Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Death of the High Street?

Of course, that is a deliberately inflammatory title. I am neither reporting nor predicting the end of consumption. But my thoughts have been particularly drawn to this area recently, sparked by a brief news report I heard on the radio a couple of days ago. I can’t remember the exact details but it was an announcement that last month retail spending in the UK was the lowest since the records began 16 years ago. The head of some group representing the interests of retail companies gave some predictable quote, which was duly reported in the doom-filled tone in which it was no doubt delivered.

The report offered little more than that before the next item was presented, no explanations of why this might be, or what the implications are. We are left to presume that non-essential spending is down for reasons like recent job losses and welfare reductions related to government spending cuts, as well as the prospect of higher interest rates, but do these factors account for the whole picture?

As with most subjects, there seems to be a real paradox in the messages we receive through the media about consumerism and sustainability. On the one hand, we hear/see/read things such as the radio report I just mentioned which give off the distinct impression that a slump in consumption is BAD for the economy and society in general. Yet on the other hand, we can hardly flick through a newspaper or magazine or switch on the TV without seeing something advising us to ‘Make Do and Mend’, for example, offering us top tips to revamp our wardrobes and homes by reusing what we have with minimal cost and a bit of elbow grease. It would seem that tightening our purse strings is simultaneously both dangerous AND advisable, depending on what you’re listening to.

I admit I really enjoy reading articles and seeing the programmes that are attempting to encourage people to use what they already have and cut down on buying new stuff. I like them despite the often irrelevance of the advice being offered and occasionally being presented by individuals who come across as though they personally invented ‘not buying stuff you don’t need’. In fact, one of my favourite things to watch at the moment is Super Scrimpers (please let me know if you are able to view this outside the UK or not) which has offered me nothing that I can apply to my own life so far, but is full of fascinating and shocking facts and positive tactics that I hope will have an effect on some viewers. So ARE these programmes and articles having an effect? Are their messages seeping into the national psyche? Have a fraction of the population been turned off buying so much unnecessary stuff? Is there a possibility that this could account for albeit a tiny part of this recent drop in retail activity?


I would argue that in this nation, and in fact all the English-speaking nations I have visited, the main stream media projects the notion that we must keep spending in the shops to support our economy, and to a greater or lesser degree has done so since the 1950s if not before. The idea that a dip in the strength of our High Street spells doom. If the population stopped using retail as a major leisure activity, I am inclined to think that the effect on our economy wouldn’t bring the ‘end of days’, but our economy would need to adapt.

If less stuff is getting bought at H&M and Topshop et al, presumably the High Street retailers would ‘have to’ react by cutting jobs to protect their reduced profits. In essence it’s similar to the argument that we shouldn’t stop purchasing sweatshop produced ‘disposable’ clothing because it helps exploited textile workers to support their families. Of course I don’t want to see workers, in developing nations or at home, to suffer through loss of income. However, the status quo will not improve if it is not questioned and challenged.

We cannot continue to consume products which are damaging to the environment through the extraction of their raw materials, production processes, transportation and disposal in the unrestrained quantities that we have been just because no-one’s sorted out a way to support people who are directly and indirectly employed in these industries. I think that is an area that wayyyyyyyy more energy should be spent: how can we alter our current economic structure so that we can lessen our physical impact on the planet without causing suffering to those whose livelihoods rely on these industries? Without solving this conundrum, the irony is we are bringing a whole heap more suffering as our climate changes irreversibly. I don’t want to have to explain to my grandkids about why whole seas were allowed to dry up for the cotton industry (which they already have) because nobody got round to figuring out how to support workers in the textile industry to find alternative and more sustainable ways to provide for themselves, etc.

Yet, I don’t know about you, but I see very little discussion on this tricky topic going on in the media. It amazes and frustrates me that these ‘Make do and mend for the 21st Century’ type programmes and articles don’t ever take their arguments and investigations a step further. Because surely if you are encouraging people to scour car boot sales for furniture to renovate, or showing how homemade jam makes a great gift, logically you are encouraging people to slow down their consuming? Why is no-one asking, ‘What effects will these making-do activities have?’ or ‘What are the broader implications of this mindset?’ Those are the programmes I would really like to watch...

