THE FACT OF THE MATTER
Back in the early Noughties on one of my trips to Africa I came across a book by the writer Christopher Hope, known for his controversial works dealing with racism and politics in his native South Africa.
My Mother’s Lovers was the first of his novels I read. It chronicles Hope’s early childhood being raised by his mother, an intelligent but eccentric woman who had her own pilot’s licence and would often take off — leaving him with neighbours — for days on end in her small Cessna, travelling the continent, collecting ‘lost causes’ and photographing them into the bargain.
The book takes on a sinister twist when Hope’s mother returns one day with two pygmies in tow from the rainforests of Central Africa, who promptly take up residence in the boy’s back garden. Of course, the book, like all Hope’s novels, is ladened with political undertones.
Hope immediately became my new favourite author. When later I attempted to track down his back catalogue, I found his earlier works — despite him being awarded the Whitbread Prize and shortlisted for the Booker in 1992 — were out of print.
But I persevered and eventually found second-hand copies of his works in a bookshop in south Boston. I’ll never forget the thrill of tracking the package from dispatch to arrival and the adrenaline rush of ripping open the box, over-sized for the accompanying goods.
Those books were my first venture into online shopping. It would be some years before I was to take to it full-time. And that, like for so many, was the coming of the pandemic. Stores were closed so, if you wanted new socks or whatever, then online was your only option. With a ‘lockdown’ subscription to the streaming service Amazon Prime Video, not only had I access to thousands of movies and TV shows but also free packaging and post for most of the tons of items sold by the giant online warehouse.
Three years later I’m addicted to online shopping. I have more socks, T-shirts, hoodies and man-bags than I could ever humanly need and more shoes than Imelda Marcos ever had — and she was a shoe fetishist! More gadgets and gizmos and lithium-powered flashlights that any reasonable human could have need for. I mean some of this accumulated ‘stuff’ has not even come out of the packaging and I am literally running out of space in which to house my rapidly growing collection.
I am not alone with this addiction.
Says my psychologist friend from Magherafelt: “Online shopping addiction is very real. Like any cyber addiction, it feels anonymous. It does not require any face-face interaction. And, because it is anonymous, people with social anxiety are particularly vulnerable to this addiction.”
Well, excuse me my friend, but I am far from someone with social anxiety — though, I guess I’ve always had an addictive personality.
Still, I cannot deny I have a problem — of sorts. And the kernel of my addiction is that, with all the stuff I buy online and, pertinently, all that cardboard packaging, I am completely remiss in doing my bit for a greener planet. A total of 26 percent of all goods purchased are now done online. ‘Bracketing’ — the act of buying products with the intention of sending them back — has become so common that around 30-40 percent of all goods bought online in Ireland and the UK are returned, according to environmental agencies. Not only is this wasteful — less than half of returned items go back on sale — but these clothes and goods enter a ‘reverse supply chain’ that emits even more carbon into the atmosphere.
Putting goods back on the shelves to be sold again doesn’t make economic sense for the retailers. And so they go in to landfills, along with the plastic wrapping and bubble-wrap.
You’ve ordered a new pair of shoes online. They arrive; you rush to the front door and cradle the box as you lift the lid. You untie the laces, guide them toward your feet and… bummer, they don’t fit. Each year, five billion pounds of waste is generated globally through returns.
However, with me, if the item does not suit or is the wrong size, I couldn’t be bothered with the effort of returning it. And such unnecessary, unwanted goods go into the black bin, which in turn… yep, that landfill.
I desperately need to talk to my psychologist friend from Magherafelt. I will, as soon as I’ve hit that checkout button…