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Over lockdown, with the world beyond our doors so heavily curtailed, many of us turned to subscription services to provide essentials and luxuries we simply couldn't get in our brief sojourns out the house. A subscription can come in many forms: maybe you’ve got one of those Amazon buttons that sends you another round of loo roll every time to tap it. Maybe you signed up to an Oddbox for veg, or Wild for deodorant, or started to get artisanal flours or anchovies dropped off monthly. Maybe you got well designed magazines, or unusual wines, coffees of the world, or even just signed up to support a charity or cause. Maybe it’s just as simple as your new gym membership or a subscription to a paper: whatever it is, with a lot of time to kill and the need for something to illuminate our lives, 2020 was peak subscription season.
We’re not here to criticise that urge, however. Our Supplement, after all, comes to you every month as a subscription too. But why is it that we feel drawn to being able to regularly, and for a set fee, have something we need delivered to us without having to think about buying it?
To learn a bit more about why humans love routine, we sat down with chartered psychologist Dr Audrey Tang. We talked about humans, habits and rituals, and how a monthly parcel can feed into our most elemental needs.
"I looked up a dictionary description of altruism, and it’s defined as a 'disinterested concern for the wellbeing of others'. For me, the use of the word disinterested really made me giggle, because the meaning in context suggests you have no interest in who you're trying to help. What it really means is that you have no interest in a reward. But in some ways I began thinking... is a subscription to a charity actually part of the more conventional version of disinterest?
"I subscribe to The Dog’s Trust. I don't worry about it, because the money comes out of my account all the time. I can then alleviate any guilt I feel about not donating to other charities because I already support a charity. But because of the choice of charity, I don't think I'm that disinterested: I've only ever had rescue dogs, and if it comes to other charities, or my friend is running the marathon, I always happily donate.
"I think for some, a subscription allows us to be mentally disinterested in what goes on. But realistically, when I reflected on my own experience, if you do subscribe to a charity, your other behaviours will tend to relate or link to why we donate to that charity in the first place. So I don't think we're completely disinterested.
"If a charity is benefitting from your subscription, they will hopefully not turn around and ask 'do you really care about this?' Someone is benefitting, after all! Surely that's a really positive thing. I think it would be unfair to judge subscriptions for making things ‘too easy.’ They are making things easy, by helping us choose that particular charity and removing our need to remember to do it ourselves every week."
"I'd actually like to go to a book I read a long time ago called Architect Or Bee by Mike Cooley. The idea is that computers were there to simplify our lives, so the architect could get back to broader thinking and achieve more exciting and innovative tasks. But it turns out the architect was just worrying about how to access his emails.
"Similarly doing something which seems easy, and removes stress from our lives, can actually cause more problems. If we're going to feel guilty about a subscription, stop doing it: there's no point taking away stress only to add it. At the same time, if you are subscribing to an artisan deodorant that only uses natural ingredients or is carbon neutral, or for whatever reason you're trying to make a difference, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
"What goes on in your house is not something anyone else needs to be concerned about. I don't think there's anything wrong with subscribing to a product if it's the right thing for you, it doesn't affect your mental health, and it's not putting you into any kind of debt. To me it makes perfect sense. In some ways, I wish some of my feminine products could be on subscription because I need them every month. And it would make life a lot easier, actually, to know that's coming through. Rather than thinking 'oh I need to go order that'. And while we're talking about feminine products? There are some I need to get online, but not because they’re trying to be pretentious: you might not be seeking this product because its artisan, but because it doesn't irritate your skin, or it really suits you, or you have allergies. If those are your reasons? Do it! No one's judging you."
"Not a lot of us have been spending a lot of money over the pandemic, so we may have had more cash to spend. Because of that, and because we're not feeling that great or getting our usual energy boosting, sometimes buying something nice can be a way of feeling better. By turn, feeling better helps us be a better friend and a better parent.
"Another reason why people come to luxury is because it started as a gift. Someone else bought it for them, and then you might look at the product and think 'well actually these suit me better, they have the choices that I want, I might subscribe to that'.
"I would struggle psychologically - but this might be my naivety or my age - to see any of my friends, or myself, connecting with a subscription, even a luxury one, and saying 'I am that sort of person'. I might look at a car in that way, or another one off purchase in that way. But my approach to subscription boxes is... well that's nice, but when it stops serving my needs I'm not going to subscribe to that anymore. I've done them: I've done Birchbox, and I'm with StitchFix for styling at the moment. What I love about that particular one is that as a subscription somebody else chooses items for me, and I can then make a choice of what to buy. Because if I was doing it for myself? I would stick to what I know. So there’s an aspect of novelty."
