Characteristics of A Consumerist Society

According to Ming Pao, the Friends of the Earth conducted a survey in Hong Kong.  There were two sampling points: Causeway Bay and Wan Chai, which are crowded with shoppers.  A total of 618 citizens aged 15 or over were interviewed.  As such, this is not a survey with full scientific rigor.  Still, let us look at what they found.

Why motivated the Friends of the Earth to conduct this survey?  They had been collecting used clothes from people for some years, and they found that between 5% to 10% of the 'used' clothes still carry their price tags and had therefore never been worn.  In 2003, they collected 2.3 million clothing items, so there were 1 to 2 million 'unused' items.  That seemed to a terrible wasteful thing for people to do, so they ran a survey to study why people are doing this.

According to the survey, the respondents purchase an average of 30 clothing items per year.  Women buy 38 items while men buy 24 items.  The highest purchaser in the sample buys about 20 items per month (or 240 items per year).

Why do people buy clothes?  The most popular reasons were "I liked it", "It looked nice", "I needed something", "It was cheap" and "I did not have enough clothes."

How many people have discarded clothing that they bought but never wore?  44% of the respondent said yes.  The incidence was 77% among women and 23% among men.  The principal reasons are "I didn't like it", "it didn't go well with anything I've got", "wrong size", "I forgot that I ever bought it" and even "I didn't have time to wear it and now it is out of fashion."

A spokesperson for the Friends of the Earth said: "Consumers are affected by trends and advertisements to buy clothes for reasons such as taste, looks and desire, and then they discard them later because they don't like them anymore or have no time.  That is wasteful.  Although 72% of the respondents indicated that they would particpate in local clothing collection drives, it is much more environmentally friendly for the consumers to purchase something after carefully considering their needs instead of giving them away afterwards."

Now I am a statistician who famously does not like aggregate statistics because I can't see or feel what is underneath.  So I am going to append a case study about compulsive spending behavior.

I read about this story in Sing Pao and The Sun on March 18, 2005.

The story is about a 45-year-old woman who worked as a clerk at a secondary school.  She was married in 1982.  In 1996, her husband found a job on mainland China and could only come back to Hong Kong on weekends.  As a result, the couple became alienated and they began to squabble over trivial things.  The woman's method of coping with the psychological stress was ... compulsive shopping!

At the recently completed court trial, the woman has pleaded guilty to 11 counts of fraud and 9 counts of forging documents.  According to the prosecution, between June 1998 and March 2001, the defendant used her husband's name to apply for 16 credit cards and loans from 10 banks, and racked up charges of more than HK$340,000.

Between August and October 2003, the defendant submitted copies of death certificates from Guangzhou No. 2 People's Hospital, Ontario Hospital in Canada or the Birth/Death Registry Office of Hong Kong to establish that her husband had died variously as a result of SARS, a heart attack, pneumonia, meningitis or traffic accident.  One bank received fax copies of these documents, but found them to be suspicious since there were no letterheads or stamps and therefore referred the case to the police for investigation.  On December 1, 2003, the police arrested the defendant at her workplace and found copies of the credit card applications as well as forged death certificates of the husband.  During police interrogation, the defendant admitted to having obtained credit cards under the name of her husband for her own spending.

The husband attended the trial and told the press that he had been hounded at the office with people wanting to know if he was still alive.  He was fortunate that his work performance had been good and the company retained confidence in him.  He declined to say whether that he blames his wife, but he stated to the judge that he would support her and wait for her to come out to be re-united with their family.  At those words, the wife broke down in tears.

At court, the defendant's lawyer asked for leniency from the court, pointing out that the compulsive purchasing of so many useless items was a mental condition for which the defendant had previously sought treatment at the Castle Peak Psychiatric Centre.  Sentencing was postponed as the judge awaits a mental evaluation report.

'Compulsive shopping' is also a less-than-urgent social issue.  From Jeffrey Steele in the Chicago Tribune (11/4/2003):

American society frowns upon many addictions--alcohol, drug and gambling, to name a few--but when it comes to shopping addictions, the same societal disapproval doesn't seem to apply.  "Consumption fuels our economy," said April Lane Benson, a New York-based psychologist and author. It "is considered the smiled-upon addiction. After 9-11, we were told to go out and buy. We were not told to go out and use drugs."

Despite its seeming acceptance, a compulsion to spend and shop can turn just as tragic as other addictions, said Ruth C. Engs, professor of applied health science at Indiana University and a long-time researcher into alcoholism and other addictions.

Engs regularly hears from folks coping with a family member's inability to stop shopping. She relates the story of an older woman whose shopping addiction led to suicide attempts, a divorce and estrangement from her adult children, or the teenage girl who spent more than $12,000 in four months on clothes, then hid the bills from her family.

In her research, Engs has found many similarities between shopping addictions and other compulsive and addictive behaviors.  "They include being obsessed by the object of activity, and engaging in the behavior even though it's causing harm for them and their families," she said. "They compulsively do it even though they don't want to do it, especially when they're mad, sad or glad. It's the old classic woman who goes out to buy a new hat when she's feeling depressed."

Much like those addicted to drugs or alcohol, shopaholics experience withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, depression and loss of control.  They also deny they have a problem, claiming it's normal to have 50 pairs of pants in the closet with sales tags still attached. In addition, some shopaholics suffer blackouts the way alcoholics do, Engs said. They will return home not remembering how much they bought or what's in the shopping bags they carry.

And, as with other addictions, there may be an effort to conceal the problem.  "They'll hide purchases after the spouses have admonished them, because they don't want the spouse to know," Engs said. "Or they'll take the purchases to friends' homes for garage sales."

'Compulsive shopping', which is formally known as oniomania, is not yet included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association.  DSM-IV tells us that the essential feature of impulse-control disorders is "the failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or others."  The manual adds that the individual typically "feels an increasing sense of tension or arousal before committing the act, and then experiences pleasure, gratification or relief at the time of committing the act."  

To be judged a compulsive shopper, you must accumulate a lot of stuff (like clothes) that you don't really need -- and you must know that you don't need them.  So far, that criterion might have included most of the population in Hong Kong.  But it is also required that the shopping be at a level where it impairs your job, or creates serious family problems, or leads to financial distress.  Now you can see why the American Psychiatric Association is reluctant to accept the 'compulsive shopping' disorder because they don't want to also become your job supervisor, family counselor and financial analyst.  Kleptomania (compulsion to steal), pyromania (compulsion to set fires) and trichotillomania (the habit of pulling out one's hair) are included in DSM-IV already because they are easy to determine (did you steal something from the store? did you set fire to the building? where did your hair go?), but 'compulsive shopping' is harder to determine without delving into many other factors.