how we became addicted to buying weird stuff on ‘wish’

Tfw you wanna save the world but also like shopping. Like, a lot.

by Douglas Greenwood
20 August 2019, 11:24am

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

A shoulder-length ombre wig for 83p. A vibrator for £2. T-shirts emblazoned with the face of a chimpanzee for a fiver. No matter how hard you might try to find an exception to the rule, you can literally buy anything on Wish.

The popular shopping app -- a sort of 2019 version of the mall on sale day -- has become a haven for young people with a penchant for ‘stuff’. Broke and have a desperate desire to reinvent your wardrobe? Fancy a pair of almost-AirPod headphones because you can’t afford the real thing? Wish is the go-to place to make all of your dreams come true. The “mobile mall”, as Wish dubs itself, is a gallery of endless items -- stationary, clothing, cosmetics, electronics -- that you can buy with a simple click -- sort of like Amazon, but with wildly cheap price tags, or Depop, but with brand new and mass produced items. It’s all made possible by Wish’s way of sending products directly from Chinese manufacturers to their customers, cutting out the middleman. Just wait two to three weeks for delivery, and the item you ordered (or something that vaguely resembles it at least) is in your hands.

It’s estimated that Gen Z have up to $143 billion in buying power these days, partly due to the way we shop: online only, and mainly through our phones. While most retailers -- both physical and online -- are trying to stay ahead of the curve and lure young audiences in, Wish has been designed to attract digital natives from the get go. Its app set-up looks and feels like Instagram, and the flow of purchasing -- despite the massive geographical gap -- is designed to be as seamless as possible. Wish gives us everything we want: cheap stuff, the chance to jump on cute fashion trends as they unfold, and an unrivalled kind of convenience.

For YouTube vloggers, sites like Wish (and its larger, if slightly more complex sister site AliExpress) spell big business. Our obsession with watching people give us blow-by-blow accounts of what they’ve been buying is enhanced when you throw in bait-y, bargain-hunting sites to purchase from. British vlogger Patricia Bright’s video, titled “I SPENT $400 ON WISH APP...IS THIS WEBSITE A JOKE? WTF! “, attracted a cool 8.6 million views. The hilarious beauty and style guru Safiya Nygaard has practically made Wish hauls her own YouTube brand. She makes Wish challenge videos, wearing $5 items of clothing or make-up that costs a dollar from the site for a week. She even bought and tried out Wish-sourced wedding dresses once.

Charley Bourne is a British lifestyle, beauty and fashion vlogger who’s caught on to their popularity too. Last February, she uploaded a video of her “Huge WISH Unboxing Haul” that’s since garnered over 250,000 views. “I started using Wish when I first started my YouTube channel,” she tells i-D. “I used to love watching hauls and wanted to see some of the products myself. When I looked into it, I couldn’t believe you could get stuff for ‘free’ off the site!”

That’s another thing that’s unique to Wish; something that Amazon or AliExpress haven’t quite cracked yet. Often, they'll list an item as free with only postage to pay. It’s a clever technique to entice people to spend more under the illusion they’re not spending anything at all. Charley used the site four or five times when she first got into it. “I got some bargains but the quality of the stuff let me down and the novelty wore off,” she admits. And so Charley, like millions of other bargain hunting Gen Zers, wound up with a sea of cheap products encased in plastic -- the most bizarre, she says, being a pair of “fish slippers”. The amount of waste she’d amassed worried her. “I definitely never thought about it when I first started, but now that I’m more conscious about packaging and plastic use, I really notice just how much junk is on there,” she says, the effects on the environment shaping just how stuff she was buying. “I try to buy quality over quantity, and not just joke products that I will just throw away.”

Videos like these help us edge ever closer into this bargain bin wonderland, curious about the possibilities of what we might find should we delve into it ourselves. But this obsession with accumulating ‘stuff’ has byproducts akin to an ecological nightmare: the kind we’re probably not conscious of when the desire to buy more and more things for next to nothing takes over. “Wish have very clever marketing tactics,” Christine, a Norwegian YouTuber who has done several Wish haul videos says. She’s been using it on and off since spring 2017. “You get points from shopping that you can exchange for discounts, and if you've visited the app seven times within a set period you also get a coupon code that you can use. Referring friends also gives you points or ‘Wish cash’ (a currency exclusively exchangeable for Wish goods) that you can use on the app or site to shop with.” It’s like Candy Crush only with real buying and selling, and we’re ployed with rewards for buying more. Christine is aware of the environmental impact, but “keeps shopping there because of the positive effects it has on the people who see [her] videos”. “I regularly get comments, DMs and emails from my viewers who say that me sharing these videos online help with their self esteem,” she says, “and give them courage to dress how they want to dress, even if they're not a size 0.”

Plenty of people would claim Christine’s stance is problematic, but the issue with these deep discount sites -- and the likes of many fast fashion retailers -- is precisely that: should we prioritise pleasure even if the source of said pleasure is destructive? Can we blame Generation Z for this mass accumulation of plastic when we’re living in a world full of fleeting connections; a world in which we’re told we’ll never have enough money to ever own anything? Shopping addicts, such as those who compulsively buy things on Wish, struggle to see the detrimental effect of their mass purchases, Dr Pawan Rajpal, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital Bristol tells i-D. “People who struggle with [shopping addictions] have lost control over their behaviour and shop compulsively,” he says. “Like other addictive behaviours, it can make them feel euphoric. On balance of probability, as the behaviour is driven by addiction, the ability to consider ethics like the environmental impact of what is bought, the use of non-recyclable packaging and affordability won’t be the primary focus.”

Another issue that makes this conversation much harder to reach a clear conclusion on is class. i-D’s Roisin Lanigan wrote aboutthe serious class problem that infiltrates the climate change movement nowadays; a collective of activists that was predominantly shaped by working class people in the mid-to-late 20th century. Nowadays, the movement is overwhelmingly upper-middle class: dominated by figures who find it easy to turn their noses up at fast fashion when, in reality, it’s one of the only options that many young people have.

Collin is a kid from California who’s been using Wish every few weeks for the past four years. “The crazy cheap prices are why I go back,” he tells us, “but I’ve not actually thought about the environmental cost of it. It’s hard to turn down a nice pair of shorts for only $4 or shirt that’s just as cheap.” Collin’s attitude towards his buying habits isn’t one of ignorance -- it’s practically a survival technique. He tells us he’s “always been less fortunate”, and is the product of a consumerist society that’s meant “most Gen Z kids wouldn’t be caught dead in clothes that aren’t a name brand”.

So maybe the antidote to Generation Z’s Wish obsession isn’t to scorn the ones using it in the first place. We all appreciate a bargain, and for some people, having a low-key shopping addiction is the closest thing to catharsis that we can get. Instead, the onus should lie on Wish as a company, and how, in a capitalist society, it can survive in a manner that doesn’t incinerate the earth in tandem with their ever-rising profits. Is there a cheaper way of creating these items somewhere closer to home, instead of flying them across a gigantic continent, pumping carbon emissions into the air? Can they be produced sustainably? Can they be shipped in recyclable packaging instead of masses of plastic and sticky tape? Or would all of this amount to costs -- the kind Wish can’t afford if they want to maintain their position as the prime purveyors of an online bargain. Maybe, really, the only viable answer is to take a step back and ask ourselves: how much do we really need? Before we know it, our obsession with ‘stuff’ might just be pulling us ever closer to a precarious future torn apart by climate change.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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