‘We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things’
How online shopping and cheap prices are turning Americans into hoarders
It’s easier than ever to buy things online. It’s so easy that Ryan Cassata sometimes does it in his sleep. Cassata, a 24-year-old singer-songwriter and actor from Los Angeles, recently got a notification from Amazon that a package had been shipped to his apartment, but he didn’t remember buying anything. When he logged onto his account and saw that a fanny pack and some socks were on the way, he remembered: A few nights back, he had woken up in the middle of the night to browse—and apparently shop on—Amazon.
He shops when he’s awake, too, buying little gadgets like an onion chopper, discounted staples like a 240-pack of gum, and decorations like a Himalayan salt lamp. The other day, he almost bought a pizza pool float, until he remembered that he doesn’t have a pool. “I don’t really need most of the stuff,” he tells me.
Thanks to a perfect storm of factors, Americans are amassing a lot of stuff. Before the advent of the internet, we had to set aside time to go browse the aisles of a physical store, which was only open a certain number of hours a day. Now, we can shop from anywhere, anytime—while we’re at work, or exercising, or even sleeping. We can tell Alexa we need new underwear, and in a few days, it will arrive on our doorstep. And because of the globalization of manufacturing, that underwear is cheaper than ever before—so cheap that we add it to our online shopping carts without a second thought. “There’s no reason not to shop—because clothing is so cheap, you feel like, ‘Why not?’ There’s nothing lost in terms of the hit on your bank account,” Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, told me.
Shopping online also feels good. Humans get a dopamine hit from buying stuff, according to research by Ann-Christine Duhaime, a professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School. “As a general rule, your brain tweaks you to want more, more, more—indeed, more than those around you—both of ‘stuff’ and of stimulation and novelty —because that helped you survive in the distant past of brain evolution,” Duhaime wrote in a Harvard Business Review essay last year. Online shopping allows us to get that dopamine hit, and then also experience delayed gratification when the order arrives a few days later, which may make it more physiologically rewarding than shopping in stores.
Sites like Amazon have made it especially easy to shop. In 1999, the Seattle retailer patented a one-click buying process, which allows customers to purchase something without entering their shipping address or credit-card info. It launched its Prime program in 2005, and now more than 100 million people have signed on to pay $119 a year for “free” two-day shipping. As a result, most other major retailers offer free shipping, too. Returning stuff is a little more difficult—shoppers usually have to print a label and then go to the post office or a UPS or FedEx site to return packages. Many wait too long, or decide the hassle isn’t worth it because the stuff was cheap anyway. A recent NPR/Marist poll found that nine in 10 consumers rarely or never return stuff they’ve bought online.
Justine Montoya, a caregiver in Los Angeles, buys all sorts of stuff online—baby formula, clothes, household goods. She estimates that she shops online twice a week. “It’s just so easy—you click a button, and it’s on its way,” she told me.
In the past few months alone, I bought an $18 smart watch from wish.com that I will probably never use, a second Kindle because it was on sale and I am worried my first Kindle is going to die soon, an electric space heater I no longer need, and a pair of wireless earbuds that I had hoped would allow me to charge my iPhone and listen to music at the same time, but that instead just fall out of my ears whenever I put them on. I also bought, on Amazon, a (used) book about hiking in the Sierras for $1.99, only to find the exact same book in a box of my stuff in my parents’ basement. I didn’t return any of it.
In 2017, Americans spent $240 billion—twice as much as they’d spent in 2002—on goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, and telephones and related communication equipment, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which adjusted those numbers for inflation. Over that time, the population grew just 13 percent. Spending on personal care products also doubled over that time period. Americans spent, on average, $971.87 on clothes last year, buying nearly 66 garments, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. That’s 20 percent more money than they spent in 2000. The average American bought 7.4 pairs of shoes last year, up from 6.6 pairs in 2000.
All told, “we are all accumulating mountains of things,” said Mark A. Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He sometimes asks his students to count the number of things they have on them in class, and once they start counting up gadgets and cords and accessories, they end up near 50. “Americans have become a society of hoarders,” Cohen said. Montoya said she has more stuff now that she has started shopping online: “It’s easier to accumulate more, and it’s easier to spend more.”
At the same time we are amassing all this stuff, Americans are taking up more space. Last year, the average size of a single-family house in America was 2,426 square feet, a 23 percent increase in size from two decades ago, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. The number of self-storage units is rapidly increasing, too: There are around 52,000 such facilities nationally; two decades ago, there were half that number.