Obviously, you can expect more from me in the future on these subjects as I wade through my own thoughts, explorations and research into these issues. And equally obviously, I would be fascinated to hear your thoughts on them too...

21 comments:

Tanit-Isis said...

I don't have any great insight, except that there's definitely something broken about the entire economic model. Infinite growth isn't practical in a real sense on a finite earth, yet anything but growth is harmful to people, jobs, etc. The simplest way to reduce the strain on the planet would be to reduce the number of people (which most developed nations are doing nicely on their own as birth-rates decline, by the way, I'm not advocating murder of anyone) yet our economies don't seem to have a way to accommodate population reduction, either.

I must admit it really annoys me that something we, as humans, created---the economy---has such unpredictable and overarching sway over us.

Penny-Rose said...

Thank you for being so honest about the way in which the media spoonfeeds information to the community. Here in NZ there is a very similar situation with a constant pressure to buy spend and little or no discussion about "make do and mend" lifestyle choices. Buying NZ made clothes is a joke as they are inevitabley more expensive than MIC (Made in China)and for those who genuinely want to make a difference cost are not necessarily those who can make a choice to spend more for better quality. The best way for consumers to effect change is to participate in forum, vote in local body and national elections and keep the dialogue going. Even in this far corner of the plant, I hear what you are saying and love it.

Isis said...

Great post!
for a start, no we don't have that show in Australia. however there is a slightly trend in the 'make do and mend thing'. it occasionally pops up in newspapers and magazine etc. i think it is true that if we all just stop spending we are fucked, our economy will just topple over. like riding a bike: if we just keep pedaling everything will be fine. what people need to realise is that along with the 'making do and mending' there have to be other changes in their mindset. it means accepting also that an economy that doesn't rely on heaving spending of disposible income means less jobs, perhaps not so many opportunities, perhaps lower living standards. it means simplify their lives in a big way. i'm all for that, i think we've had it too good/too easy for way too long. perhaps we do just need the wheel to fall off so we can come crashing down and get a bit of a shake up! of course no BIG changes are ever made by government that shake things up too much because no governments wants the reputation of the economy falling apart while they were in control.

Jane M said...

"We're damned if we do and damned if we don't" seems to be the theme of these retail stories. It's most likely true that if we stop the retail spending then we would have "lower" standards of living....but for those of us who can afford to stop that spending that might not be an all bad thing. It's when politics and governments are making the decisions about the vast majority of a country's spending that we get into more difficult debates and decisions about priorities. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

Steph said...

I think about exactly this subject, and I couldn't agree more with you about mixed messages coming from the media. I like to tune out as much as possible, but it's not responsible to completely tune out, either. I'm finding that balance.

I consume less and less and less, and it's satisfying. Not in a smug greenie way, but because I'm learning a different way to think and live. I think about the things I purchase, how I'll use them and where the item will go when I finish with it.

Even my mustard- I buy mustard based both on taste and the look of the jar because I know I'll reuse it later. Silly example, but you can see how that would apply to other things.

Like Tanit-Isis said, the problem comes down to population and finite growth. Honestly, I think the only real way for humanity to continue to survive will involve the collapse of our current economic model. That complete collapse will probably be devastating for life as we know it, but I don't see any other way for the human race to survive. I do my part by consuming less, I'm well aware that the economy needs me to consume.


Interesting topic. I'm glad I'm not the only political vintage sewist out there.

Steph said...

Also, Isis, I think the bike metaphor is appropriate if you change it a little. The economy right now is like riding a bike down a steep hill that has a brick wall at the end of it. We keep pedaling because we don't have a choice, even though we're zooming to a huge collision.

Eileen said...

