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  • Dan Connors

Fitting room theory- are the slobs winning?

"Leave it better than you found it" Robert Baden Powell

Does the picture above disgust you? Fitting room abuse happens frequently, and my days working at a clothing store shocked me to see what normal human beings could leave behind for other humans to clean up. There are no cameras in fitting rooms, so people are free to try on clothes and discard the ones they don't want, unsupervised. How they leave them is purely up to them. My store had a small cart for people to hang up their unwanted items, but only a fraction of people used it. More commonly, I came upon scenes like the above, with clothes removed from the hangers, turned inside out, and tossed on the floor or seating area. There are stories out there of much worse, disgusting things left behind for others to clean up.

It takes store personnel a long time to return unwanted clothing to sellable condition. It has to be re-hung, re-folded, and returned to the proper fixture, which can be quite a challenge in a large store with dozens and dozens of clothing racks. "Sure," one might argue, "but isn't that what we pay them for?" Technically yes, but employees dealing with cleaning up messes like this are unavailable for helping customers, and they can get burned out quickly after witnessing the thoughtlessness that embodies fitting room abuse.

A few years ago, a post on shopping cart etiquette went viral, pointing out how people who don't return shopping carts are bad people. Here is the original meme:

After witnessing fitting room disasters, the shopping cart debate seems quaint. Shopping carts can be retrieved in seconds, but fitting rooms can take hours to recover. No employee will likely figure out how much of a slob you are, but your bad karma could pass on to them and make them care less about how they leave things elsewhere when not being monitored. Obviously not all shoppers are this irresponsible, but very, very few of them bother to return the items they don't want to sellable condition or to the location that they took it from.

Leave it better than you found it. If we all did just this one thing, think of how great things would be. The concept of "better" may differ from person to person, but intention is the key. Make other people's lives a bit safer, happier, cleaner, and more enjoyable, and you will reap what you sow, as the saying goes. Unfortunately it isn't that easy. Life is complicated and we all have our own problems. Taking shortcuts on etiquette and courtesy save time and energy that can be spent elsewhere.

In a way, I feel a bit sorry for the folks who abuse fitting rooms. They somehow feel entitled to leave messes behind, and I wonder if their entire lives are a series of messes left behind for others to deal with. I wouldn't say it determines if a person is good or bad, as the meme claims, but it shows a serious disregard for others, and an immaturity befitting a toddler.

On my daily drive to work, I recently noticed a new sign at the highway exit- "Take your trash home with you". This was at a notorious spot for littering, as folks seem okay with dumping trash as they get off the highway. Littering is another of those areas where the consequences are rare and everybody is on an honor system to dispose of their waste properly. Litter, crime, and graffiti are all signs of areas that people have given up on, and they are signs of the constant struggle between the social fabric and chaos that happens every day.

Increasing polarization has torn at that social fabric, making it seem okay to heap lies and abuse on those we deem as "other", but once torn, social cohesion is hard to fix. If we want to have shopping carts to use, clean fitting rooms, and an environment that doesn't endanger our health, it's important to cultivate community and belonging. There will always be narcissistic, careless jerks in the world. We just need to give them consequences for their behavior and encourage them to be better people, giving them reasons to care. When we all stop caring, the shopping carts and all the other nice things that we share could disappear completely.

Luckily, there are people who do care, and who try to make things better than they found them. They are all around us. In my community, there's a project called Operation Clean Stream, which for 55 years now has used volunteer labor to go out into local rivers and streams to clean up junk and debris that have been discarded by others, making these natural areas enjoyable for all. And on a much bigger scale, there's the Ocean Project, a non-profit founded by an 18-year old Dutch entrepreneur, that's tackling one of the biggest messes that we leave behind- plastic in the oceans.

After watching the video of how someone is at least trying to clean up things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (now twice the size of Texas!), it makes my occasional forays into fitting rooms and littered sidewalks seem small in comparison. And the smallest step to fix a broken thing, clean up a little mess, or comfort a crying child gives us a good feeling inside that can grow and expand out to even better things and more improvements. It's contagious. But so is carelessness. Which is why we need to be diligent and aware that there are still important things in this world to care about besides ourselves.

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