Of course, not everyone is a part of this hoarding revolution. There are people who can’t or don’t shop online, because they don’t have credit cards or because they are barely making ends meet. Only about 29 percent of households with incomes under $25,000 are members of Amazon Prime, according to Kantar Consulting. Some people are embracing the zero-waste movement, or have followed the example of the author Ann Patchett, who published a widely circulated op-ed in The New York Times about how she resolved to stop shopping for a year. When she ceased buying things like lip gloss and lotion and hair products, she started finding half-used versions of them under the sink, and realized she hadn’t needed new things after all. “The things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass,” she wrote. “We can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss life’s details.”
But most Americans are not curtailing their shopping habits. And as consumers demand cheaper clothing, electronics, and other goods, manufacturers are spending less to make them, which sometimes means they fall apart more quickly. The share of large household appliances that had to be replaced within five years grew to 13 percent in 2013, up from 7 percent in 2004. Cheap clothes might lose their shape after a wash or two, or get holes after a few tumbles in the dryer; electronics become obsolete quickly and need to be replaced. While some of this stuff can be recycled or resold, often it ends up in landfills. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, Americans put 16 million tons of textiles in the municipal waste stream, a 68 percent increase from 2000. We tossed 34.5 million tons of plastics, a 35 percent increase from 2000, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Over that same time period, the population grew just 14 percent.
“Sometimes, people sit down and cry when they see the amount of garbage we produce in a day,” said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology, which handles recycling for West Coast cities like San Francisco. Centered in America’s tech capital, Recology has seen an increase in discarded electronics, including products with lithium batteries, Reed told me. In 2016, a lithium-battery fire burned down a waste-management facility in San Mateo.
The 16,000 students who live in dorms at Michigan State University left behind 147,946 pounds of goods like clothing, towels, and appliances when they moved out this year, a 40 percent increase from 2016, according to Kat Cooper, a spokeswoman. The university packs up these goods and donates to them to its surplus store, so that incoming students can buy used, rather than new, stuff. In recent years, dorm cleaners have been finding so many packages of unopened food and toiletries that the university started a program to get students to donate leftover food and toiletries to local organizations like food banks when they move out. This year, it collected 900 pounds of personal-care items and 4,000 pounds of nonperishable food items to donate. Pomona College has seen the volume of packages delivered grow by 325 percent in the past 12 years, according to Patricia Vest, a spokeswoman; it, too, asks students to donate unused goods to a resale program. This year, it diverted 42 tons of clothes, furniture, and office supplies.
The internet has also made it easier to recycle some of the stuff Americans buy and no longer want. Online consignment shops like thredUP and Poshmark help people buy and sell clothes from their closets. Secondhand stores like Goodwill have moved online, too, selling the growing pile of goods they get on the internet.
But the ability to easily get rid of stuff may be making people feel a little better about buying things they don’t need, and motivating them to buy even more. On a recent weekday, I stopped by the massive warehouse where workers from the Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin sort donations to Bay Area stores. Some of the stuff that’s been donated has never been used. Near the front of the warehouse stands a rack of clothes with their original tags on—a $245 blue Nicole Miller cocktail dress, $88 Kit and Ace pants, a pale green J. Jill blouse. “We are seeing items that have been barely used or not used, because when people shop online, it’s a lot of work to return it,” William Rogers, the president of the Goodwill, told me. Rogers himself is guilty—when we met at the warehouse, he dropped off four wall sconces he’d bought a year ago on Amazon. He had tried to put them up, decided they didn’t look good, and brought them to donate.
Secondhand shops can’t resell all of the donations they get. Cline estimates that 85 percent of the clothing that is donated to secondhand stores ends up in landfills every year. Just 9 percent of plastic that ends up in the municipal-waste stream gets recycled, according to the EPA, and only 15 percent of textiles get recycled. It can be difficult to take apart clothes and reuse the fabrics, Cline said, so lots of clothing in the waste stream gets sent to the developing world, used for rags, or sent to a landfill.
Fifty years ago, the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick coined a phrase for these “useless objects” that accumulate in a house: “kipple.” In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which served as the basis for the movie Blade Runner, he theorized that “the entire universe is moving toward a state of total, absolute kippleization.” Kipple reproduced, Dick wrote, when nobody was around. The ubiquity of mobile devices and the ease of online shopping have made Dick’s prediction come true, with one small tweak: Our kipple does not just multiply on its own, every time we turn away. We grow it ourselves, buying more and more of it, because we can.