Power To The People
We’ve been ‘consuming’’ all the way back to our caveman days. We would consume food, and the bi-product of some foods became clothing, we turned sticks and stones into tools and eventually, we traded what we had to get access to what we didn’t. Trade has been an integral part of human life since the dawn of time. Alongside this, the methods to promote trade have been evolving, getting increasingly slick. Heck, those wily 17th-century industrialists advertised moving to America which would become the home of advertising as we know it. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that our consumption truly surpassed need as the driving force in favour of profit. Rolling out of WW2, a time of great trauma and evident lack was the perfect bedrock on which to systemise ‘consumerism’, playing on people’s desire never to return to such dark times.
For the remainder of this article to make sense I feel it’s important to re-state my belief that alongside the opening of personal awareness around our role and power in helping the world be a better place, I believe that in a capitalist society business can and should be a key driver in picking up the pace for change to sustain life on this planet.
At its heart, the act of turning people into consumers was a crime. It was built upon the externalisation of happiness and contentment for the many in the pursuit of wealth and power for the few. William Leach noted in his book ‘Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture’, that monetary value became the ‘predominant measure of all value in society’. Money and status of course already created a class system well before this, but consumerism created eternal dissatisfaction amongst all levels of income, bringing a sense of shame across many layers of society as everyone began to strive for more material wealth in pursuit of happiness. Charles Kettering, General Director of General Motors Research Labs wrote an entire article titled ‘Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied’ since if we were to become content there would be implications for the ongoing purchase of consumer goods – bad news for the type of economy that had been created. In fact, the western economy ‘demands that we make consumption our way of life…that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption’ (Victor Lebow, 1955).
How tragic is it, that our ability to find contentment has been taken outside of our own being and put in the hands of material stuff? How much harder does this make life than it needs to be?
Even in the early 1900s, a series of essays was published in Colliers Magazine called ‘The Great American Fraud’ in response to growing frustration at the effects and power of the advertising industry. And yet the beat goes on today. In 2000 Naomi Klein wrote her first book, ‘No Logo’ which was a manifesto that summed up ‘a new grassroots resistance to corporate manipulation’. And yet two decades later and the demand for faster and bigger growth within business has only intensified, blindly fueling the drive of consumerism.
On a planet of finite resources which lacks a set of magic fairies emptying out our collective trash, it is a crime to persist with an approach that functions on creating false needs, and products that are designed to fail, all to uphold growth and profits. And as my other post Why You Should Be a Small Fish In A Big Pond evidences, the whole system is primarily benefiting a very small number of organisations and individuals, thereby also driving extreme inequality in society. This pattern of over-consumption to drive growth and profits was seen through the early 20th century as progress. But now we know better. An insatiable desire for material goods can not be considered progress when it is fundamentally damaging our collective mental health and propelling the ongoing degradation of the planet. The primary goal has to be an alternative to over-consumption.
The answer to over-consumption is twofold with huge power and responsibility sitting on the shoulders of us as consumers alongside a challenge for every business to re-think what their model could be to move toward truly circular and/or regenerative product and process and how they might generate revenue whilst supporting reduced consumption. And don’t underestimate the power of small changes. Lots of small change by many business = big positive change.
As a consumer, you can take back your power of finding contentment without the need for stuff. You can choose to find happiness without material goods. I’m not saying give everything away and live off the grid. I too like certain comforts, but we can be selective about what we buy, how, where and how often rather than mindlessly purchase as a result of external pressures put upon us. What I’m proposing is individual and collective reflection on our values, beliefs and true needs, shaking off the expectations and shoulds placed upon us by others, from here we can step back into the world and demand change for how our economy works so that we can all be better off.
The commercialisation of shame, envy and ‘keeping up with the Jones’ is not good for our well-being or the planet and why the hell should or would you accept being made to feel like shit simply because you don’t have x,y or z. Sod that. It’s a simple choice to accept happiness without making a purchase. Perhaps not an easy choice, as the message of consumerism has been persistently drip-fed into us like a tap with no off switch for our entire lives. But even if it’s not an easy thing, it’s a good thing to do, first and foremost for yourself.
And what of businesses? I talk about my love of independent business and how it can help change the world then I write an entire essay on why everyone should just say ‘no’ to buying goods, what’s that about you may ask? I stand by my belief that business should be, can be and in increasing numbers is a force for positive change. I 100% believe that as a business you have to advertise your existence, what you offer and what you stand for one way or another, otherwise, you will not succeed, because people will simply not know about you. So what is the proposal for how business moves us toward a new economy?
Ultimately, where possible we want to see products created that are fully circular, knitwear that once its life is over goes back to the manufacturer and becomes another piece of knitwear, quick turnaround biodegradable materials are another option by which I mean items that degrade in less than 24 months once they go into compost. As Vivienne Westwood said ‘Buy less. Choose well. Make it last’, so as an alternative to throw-away products, focus on quality that lasts – repairs or upcycling then become services a business can offer. Only produce what you need, this in itself can be a challenge for businesses in a society that increasingly seeks instant gratification, but there is a growing desire to support the planet and people who are willing to wait in order to support this.
In terms of advertising, as I said it needs to be done. In the future I see businesses being even stronger in defining their visions and values as a way to connect deeper with their customers, not as a method of selling on the emotional level to drive growth, but as a method of understanding together how to work together to do things differently, perhaps even to collaborate in making positive change that allows a business to transition into a new way of being that reduces its impact on the planet and lifts its positive impact on society.
