It’s almost impossible to turn on the news or scroll through our social feeds without hearing about the climate emergency. But what isn’t always clear is that what and how we buy is directly linked to these very headlines.
As the festive shopping season kicks off, it’s worth taking a little time to think about our consumption habits, what’s fuelling them and how they impact the world around us.
The rise of consumerism
The Georgian Period (1714-1837)
Ah – the age of manufacturing. Rapid improvements in technology and transportation swept across England and the rest of the world. It was easier than ever for manufacturers to produce clothes, textiles, homeware and food.
People flooded the cities from the countryside. And speciality shops opened to create a new sensory experience designed to part people from their cash.
Try not to think about the slave labour that was needed to produce much of what was imported. Or the factory workers suffering domestically to create goods they’d never be able to afford.
America in the 1920s
The idea of the consumer really took hold during the Jazz Age in 1920s America. Think Gatsby-esque parties, the soaring stock market, assembly line factories and the birth of credit.
The emergence of the advertising industry drew heavily on new psychological insights to influence and sell. People began to shift their identity away from what they did (what they produced) to what they owned (how they consumed). Where they lived and what car they drove, who they dined with and how they spent their leisure time spoke volumes about them.
But of course when the bottom dropped in 1929, people lost more than their money. They lost their sense of self and with it, the meaning of life.
America in the 1950s
The Second World War required production on such a scale that it blasted the Great Depression into distant memory. Soldiers returning from the war went to college on the GI Bill and got a decent wage in plentiful jobs. They followed the new highways out of the cities into the suburbs where they got help buying their first home and worked hard to keep up with the Jones’.
Madison Avenue ad men turned consumption into an aspirational lifestyle. It was even linked to patriotism:
‘The good purchaser devoted to “more, newer and better” was the good citizen since economic recovery after a decade and a half of depression and war depended on a dynamic mass consumption economy.’
– Historian Lizabeth Cohen
Never-mind the rising discontent we feel as we realise that material goods never quite satisfy. Be a good citizen and buy, buy, buy.
How rampant consumerism affects the planet
The consumer class is growing as developing countries like China and India catch up to the West. National Geographic described the consumer class as:
‘The group of people characterised by diets of highly processed food, desire for bigger houses, more and bigger cars, higher levels of debt and lifestyles devoted to the accumulation of non-essential goods.’
The problem is that the production of material goods uses up natural resources from the Earth. Resources that are finite – like land, water, fossil fuels, minerals, food.
According to the Global Footprint Network, we are using as much ecological resources as if we had 1.75 Earths.
That’s the definition of unsustainable.
It’s time to stop mindless consumption
This week is Black Friday. An American invention that the rest of the world has adopted as businesses prioritise revenue and growth above all else.
Black Friday shows how consumerism brings out some of our worst qualities:
> We give in to the time pressure which leads to a sense of urgency and FOMO
> We impulse buy things we don’t need and spend money we don’t have
> We gawk at the footage of shoppers fighting in the aisles or being crushed in a stampede to be the first ones in the store
The market will not change itself. We as citizens must demand change, and the best way to send that message is to opt out of Black Friday. To refuse to hand over our money for things we do not need.
We’re heartened by the Make Friday Green Again collective of over 300 clothing brands asking shoppers to not buy on Black Friday. Instead, they’re encouraging people to review their current wardrobe to see what they can repair, sell or recycle.
And we will be cheering on individuals who commit to #TakeBackBlackFriday. We’re better off spending the day making a positive contribution to society and the planet.
So what are you going to do this Friday? Maybe you’ll volunteer at a local food bank or plant a tree. You could call your grandparents or head to the park with a picnic lunch for you and friend.
However you choose to spend it, let’s send a message about what we truly value – relationships with other people and this beautiful planet we call home.