Great post. There's also the problem of whose standard of living is enhanced by make do and mend vs. spending to support the economy. As a graduate student in the US, I can stretch my income and enjoy a higher standard of living by making or thrifting, but that also means that I rarely rarely engage in the consumer retail spending that's supposed to make the economy recover.

Bridget said...

Thanks for this post I agree with a lot of what you say but to a certain extent I feel that the way 'make do and mend' is being portrayed in the media is starting to be similar to 'environmental' products. I fully believe that where possible we should buy the least harmful products for our environment and in many cases 2nd hand is the way to go. However a lot of the time the media is just promoting a different form of consumption; buy this Stella Mcartney dress because its 'eco friendly', or restyle your living room with 2nd hand pieces without questioning whether it would be more 'eco friendly' not to buy the dress at all or if you actually need to change the look of your room every few years. The other issue is that as the home made look becomes more popular you start seeing shops like Cath Kidson selling new items made to look 2nd hand or home made, thereby promoting more unnecessary consumption.

Shirley and Holly said...

Hi Zoe,

We too share your passion for fashion and equally care very much about "disposable fashion" and how women, certainly in the UK have lost the plot.

What we want to know is, Why when everyone is in debt because we (the nation) seem unable to stop shopping, we've been in recession for years and retail figures have only just taken a hit, does everyone look so terrible?

Maybe it's because we (the nation) cannot stop eating either.

HandS

Hearthandmade said...

i agree with you! super scrimpers didnt have many thrifty tips to help me but it really made me look at my finances which was necessary! I agree about everything you said and I would love to watch those images too. I get very angry though because our economy does not need to grow and grow and grow. I HATE cities, big cities i mean, concrete jungles and I especially hate sky scrapers. There is no need for half of the crap going on in our economy and half of it is not 'progress' when we are destroying the environment to the level we are.

I also think that the local councils should be more concerned with the illegal dumping of 'recycled goods' to asian landfils (which 4 local counties in the UK were found guilty of in 2008 i think) and also stop paying bankers ridiculous amount of money and bonuses and then taxing us for it. how are we supposed to grow as an economy if undeserving people are getting so much money at the tax payers expense?!

Sigrid said...

I'm so excited to read that someone else thinks about this. Our family's income is directly affected by retail book sales, and yet I feel reluctance to keep feeding the monster by buying more new stuff--even books. Every week I see local businesses closing, and more vacant store fronts, even though we are in a "recovery." The sad thing to me is that these little places are so necessary to keep the inner city alive, and when they close I am forced to drive long distances to big, less sustainable box stores.

After 9/11 we Americans were told to go out and spend, and we are still encouraged to spend, but the message is so unfocused--buying more made in China crap is not going to save us. It seems to me that we could have a healthy and more sustainable economy if we would just think exactly what we are spending money on every time we pull out our credit card. Really what we need to do is stop buying cheap crap, and start spending our money on products we believe in at stores that are good for our communities.

That shift is already taking place with food consumption and organic food is becoming less expensive and a bigger economic player. Are we willing to buy less clothes and spend more for them? It's a big shift in thinking/spending, that is going to take some time. I have a hard time doing it myself with kids to keep in clothes.

Alessa said...

Great post and some very smart comments!

I think the problem has its roots in the start of the industrial revolution, because with the advent of machines, not everybody had to work on producing food and necessities anymore. People still need jobs to make money, though, and in the Western world this has led to luxury products and service society, to wealth and a decline of the birth rate.

The sad thing is that overpopulation in 3rd world countries is a bit of a vicious circle. You have children because children can work and support their family and support you when you're old, but then you have also many mouths to feed and because everybody has a lot of children, there is a huge workforce that only gets paid minimal wages. If more jobs (that aren't in production) with better wages could be introduced (and possibly a social security system), people might not see the need for so many children...

But anyway, the subject is very complex... There probably needs to be another shift in society, from service&information to I don't know what, before all these problems and paradoxes can be solved.

Joy said...

All good thoughts!

