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...