I love independents, I spent my career amongst businesses that exude individuality and I want to see more of it; but with added purpose. I have seen that it is tougher for independents, especially smaller ones and I have also seen how well these businesses respond to changing demands.
As a consumer, I have been through my own journey of self-discovery to balance my love of fashion and beautiful interiors with my deep belief in anti-consumerism. I continue the journey of rejecting the imposed role of ‘consumer’ on my being. I grew up with the belief that I should get a corporate job, work my way in a linear fashion up the chain earn more, buy a more expensive home and car, and accumulate more things as a route to living the dream, to attaining happiness. But, the dream itself was sold to me. It was never my dream. We are not invited to consider what our own dream would look like before we are hit with adverts and marketing to tell us what we should want and what success looks like.
The simple act of pulling apart the story about how we find happiness and rejecting the imposition of shame surrounding the idea of being content with less can be challenging and messy. I always thought I would be happy when I worked my way up to a certain level of income and status in my career, had my own house and had the ability to buy nice clothes and go on nice holidays but each time I achieved something there was more to be had. I was always putting my desire on the attainment of the story of what someone else said success looks like. Cut through the shit and all I really want is happiness and fulfilment. My most empowered position is finding those two things in any situation; from here I am strong.
Requiring more stuff in order to find happiness and fulfillment ensures these concepts are always just out of reach; we are eternally dissatisfied. I am pissed that anyone would think it is okay to do all that they can to keep me convinced they know what I need better than I could know for myself. I am pissed that in the past I allowed myself to be sold services on the basis of the provider indirectly shaming me as a tactic to convince me I needed them. The simple truth is we need far less than we believe, that at the end of our days, material gain stands for nothing, and we are missing out on so much by continuing to be signed up to the ‘consumer’ agenda. No more. Not for me. No thanks.
Does rejecting my role as a consumer mean I’m getting rid of all my stuff? No, it does not. It does mean that I have become conscious of the tactics used to sell things to me. It means I am clear on my personal values and use these to make decisions about purchases and I embrace that less is more. It means I utilise vintage or thrift shopping, upcycling and re-purposing more than ever. And it means that I put my money where my values are in terms of who I spend my money with.
Sadly we live in an economy where all too often size does matter. Big business benefits from economies of scale, from greater influence and greater ease of access to support and political backing. Yet smaller businesses and independent businesses can respond quickly to the changing demands of us, the people. They can get so much closer to their customers and in a world where the apparent lack of care by the few is deeply aggravating the many, consumers are increasingly moving toward business that clearly demonstrates it cares through their actions.
I have seen the impact of ‘care’ within business both between people within the business and between the business and customers. I have repeatedly seen firsthand that where care exists results are better. Care comes from connection, connection is more readily available in smaller, independent businesses, especially those we are clear on their vision and values. Connection is even more easily attained when we invite individuals to know themselves, their vision and their values, rather than continuing to live within a story propagated by others.
It is no surprise to me to see the statistics regarding mental health challenges and the increasing rates of anxiety and depression within the work environment and for individuals in general. A huge driver in stress and its related impact on health comes as a result of detachment from our genuine ability to find happiness, driven by the ongoing narrative that money and material gain are the utopia of personal happiness; always keeping them a little out of reach.
When we see and hear of communities in less wealthy places being happier than those in wealthier nations people can’t understand it. They can’t understand it because they have become so distanced from the true nature of connection and happiness. Suicides happen amongst successful, wealthy individuals and everyone says ‘but they had everything’, but did they? It is only from the very narrow view that money and material gain are everything that such a view would exist. Never has it been clearer that consumerism is damaging our individual and collective well-being and yet never before has the push of consumerism been stronger.
The push for instant gratification is damaging to individuals in all areas and in all the roles they carry in life. Work follows us home through technology and we are bombarded with sales e-mails, DM’s, posts, and adverts on TV, radio and print. As consumers, it’s overwhelming. For small business owners, it’s overwhelming trying to keep up with the demand to push content out there. What benefit really comes of it all? We need a new approach, infinite consumption is damaging our planet and our health, it is quantity over quality and its time has passed. The saddest thing for me is that it hampers our creativity and individuality, and I much prefer a colourful world.
Some argue that growth can’t go on forever anyway and consumerism is tied to growth, and there is validity to some extent in that argument, however, I would say that growth in and of itself is not the problem. The problem arises with a focus on growth and profits without conscience of the impact. If we use Lego as an example, Lego produces 36 billion pieces a year, if that continues or indeed grows and the material used is non-degradable, with more and more of it going to landfills it’s simply filling up a garbage can that will eventually overflow. The same production using a material that degrades within 18 months without the need for industrial compositing, well that’s going to have a different impact. Growth based on the latter example is far more sustainable. (I have no idea about the production of Lego or their sustainability plans it is a pure example)
Reading this article, some people might feel anger rising, if you made it this far you might dismiss the concepts outright and think I am ludicrous for suggesting them and have no right to say such things. However, whatever you think of me the reality is that the need to consume less isn’t a judgment on me or you, it isn’t even about me or you, it’s about the simple fact that overconsumption is not sustainable for life on this planet. You would not continue to place the trash into your home waste disposal system for all eternity without emptying it. I don’t claim to be an economist and have all the answers, but I clearly see we have no choice other than to look at alternative options. And the truth is that moving away from consumerism would also afford us all the opportunity to live happier less stressful lives. So why resist it?
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