I think part of the problem is that change is scary. People are losing jobs because, whatever their line of work is, it is not sustainable. To suggest that we spend more to keep businesses running is illogical. It delays the inevitable but eventually causes it (as people, businesses, and governments collapse under debt). It's like insisting we keep wheelwrights in business when automobiles, not wagons, are the new norm. Job loss is very sad, but it will either happen naturally (due to the free market) or later (also naturally) when the artificial measures fail.

And it's too bad the media promotes consumption and overspending. Our politicians buy into it (partly due to great pressure from the people, I'm sure) and now our state is in debt. And no one can agree on what to give up.

Daruma-san said...

Keep these posts about consumerism coming, I love reading them as well as the great comments they inspire!

To my mind, we need to adjust to an economy that doesn't rely on mass-produced quickly-obsolete stuff. I think that will cause economic pain, but only until the economy adapts. If we're buying less crap, maybe we're investing in growing our own food, repairing what we already own, going to really great local/organic/sustainable restaurants? Alternative ways to spend our money and time will present themselves and new economies will form. As someone who's been laid off in the past couple of years, I don't deny there is pain involved in the transition. But if I hadn't been, I may never have had the time to start sewing, selling salvaged clothing, etc. Hard to say!

(Also, I feel compelled to mention "Hoarders" - a US show that won't fail to make you second-guess every purchase!)

christina said...

I agree with Sigrid. It does matter a lot what you are consuming. Spending money on local products may mean more cost per item, but also that someone in your surrounding has an income and is able to consume, too. So buying less may actually mean a healthier economy. And do we really need more on the backs of others who only get minimal wages?

On the need for more profits I'd like to add that it increases with the number of participants in the product chain that need to profit. This is a reason why we are told to consume more, especially when the products are made in far away countrys, transported by different companys, sold wholesale and finally sold to the consumers. And there are also shareholders that want to profit on some companys, too, who aren't even part of the value chain. Economy is such a fascinating cobweb...
It basicly is in our choices and values. Every one makes his or her own choice for their economy, if they support sustainable businesses or fast consumerism the exploits human and enviromental ressources. It seems there are some very short sighted people around, but also that this is slowly changing. :)

Sølvi said...

What a great post and great comments!

I really like the point Sigrid is making, "That shift is already taking place with food consumption and organic food is becoming less expensive and a bigger economic player." I really hope we can make that change in other parts of the economy as well.

I have also been thinking a lot about service vs. products for a couple of years. A friend of mine grew up in Egypt, and there it was a necessity for the community that those who could afford it, bought services like ironing clothes, cooking etc. I think it´s such a shame in our society that we have down graded some services.

If we changed the value of and respect for "cleaning lady" to the same as "brain surgeon" , ie that all (legal) ways of making money was equally valued and respected, that might create more jobs in the service business?

All professions has it´s own set of "know-how", I, as a amateur seamstress, is well aware of this -I have a long way to go, and years of training ahead of me before I reach anywhere near a professional tailor or dressmaker. And I respect their professionalism and craft. I believe the same thing goes for all trades and crafts.

Law said...

Wow what a really interesting, and almost overwhelming topic! Unfortunately the ultimate problem with humanity is we think in the short term. Most people are thinking about their futures and maybe their children's futures too and that's it. Governments are in power for such a short space of time (4-5 years in most countries) that they have little chance to set in motion major changes that will take decades to come to fruition. We have almost reached the limits of consumption as fossil fuels are running low, we are running out of places to dump our rubbish and few of us can afford to keep buying and consuming in the rates we did over the past 30 years. Something will have to give but we don't have the time to prepare for massive economical change. Besides which nobody wants to start preparing for the worst. If we bury our heads in the sand it won't happen, or hopefully it won't happen till after we (and our children) have already passed away so we don't need to worry about it, it's someone elses problem then.

JT said...

I don't think we can expect any serious discussion of sustainability from the media, television especially. No one wants to buy advertising time during a show about anti-consumerism! It really concerns me that so much of my entertainment, the internet included, is funded by advertising. I'd like to think it doesn't affect me, but I know it does.

