• Kalila Welch

How three months of lockdown turned me into capitalism’s handmaiden

If you asked me about my shopping habits 3 months ago, before Sydney spiralled into over 100 days of lockdown, I would have proudly declared that I buy most things second hand. I tried to avoid fast fashion as much as possible, sustainability was paramount. My moral high horse could be attributed to more than a just a conscious choice to be mindful of the environment: I’ve always hated spending money. However, being sustainable, especially when it came to fashion, was a big part of my identity, as I know it is for many who have grown up in the age of climate crisis.

It’s not to say I was completely immune from the constant gratifying cycle of consumerism that has evolved under late-stage capitalism; trips to the op shop were an almost weekly ritual. But, for most of my adult life, I’ve managed be disciplined when it came to buying things new. That is, until now.

For me, and many people I know, online shopping became the short-lived cure to an endless lockdown rut over the past few months. Hitting ‘checkout’ on a cartful of clothes I had nowhere to wear became a regular fixture of lockdown life and a well needed supply of dopamine when I was feeling sad. Online stores were quick to take advantage of our depravation as well, meeting our need for instant gratification with lockdown themed sales and discount codes. ‘Iconic has 40% off!’, one of my housemates would gleefully announce, as though the site hadn’t spent most of the last two months sucking us into sales promotions that ran so consistently each of us had sworn never to buy something full price again.

With little else to spend money on, online shopping felt justified. Just a little treat to ease the effects of an unnatural period of social isolation. Purchase decisions that may normally contradict my sense of environmentalism could be compartmentalised as a lockdown indulgence, a habit that could easily be cut when things returned to normal. For me, the financial and ethical cost of the excitement, anticipation, and momentary relief of a new package being delivered to my apartment was worthwhile, and surely nothing compared to what I would usually spend?

It was easy for small (and sometimes bigger) purchases to add up, as they always do. In a masochistic attempt to tally the cost of the new lockdown shopping habits my housemates and I had developed this became abundantly clear. We came to a household total of $6493.66. The guidelines for what constituted a lockdown purchase were as follows: it had to be something we would not have normally purchased, food and alcohol didn’t count and gifts for others were also excluded. $6493.66. Our personal expenditures ranged from $1519 - $2754. The latter figure, sadly, belonging to me.

I can’t remember any other situation, besides maybe moving house, in which I would have spent so much on material things in such a short span of time. Admittedly, I did upgrade my phone during this time, which was something I had planned to do this year, but I have no doubt that the prospect of my phone being my only real link to people outside of my home increased the urgency. Other items that contributed to my overspending included clothes mostly, as well as craft supplies and nearly $400 dollars’ worth of linen sheets.

The effects of lockdown on our online shopping habits are pervasive. In the first few weeks of the 2021 lockdown in Sydney, Australia Post reported a 36% increase in online shopping compared to the previous year. Lockdown seems to make for the perfect opportunity for our growing online retailers to reinforce the firm grasp of capitalism. Even as NSW transitions back into a post 70% kind of normality the push for consumerism is relentless, with ‘SAVE 30% ON LOCKDOWN STYLES’ replaced with ‘SPEND $50 SAVE 25% ON FREEDOM SUMMER’ promotions that play on our desire to prove something to ourselves and others as we trickle back into our social circles after a 3-month hiatus. With the fashion industry estimated to account for at least 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions (IPCC), there is a growing push for fast fashion giants to change their ways. However, for an industry that profits off of the dehumanisation and exploitation of factory workers, unethical practice is unlikely to change without policy that demands responsibility and transparency.

As my life slowly starts to fill back up with the things and people that make me happy, I’m hoping that my frenzied online shopping habits can become a thing of the past. But I’m also trying not to be too hard on myself. As much as a growing cohort of young people want to avoid fast fashion, it’s important to remember that it’s not just up to consumers to make choices that prioritise the environment.