As you will see from the page I have linked to below, there is a growing movement in Canada and America to persuade people to stop buying crap for the sake of it. Indeed, frankly, to get out of the habit of buying stuff at all.
The campaign has received worldwide coverage on CNN, Al Jazeera and others. It is, essentially, an anti-consumption movement highlighting the deleterious global economic and ecological effects of consumerism. You can get the message by watching this little ad.
The anti-consumerist message has grown out of both the Occupy movement, which seeks to take back control of the narrative (and actions) of our society from big business and government, and also the ecological movement, the “think Green” or “think Small” thread which has been running now since about the later 60s or 70s.
Instinctively I think this is right. Which is why, on 26th November, which is “World” Buy Nothing Day, my 24th Wedding Anniversary gift to my wife will be to draw her my own greetings card, and give her nothing bought from a shop. I will, instead, dig the garden and cut her some roses, or do some extra housework, or cook her a lovely meal, or take her out for a nice long ramble somewhere we’ve never been before. And I know she will understand and approve, which is probably why we’ve managed to stay married for 24 years.
But my real problem is, I work in an industry which is dedicated to increasing consumerism, while being personally convinced that its effects are toxic. Not just to the planet, but also to people’s lives.
Is this really what we hope for ourselves and our children?
My problem is this. At one and the same time I can believe – sincerely – that advertising is a good thing because it promotes freedom of choice and informed populations, just as I simultaneously weep that it encourages us all to put value on things that are essentially unnecessary or value-less.
We all spend money on stuff we don’t really need, because we are encouraged relentlessly to do so. We are told, repeatedly, that the world judges us by how much stuff we have accumulated, and even though we don’t really believe it, we keep on accumulating just in case. We don’t really believe in the Joneses looking over our back fence, but we check for them from under hooded eyelids anyway.
And it’s not just a rich Western phenomenon. As soon as developing populations get wealthy enough, they enthusiastically show signs of the same sickness. It’s a combination of innate human greed and mass media manipulation, and it worries me deeply.
I don’t want consumerism to end, per se.
I am, on balance, a “growth” believer not a “no-growth” believer.
It’s easy in the West, for example, to sneer at consumerism but ignore the fact that much of the stuff we buy is now made by poorer people overseas, and if we didn’t buy it they’d be even poorer than they are. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the rest of the world wants TV sets and air conditioning and motor cars, and transferring our wealth (accumulated over centuries of colonial exploitation) to their societies is one way to redress the imbalance of wealth in the world.
But then as we do that, they become trapped in the same unsatisfying cycle of consumerism that has us in its thrall, and one day the whole planet will be rich consumers and then there won’t be any planet left to divvy up, and we will all sit around and look at each other confused and in mutual recrimination.
The answer, I believe, and it is a messy and slow and inadequate answer, is to prevail on private industry – through intelligent, thoughtful public pressure – and government pressure, acting as our representatives – to ensure that private business takes into account legitimate ecological fears, in particular, that they might not otherwise consider.
Just as we no longer produce lead-painted toys for children to lick, so we need to insist that those who feed our addiction to stuff do so with maximum thought about wise energy use, recyclable materials, smart technologies that have a lighter footprint on the planet, and labour and capital practices in developing countries that sees reinvestment in things they badly need, like decent housing, clean water, health care, and sustainable agriculture. And if they don’t, some sort of sanction is needed to ensure they do.
At the same time, we need to persuade consumers in the West to think more globally about the choices they make.
We’re lucky: we’re rich. Maybe we can afford just a little more to buy a high-quality – read long-lasting – handmade item from around the corner, rather than just buy the cheapest possible item manufactured on a production line in India or China.
The result will be both to support local craftspeople and also to encourage overseas suppliers to up their game. Like, er, you could choose handmade beautiful glassware from my wife.
(Blatant plug going out to millions of Wellthisiwhatithink readers, please add that to your wedding anniversary gifts, darling.)
And we need to persuade Westerners to invest in people, rather than just in things, as ways to show our love for our folks back home. Such as giving the gift of food, books and education, technology support, medicine – or even just clean water – to overseas communities in lieu of just buying more crap every time.
Every now and then, as I wrote about a few days ago on World Toilet Day, I buy clean water for an overseas community and give a card with that message in to my gift recipient at home. It’s always appreciated.
And I know that my gift really is the gift that keeps on giving, to people for whom the basics of life are denied without our help.
Years ago, I was in South Africa soon after the ANC government first came to power.
As we sat drinking sundowners at our immaculately manicured whiteman’s house in a delightful English cottage garden, which required watering liberally every day, I watched a long line of Zulu women walking back along the dusty path by the house to their nearby village, singing to encourage themselves as they swung their arms in time to their song.
On their heads were red earthenware pots filled with water drawn from the nearby river.
Trust me when I tell you, these pots were so large and so heavy – empty – that you would have struggled to lift them, let alone walk along, seemingly unperturbed, with them full of gallons of precious water balanced on your head.
Their stoic dignity affected me greatly, and still does to this day.
They would perform this trek (how ironic that “trek” is a word so associated with the white Afrikaaner Boers) twice a day. Once before dawn, once before the evening meal.
The next day, I was privileged to be granted a discussion with a newly appointed ANC government official in Durban, the mother of an old family friend, and we spent much of the hour she graciously gave me talking about water.
She kindly and politely listened to my community politics experience from the UK and Australia, and then put it in the context of a society where maybe a third of the 35 million or so black people did not have access to running water.
We discussed the women with their pots and she sighed deeply. “Imagine the difference it would make”, she said to me, “imagine what it would mean as a feminist issue, if just one tap was centrally installed in their village, or one well dug”.
She made a note of the location on a pad. But she was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the work to be completed.
“We don’t have roads to lots of these places,” she explained.
“No doctors. The homes are little more than corrugated iron sheets, and it gets damned hot. People don’t sleep properly. Do people think black people don’t feel the heat? Preventable disease is rife. The people can’t fix things up for themselves because in some communities unemployment is 100%.”
She looked at me directly. “I am damn glad the world stood up to the apartheid regime on our behalf, but now is when we need the help. We got rid of the Nationals; where is the help we need now?
It would be such a great start, you know, if those women didn’t have to walk there and back every day.”
As I left, her exquisitely beautiful young Zulu receptionist smiled at me with a sudden flash of impossibly white teeth, and shyly said “It must be nice in Australia, eh? I’d love to be in Australia. No money here.”
Yes, yes. Yes it is. It is nice to be in Australia. It’s so nice, I really don’t need anything else to make it any nicer, except maybe another few productive years and good health, please God. And that’s why, on Monday, I’ll be giving someone else that I dont know some water to thank my wife for 24 years of support. Because an ad guy persuaded me I shouldn’t buy my wife a gift she doesn’t really want or need, and another ad guy then reminded me I need to keep giving away water.
And I’ll try and feel better about myself, and my life, and my industry. You can too. Click the link.
Make it “Buy Something That Matters Day”.