Also, while I love hearing people talk about sustainability, I also like to warn people not to turn it into something which shames individuals for their purchasing choices. Many people don't have the economic privilege to be making sustainable choices, and you can hardly fault them for not prioritizing the future when they are just trying to get through today. Plus, I don't think that sustainability can be achieved without governments forcing the hand of corporations. I just read a statistic that in the US, less than 10% of landfill waste comes from households, the rest is from businesses. So, even if every person in the US stopped throwing out things entirely, we still would be nowhere near sustainability! Something like 1/3 of the waste comes from construction and demolition. There is a vacant McDonalds near my place that has been empty for years. No one buys the space because all McDonalds are built to look a certain way. Now they are finally tearing it down to build some other fast food chain that will probably be built to look a certain other way. These companies must have some research which shows that they make more money when their restaurants are easily identifiable, but at what cost to the future? I think it can only be solved by making expensive for corporations to throw things out.

@Alessa... I've been reading a feminist book on medicine, and the first couple chapters effect of the industrial revolution on women. The author's premise is that before the industrial revolution, while women were still under the power of men, they had important responsibilities within their communities and were keeper of knowledge about things like agriculture and medicine. So, even though they had no political power, they still had a sense of fulfillment that came from their work being necessary for the survival of everyone around them. After the industrial revolution, men took over producing most everything, and (economically privileged) women were left at home with nothing to do and became very unhappy. I've been mulling over applying the same thing to men and women alike... Before the industrial revolution, people defined themselves by their craft or what they made. Heck, that even became your name in a lot of places. Now people seem to define themselves on what they consume. When you look at the "about me" section of people's pages on social networking sites, it is mostly, what tv shows people are watching, what music they like, what foods eat... basically what they consume. Sometimes I wonder why I sew because I don't feel any better about my fabric purchases than I do about clothing purchases. But, I think it might be that making something is much more emotionally fulfilling than buying it.

Cathi said...

Wow, some really great comments and a great post Zo.
I think one thing that people forget is that while some stores etc may be adversely affected by lack of consumerism others benefit from it. Have some high end stores in my town had to close? Yes. Have more more thrifts opened and are flourishing? Yes!
When one area of consumerism dies off there is often another that replaces it and we have to remember that. Shoe store closes - cobbler opens, clothing store closes - tailors open shop; things like that.
Shopping will not save the world or the economy. Not shopping and thinking outside the box, might.

Paola said...

Hello from a lurker
The conundrum you describe has exercised my mind for quite a while.
Here in Oz we hear that consumer spending is w-a-y-y-y down, and retail is under great pressure and that this is a bad thing for our economy. My instinct are that Australians are battening down the hatches for a possible GFC Take 2 (sovereign debt crisis,anyone?). Or, perhaps, over the last few years we've got a grip on ourselves and decided we don't actually need any more stuff. Either way, traditional economics can't cope because the only legitimate way to measure a "good" economy is to see never-ending growth. Meanwhile, we are starting to realise that the planet just can't take it...

aviewintomyworld said...

another great post zo!
the state of the high street is regularly featured on our news here in ireland, our VAT rate even yo-yo-ed, first up to try and compensate for less shopping, and then back down to try to stop people flooding across the border to NI to shop in £'s with the lower UK VAT rates.
I really find our media coverage to be pretty scaremongering. its a worrying enough time here without the media basically encouraging everyone to whip their money out of the bank before the banks all disappear into a black hole.
we've even had a general election with a whole new government and there's not been a difference. there's no talk of how things can be changed, our economy is clearly unsustainable, my thesis was on how people can be imprisoned for debts (sounds archaic but can still happen) and the stats on personal levels of debt within ireland are crazy, but the focus is all on propping up the failing systems that we have.
somethings gotta give...
i like to think that each of us will eventually make a difference with the individually small things we each do. look how slowly recycling was to take off...
louise

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