A Mania for Shopping

Brazil is crazy about shopping. It is utterly consumed by and addicted to consumerism, which I suppose is a normal reaction for any country that’s experiencing rapid growth, new disposable incomes, and access to cheap credit, but it continues to amaze me on a daily basis.

Every time I step out of the apartment, I am bombarded by evidence of this shopping addiction. Billboards, buses, store windows, newspapers, pamphlets stuck on windshields, handouts at intersections, people waving advertisements on flags along the street – all are on a quest to sell, sell, sell. There are even airplanes flying low over the beaches, advertising products such as Ray-Ban sunglasses. All the cars on the roads are new; there seems to be an iPhone in every pocket; and most people sport pricey American brand names (which are far more expensive here than back home).

Even on the plane from São Paulo to Rio, I couldn’t find a single article in the onboard magazine that didn’t relate to shopping (and I wasn’t the actual shopping catalogue). “The top 5 places to shop in the world” and “What to know about bringing your shopping haul back into Brazil” were two articles I skimmed.

Items are made more accessible to consumers by the way prices are parceled. Most ads read “10 x R$50.00 sem juros” or something like that, which means 10 payments at 50 reais (about $20 CAD) without interest. Everything is parceled, from exotic vacations and cars to groceries and clothes. Just yesterday I was asked if I wanted to divide up payments on a R$40 ($17 CAD) container of contact solution.

Never before have I seen such glitzy shopping malls as here in Barra da Tijuca, the so-called “ugly and soulless upper-class neighbourhood” where we unfortunately found ourselves housed. (As much as I enjoyed Rio, I’ll be happy never to lay eyes on Barra again.) Barra Shopping is absurdly over the top – glitzy and gaudy and decadent. There are suit-wearing valets waiting to park the Mercedes-Benzes and Maseratis that pull up in front. It makes the Eaton Centre in Toronto and Square One in Mississauga look shabby and out-of-date by comparison.

A view of Barra Shopping (via Google)
A view of Barra Shopping (via Google)

And everyone – let me stress that again: EVERYONE – dresses to the nines. Many women wear outfits that I would only think of wearing to a prom. Six-inch heels, high side slits, full makeup, and bridesmaid-worthy hair are the norm. Strapless, skin-tight, uber-short, and glittery are adjectives that come to mind. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in sweatpants.

When Jason and I went alone to the mall one evening last week, I wore a short skirt, gold flats, and what I considered to be a nice top. Within seconds of stepping into the blast of cold air conditioning, I felt totally underdressed. This is a world in which “to see and be seen” takes on a whole new meaning.

The mall, however, is an important social focal point, due in large part to the fact that the streets are so dangerous. When you live in a city where no one walks after dark, everyone drives with tinted glass, windows up, and doors locked, and you’d be crazy to stop for a red light after midnight, the mall is a safe place to congregate and socialize. Friends come to talk; families come to eat dinner; couples come for dates. All of this leads to… you guessed it… more shopping.

The dark underbelly of all this rampant consumerism is the trash it generates. It’s a simple equation: the more stuff people buy, the more stuff will get pitched. There is garbage all over the place – piled high in dumpsters outside buildings, piled on the sidewalks waiting for pickup, or loose on the streets, beaches, and gutters. I even saw a guy throw a plastic grocery bag of trash right out his car window.

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On garbage pickup day last week, the combination of wind and oppressive heat made the stench of rotting trash so awful in the neighbourhood that we had to close all the windows and doors for several hours. It was bad, especially considering that we don’t have A/C and it must been 35 degrees Celsius outside.

There is no pre-sorting system; our landlord told us to put everything in the same bags “because it will get sorted by hand later on” – and it does, to some extent, by the catadores who have the unpleasant job of hand-picking through the landfill sites for recyclables. (For more information on that, I highly recommend a documentary called Wasteland that features artist Vik Muniz and his work in Rio’s landfills. I blogged about it here.)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Canadians were even more obsessed with shopping than Brazilians are, just because we have more money in general and goods are cheaper, but it’s not as in your face; here, the ads make it feel like Black Friday every day. Nor do we live with so much garbage around, although we probably should because it might make us think twice about buying more crap.

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