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The Headline That Got Us Thinking: "Can You Shop Your Blues Away?"

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There are countless ways to justify a frivolous purchase -- gum, designer duds, a new sports car. But retail therapy is by far the most pervasive on the list of excuses. Sort of like, "I have designer problems. I need designer shoes."

Lucky magazine is running a series of ads that zero-in on people's problems to prompt them to buy clothing and accessories from the magazine's new e-commerce platform, myLucky. The ads have got the Internet's attention, and have proved controversial.

"My boyfriend has a boyfriend," the ads say, and "My 5-day cleanse is only on day 2." Or, "My boyfriend dumped me via text," and "My longest relationship is with my doorman."

They are playing on the notion that to consume is to comfort.

Never mind that we live in a world where advertisers assume that regular interactions with a doorman would trigger pangs of depression for the chronically single -- a world where even our problems are a privilege. Now Lucky readers are encouraged to "fill the void" with stuff.

Despite their tongue-in-cheek tone, the ads have a kernel of truth to them. We recall college friends taking refuge at the mall after some especially tragic exam results. We've all seen those parents in the checkout lines, bribing toddlers with disposable toys for a moment of silent reprieve. Admittedly, we've both made friends with a florist to make up for missed birthdays and forgotten anniversaries. Each of us harbours a bit of consumer guilt.

You buy things, you give things. For an instant, all is forgiven.

But the only way to sustain that much consumption is if, by nature, the things consumed have a short lifespan and must be perpetually replaced or upgraded (see all five iPhone generations). In her book, The Story of Stuff, Annie Leonard found that in North America, on average, 99 per cent of what we produce gets trashed within six months. Then there are the environmental costs of production -- water usage, green house gas emissions -- made worse by the fact that most consumer packaging in Canada ends up in landfills.

Management of packaging waste entails municipal costs -- and therefore costs to taxpayers.

There's also an emotional cost. Advertisers target our insecurities, and our feelings become equally disposable. Consumers are encouraged to shop to improve self-esteem: having something new increases your status. Your shopper's high masks feelings of self-doubt or inadequacy.

There have been studies that a shopper's high lasts about 20 minutes. You're not going to cure a broken heart with a new plasma screen. Research suggests you might get a brief boost in the feel-good hormone dopamine, high levels of which can be associated with poor decision making (read: impulse purchases). Incidentally, dopamine also plays a role in addictive behaviour (read: shopaholism).

Chances are the "void" you're trying to fill comes from a lack of meaningful experiences, a longing for conversation of more than 140 characters, or for a meal that wasn't borne out of Styrofoam.

There is meaning beyond the material.

Even in the most urban environments there are escapes from consumerism. Unplug. Ignore distractions. Sit in silence. Read something (analog). Walk in the park (unless your neighbourhood park has been replaced by a mall). And give meaningful gifts -- a home-cooked meal, a gift certificate to an organic spa. The next time we mess up, we're sending a handwritten note.

The alternative is the ultimate irony. The more we escape self-loathing with material possessions, the more gadgets we accumulate, and the more designer problems we create, like "My intern is the only one following me on Twitter." Cue the violins.

Here's how you can shop without the high:

  • Make your old things new again: recycle an old T-shirt by sewing the sleeves together to make a grocery bag
  • When you do shop, think critically about what you're buying: check labels, find out where and how things were manufactured, and whether or not they can be recycled.
  • Choose products with less packaging. Health and beauty products, especially, often come with more plastic than product.
  • If you find yourself throwing away a huge pile of cardboard, once wrapped around your favourite brands, send the company an email about their wasteful habits. And who knows -- you may even get a free coupon for your next (socially conscious) purchase?

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in seven cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit www.weday.com.