"People are what are known as 'cognitive misers', which means we don't always take the time to think about stuff. That's quite natural, because as adults we have a number of responsibilities. We cannot possibly be analysing every single minutia of everything. I have things like my credit card on a subscription, so I don't have to think about paying it. It makes perfect sense. I want to contribute, and I want it done for me.
"At the same time, if we go back to the charity subscription, I had to choose who to support. I had to set it up, and let's not forget we can always stop subscriptions if we want to. So I know it may feel amoral, but I don't think in practice it is."
"When I worked in the NHS, there were a lot of companies coming in to sell their products, and the nurses would entertain them and listen to them, try some of them out. But when I asked the nurses why they go with the products they choose, their reasoning stuck with me: 'if something works for my patient? We're going to stick with what works for that patient.' When we're talking about a colostomy bag, for instance, we're talking about the deepest element of personal care. It's embarrassing if a bag splits, it's awkward for you, it can be a horrendous experience. How can you possibly use capitalism or marketing to take the place of someone's personal needs?
"I come back to period products there: I have some that work for me, and I can't get them anywhere but online. Therefore, those are the ones I'm going to buy. A subscription can be about something more than just a product you want or excites you, but actually it can be very simple: this really suits me, and it goes a lot deeper than it being a part of my identity. It's part of my own wellbeing, and that's quite important."
"There's a few people who buy fresh fruit and they do it because yes, it might cost more, but it supports local, it's organic. It may be part of their lifestyle but they don't - at least to my experience - say that they are ‘A Person Who Subscribes To Fruit Boxes’. It's just... oh we get a fruit box. It doesn't factor, really, into conversation.
"But then there are those who do it because they want to tell you that they #supportlocal. That's another reason why people subscribe to luxury: there can be a brand identity they are cultivating for themselves which needs that. I'm not saying it's healthy, or the right thing to do, but I'm saying it might be a reason why it's happening. It allows the hashtag, it allows the social media photograph. Maybe some people are doing it because right now - or at least over the pandemic - the only thing we were able to compare to other people was how good your banana bread compared to mine. We weren't going to parties, wearing anything other than loungewear, getting our hair done. What comparison was there? Maybe a luxury subscription is how I make an identity in lockdown. That's how I create myself on social media.
"Subscriptions do become ingrained in your life, but they can also lose or gain power depending on who is endorsing them, whether the product changes, or if it doesn't change and we're seeking something new. If they're marketed well? Have specific endorsements? A niche product, that is sometimes scarce? Or something else: last one, very cheap, very expensive, it can have a lot of power. But a subscription itself is, arguably, not much different to another product out there."
"My husband used to joke over lockdown that Amazon became a bit like Santa: the bell rings, you open the door, there's a gift there, and the person's gone away! How lovely! I think we got so used to ordering things, and when it turns up you've usually forgotten what you've ordered so it comes as a bit of a surprise. That may add to a bit of novelty, a bit of excitement, in a day that has become predictable and zoom-related.
"When it comes to predictability, however, while our day in and day out may have become predictable, global society and the world is not. We're still now having conversations such as: are we going to go back into lockdown? What do you think is going to happen? How's Christmas going to be? But having a subscription every week is predictable. it's lovely. It's like nostalgia: if I watch a Columbo rerun and know what happens, I feel happy. Knowing I'm going to get a subscription every week or month makes me feel good. So the predictability can be very positive, but so can the novelty of a surprise delivered to your door.
"I wanted to give you another quote actually, about routine. Routine makes it easier to function, and this is a quote from The Little Prince. The Fox says to the Prince:
It would have been better to come back at the same hour. If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to feel happy. As the time passes I shall feel happier and happier. At four o’clock, I shall become agitated and start worrying; I shall discover the price of happiness! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know when I should prepare my heart to greet you… One must observe the proper rites.
"I really love that quote. To me, it talks about how when we can anticipate something, we can feel excitement. And right now? We need all the good vibes we can get. There has been so much grief and happiness. So much predictability and unpredictability, neither of which we'd have asked for on a regular basis."