[SCMP Column] Obsessive Addiction

May 27, 2017

I have an embarrassing confession: the average age of the shirts hanging in my wardrobe is around 20 years. I seem to remember a surge of shirt-buying activity in the middle-1990s during the peak of Hong Kong’s flamboyance before the Asia financial markets crashed in 1998. The fact that I had had a particularly successful diet, and needed some clothes that did not sag off me, may have contributed too.

This obviously makes me one of the retail industry’s worst nightmares. It also makes me an odd fellow in Hong Kong, which must surely rank among the world’s epicentres for oniomania. We owe this wonderful word to Emil Kraepelin, the German psychologist who in 1924 first homed in on the problem of people who suffer a compulsive need to buy stuff – in particular to buy clothes. Nowadays it has a more scientific-sounding acronym to describe it – CBD, or compulsive buying disorder.

If there is any word for the opposite of an oniomaniac – what about a nononiomaniac, a word with a wonderful chewability to it – then I am that person. And as I stumbled upon the recent Greenpeace International Fashion Consumption Survey, I felt as virtuous a nononiomaniac as I have felt in a very long time.

The Greenpeace survey covered 5,000 consumers from five economies – Hong Kong, the Mainland, Germany, Italy and Taiwan – and found that Hong Kong is significantly the most shopaholic and wasteful. Their findings were interesting, even though I have a bit of trouble with their definition of a shopaholic – someone who shows “a tendency to spend excessively”, and “has an unhealthy reliance on shopping”. Apparently you can be defined as suffering oniomania if you succumb to shopping expeditions once a week, which strikes me as a tad severe. After all, by that definition, even I am an oniomaniac.

According to Greenpeace, evidently two thirds of Hong Kong consumers say they have more clothes than they need; half have clothes that have never been worn and are still carrying their sales tags; 43 per cent spent more money buying clothes than they can afford.

This irritates Greenpeace campaigners because of the waste. Apparently, it takes 5,000 gallons of water to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans – which means China’s garment-makers discharge over 2.5 billion tonnes of waste water every year. In Hong Kong, they say we send 253 tonnes of textiles to landfills every day – the equivalent of 1,400 T-shirts being thrown out every minute.

This all raises the question of exactly why we have so strong a compulsion to go out there and shop our leisure time away. And we are not just talking about “malling” here - which according to my dictionary involves “going to the mall with a large group of people with no intention of buying anything.” Our average oniomaniac is not a voyeur, and his or her compulsion can knock very a deep hole in a bank account. The problem got worse in the 1960s as credit card use began to spread, and it has exploded on steroids with smartphones and Alipay.

This all goes to illustrate the insidiously seductive powers of the marketing industry, but is also probably a symptom of a deeper, more troubling morbidity. As Polly Young-Eisendrath, professor of psychology at the University of Vermont in the US recently blogged: “Modern consumerism creates desire, but does not satisfy it.”

So far, so predictable, you might say. But as I probed a little deeper, some interesting challenges arose to the stereotypical assumptions I held about oniomania – in particular the chauvinist assumption that this is a feminine vice. It seems true that women do have for unknown reasons an immensely stronger stamina for shopping. A major British poll in 2013 discovered that the average man complains of boredom after just 26 minutes of shopping, whereas women go at least two hours before suffering any sense of shopping fatigue. This means that 80 per cent of men try to avoid shopping with their partner, and that half of all shopping trips end in arguments between partners.

“Men would rather buy a workable product than continue to shop,” a recent Bloomberg study concluded: “Women would rather continue to shop in the hope of finding a perfect solution.

So men spend less time shopping, but Taobao surveys in the Mainland show that they on average spend twice as much. Quite why, we don’t know. The Taobao work offers other fascinating insights. Out of their 500 million signed-up shoppers, the average user makes 538 transactions a year – around 10 a week. Peak shopping activity is between 11.00 at night, and 5.00am in the morning. Taobao boasts more than 1 million shoppers who spend over RMB 50,000 a year – which is dizzying, given that the average Chinese urbanite has just RMB 9,986 in annual disposable income.

All this might throw interesting light on the slump in retail spending in Hong Kong since the end of 2013. Government data shows that retail sales have fallen in 35 of the past 40 months, with March showing the first uptick since February 2014. Clearly there has been pressure on disposable income since the global financial crash of 2008, but the shift to online shopping, and the fall in visits to Hong Kong by Mainland holidaymakers have taken their toll.

Much as Greenpeace would wish it, I think the retail contraction has very little to do with their appeal to be environmentally less wasteful. The average oniomaniac who suffers a “deficiency with spending control or excessive purchases” is unlikely to waste much shopping time worrying about waste water, or failure to recycle old clothes. According to Shopoholics Anonymous, there are at least six drivers: emotional distress; the search for the perfect item; nurturing a “big spender” image; bargain-seeking; shopping bulimia (where shoppers tend to buy, but then return); and collectors.

Sadly, Greenpeace’s appeal is unlikely to reform any of these behaviours, nor to subvert their obsession with “stuff. “The appeal would work for me, but I don’t think they see me and my 20-year-old shirts as part of the problem.
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