools draw my attention. I do enjoy shopping, but I avoid any, and every big-box store. The majority of my clothes are treasures I’ve found at thrift shops. One of the advantages of shopping where clothes cost five dollars or less is the freedom to not wear something uncomfortable. One cannot always tell how comfortable a particular item will be until worn in real life. If it doesn’t work out, I can wash it and redonate it to the thrift shop. Many of us have a few things in our closet that have become our favored outfits because we feel good when we are wearing them.


Paula is outfitted in her second-hand clothes and feeling good.

Here is my favorite outfit. The picture was taken as I stood by the special exhibit I pulled together for our quilt guild’s 2009 quilt show. The blue knit shirt, the cotton slacks and the black and white ikat unlined jacket all came from thrift shops. I have worn the slacks, shirt and the jacket regularly for at least the last eight years. They will not be donated to a thrift shop any time soon. Shoes, underclothes and well-fitting pants are items I generally purchase new. I choose carefully and expect each to last a long time. I stopped wearing fashionable women’s shoes in the 1970s because of the long-term damage such footwear does to women’s feet. At the time I worked as a flight attendant for TWA. The airline required me to carry the doctor’s letter declaring I needed to wear the low heeled, lace-up leather shoes for health reasons. My flying partners sometimes couldn’t resist making comments like, “Those shoes look (long pause) comfortable.” We worked long hours and walked many miles, but fashion trapped many of my women coworkers in uncomfortable shoes.

How did I make drastic changes in my life? Radical means “finding the root” and I was part of a movement of women who looked for the roots of sexism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, colonialism and capitalism. We read, talked, argued, laughed and grew together. I consciously chose to limit my exposure to advertising and to the content of television after reading Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, I gave away my second hand tv in 1974 and I’ve never missed it. Fads, fashion, celebrity gossip, and catchy commercials are not part of my life. However, I still am a consumer on many levels: driving a car, using a telephone, buying food at the farmer’s market or at our local food coop. All these require my participation in the capitalist economy.

Yet, I have successfully limited my participation emotionally and financially in our consumer society. Adrienne Rich clarified my efforts when she wrote, “The most valuable educational experience a woman can have is one which teaches her to identify and analyze—and resist—the conditions in which she lives, the morality she has been taught, the false images of herself received from high art as well as cheap pornography, classic poetry as well as TV commercials.” This is my ongoing effort: to identify and analyze oppression and injustice and to resist. Often I turn to the garden for renewal.


  1. This is so true! And to me it was easier to see in my sister then myself. I watched her trying to be a good sister-in-law when she married, by joining in the family shopping excursions and bringing home stuff she had no use for. I also remember watching when she started recovering. She had to figure out how to relate to all 10 sisters-in-law on a different level. It’s a big family. They survived it though.

    Comment by Gladys — August 17, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  2. Wow! I feel bad knowing I donate to places who are just baling my nice clothing to ship into another country and destroy their local textile/clothing industries…very good reason to not buy so much in the first place!
    I was “recreational shopping” today….just reading books at a chain book store, but not buying, which of course is not very ethical.[ a fellow “customer” fell asleep and was actually snoring in his cushy chair there!] If no one buys, the store can’t stay there as an escape for me from the heat and fumes of the house which was being painted….just mulling things over here,,,hmmm. To buy or not to buy????
    I wrote a post about the book I almost bought!
    I did purchase 2 sets of bamboo wind chimes from a garden center and 2 tops from Goodwill Industries. I love wearing the thrift store clothes too!

    Comment by Lila — August 18, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

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