Will seventy-five choices of shampoo make us happier or simply less satisfied with the product we do choose and more likely to junk up the planet as we sample the offerings? Take a look at the following photo and consider its ramifications.
How do we end up with shelf after shelf of individual sample sized shampoos and lotions and deodorants and toothpastes and shave gels and conditioners and sunscreens, all in their little plastic bottles and tubes? Is it about having too much choice? Or is it really the illusion of choice?
The Spaghetti Sauce Talk
In his famous spaghetti sauce TED talk, Malcolm Gladwell extolls the achievement of Howard Moskowitz who helped Prego, the spaghetti sauce company, realize that there was not just one perfect spaghetti sauce type to aspire to but that consumers wanted to be able to choose what kind of sauce they felt like eating. Basically smooth vs. chunky. Now, thanks to his work, you can go to the grocery store and choose among a hundred different kinds of spaghetti sauce.
But does having more choices of spaghetti sauce really make us happier?
Too Many Choices
A few years ago, Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice in which he argues that for those of us in industrial societies with material affluence, having too many choices actually makes us less happy. And here is his TED talk:
Schwartz’s conclusion is that having too many choices can either paralyze us into inaction or can make us less happy about the choices we do make because there are so many other choices we didn’t make. What if one of those others was the better choice?
It looks to me like marketers are on to this idea. No, they don’t want to stop giving us so many choices. Instead, they want to convince us that theirs is the best choice, and in an effort to get us to try their product without feeling we’ve made too much of a commitment, they offer us the sample size. Instead of buying one bottle and wishing we had bought something else, we can buy sample sizes of both. So what if we’re producing even more plastic waste by purchasing many small bottles rather than just one large one? Planet be damned.
People ask me all the time if I miss being able to buy anything I want. Not buying products in plastic means that my choices are not just significantly limited but almost non-existent. How many choices of shampoo do I have? (A few shampoo bars and a No’Poo method that causes a lot of eyebrow raising.) How many choices of cat litter do I have? One. Swheatscoop. [2016 Update: Today, my only choice is Integrity cat litter. Swheatscoop switched to a plastic bag.] How many choices of toothpaste or ketchup or pasta? My choices are edited automatically because I’m just looking for the one with the least plastic.
While shopping yesterday, I stood and looked at shelf after shelf of salad dressing. So many different kinds. And yet none of them came without a plastic seal around the neck. And since salad dressing is not a necessary food, I just didn’t buy any. Simple. And better. Because having fewer choices means I’m not standing and agonizing over which one I would like best. I can move on.
Whose Fault is It?
So in that sense, I believe Schwartz is right. Having fewer choices of products to buy means that I can get on with what’s more important in my life. But then Scwartz goes on to say something I disagree with fundamentally, and it’s this: When there’s only one choice, you can tell yourself that the world is responsible for your decision because it didn’t give you any choice. When there are hundreds of choices, you feel that you are responsible because you could have made a better choice.
I disagree with that premise because I reject the notion that I have to choose from the menu I’m given in the first place. My choices are not chunky vs. smooth. My choice is neither. Or making my own. Or writing to the company and asking for what I want. Or starting a consumer action campaign. Or taking a walk. I think that feeling restricted to the menu companies offer us and the frustration of bumping up against the infrastructure when we try to live our values is what is depressing to many of us. That’s not freedom. It’s powerlessness.
Marketers are clever. They’ll do what they can to make us feel we are not good enough without their products. And that is another reason for depression. I say, let’s get off that treadmill in the first place. Let’s take back our power and edit our own choices! Instead of standing in the aisle of cleaning products and trying to decide which one is more eco-friendly or will clean more effectively or has a better smell, how about if we said, forget it! I reject your menu. I’m going to stick with baking soda and vinegar because it works and because that way, I can stop fretting about minutia and get on with living.
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