The theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically beneficial
When I first sat down to think about the rise of the consumer in modern life, I thought I would be writing how bad consumerism was for us as a planet, but the more I looked at myself, the more I realised how much I was affected by it, and indeed, how much easier it had made my life. So just in case you think I’m going to spend this whole dialogue complaining that consumerism is a terrible evil, don’t worry, I’m not.
In fact, as I walked through an “upmarket” shopping complex yesterday, I have to say that it was actually a nice experience. It was warm, well lit, with shiny floors, and soft music. There were many different shops, selling everything from jewellery to jeans; from dvd’s to televisions. All available to take away right there and then. And as I sat down to drink my fair-trade soy latte, I looked around me, and thought to myself: “Even if you think ‘consumerism’ is bad you have to hand it to the human race. In a short time we have managed to create so much from nothing.”
Thanks to our inventiveness, there is such a thing as a television, waterproof clothing, even food pre-packed and ready to eat. We have invented so many things, and at the same time made them available to the masses. Granted you need money to buy these things, but nonetheless, they are readily available.
There may be a cost to all of this, but let us explore that in another topic. For now, let us just celebrate human achievement.
Before the industrial revolution, little more than 200 years ago, all of this would be unthinkable. The ability to go to nice looking shops, and buy everything you could possibly want, would have been impossible. Even the rich wouldn’t have been able to do it. Not because they didn’t have enough money, but because there were no means to make these products.
Since the start of the industrial revolution, we have gradually been able to make more and more types of products, all invented by humans to make our lives better and easier.
Some of the products have made our lives so much easier, such as the washing machine, which saves having to stand over a basin for hours scrubbing clothes; so before we condemn the purchase of consumer products, let’s take a balanced view of this for a moment, and think what the consumer revolution has done for us.
Think of the products you buy for personal hygiene, like shower gel, nail clippers, shampoo, soap, and tampons; and what about kitchenware products such as a cheese grater, or hand blender, pots, and pans? Not forgetting cleaning cloths, antibacterial sprays, washing powder, floor mops, and vacuum cleaners; and have you all forgotten the flushing toilet? That’s a consumer product too, you know! Beds, duvets, sleeping bags, tents, carpets, rugs, vases, tables, chairs, shoes… These are all consumer products, whether you like it or not.
Even the “hippie,” who wants to live in nature, still has clothes, something to cook on, like a gas stove, pots, pans, knives, and forks; and sleeps in a man-made tent – all consumer products, made in factories, for the benefit of everyone else.
Let’s say you decided to go back to nature; that you decided to give up the life of the consumer; that you made your own clothes out of wool you spun yourself; that you lived in a forest, and made your own shelter (and tools to make the shelter, if you please); that you grew all your own food, dug your own toilet, found your own water, and washed your clothes in a stream…
Would you be happier? Would you feel free like the animals and the birds, or would it just be a fairly miserable experience? If you lived in a warm tropical country it may be quite nice, but you would definitely not enjoy it in a winter in russia!
So for anyone considering a “back to nature” lifestyle, make sure you enjoy working. Hard. Every day. No holidays abroad, no restaurant meals, no going to the cinema, or appreciating the arts; just working to live. Full stop. That is the life most people in the developing world experience, and I can assure you that most of them would swap their lives for ours.
So before you think about living in nature, think about what you couldn’t be without. I am not talking about satellite television, bars, and computer games; I am talking about clean drinking water, after all, water is a consumer product, in the same way fridges (which stop food from rotting), and work surfaces (which are easy to clean thereby stopping the spread of bacteria), are consumer products – all products that make life better and more sanitary, thereby stopping the spread of disease.
So consumerism is not just about flat screen tv’s, burgers, cola drinks, and fashion clothing; it’s about buying products and services which actively benefit the human race.
Today, I write this topic on a consumer laptop, wear consumer shoes, socks, boxer shorts, and t-shirt, sit in a consumer library using consumer electricity, to power my consumer laptop; sit at a consumer desk, on a consumer chair, and drink consumer water from the tap. I will have a consumer lunch, drive my consumer car, and enjoy an evening in my consumer home. Whether we truly need all of these products is another matter! I could go back to living like my ancestors, but what would be the point of that?
Inventions to help us, the consumer, have allowed people like me to sit and write books like this! If I was living in nature, would I have time to think deeply or would I be more concerned with my crops? Even if I did have the time to write, where would I get the paper to write it on, and who would get the book published and printed?
The consumer life has benefited me greatly, and I thank all the people who have gone before me for dedicating their lives to inventing things to help the human race live a little more easily in this world. They have used their big brains to create something new; something that cannot be said for any other species on the planet. They just carry on doing the same thing they have always been doing; looking for food and procreating. We have come so far in the last 300 years. We have discovered some wonderful things, and we have invented some wonderful products.
Thanks to the inventions of some great minds, we can now leave the earth in a consumer jet plane, being served food and drink, and watching films at 35,000 feet! If you think of the number of inventions that have allowed that experience to happen you will be amazed.
Here are just some of them:
(a) The design of a wing that generates lift.
(b) The mining and manufacture of metals, to enclose the plane.
(c) The discovery of oil, which can be processed into petroleum to create fuel.
(d) The design of an engine, to get the plane off the ground.
(e) The design of rudders, ailerons, and flaps, to help the plane turn.
(f) The invention of electronics.
(g) The manufacture of textiles, for carpets and seat covers.
(h) The invention of television and data storage, for playback on demand.
(i) The invention of satellites, to help the plane navigate.
(j) The invention of the wheel and manufacture of rubber for the tyres to help the plane move on the ground, and land safely.
(k) The invention of hydraulic systems to move parts of the plane remotely.
(l) The invention of plastics for various items, including windows.
(m) The invention of knives and forks.
(n) The mass production of food.
(o) The invention of fridges, freezers, and ovens to store and heat food.
(p) The invention of radios, to allow communications between aircraft and the ground.
(q) The invention of a pressurisation and oxygen system, that allows us to breathe comfortably six miles above the earth, at temperatures of minus sixty degrees. The plane is the ultimate consumer product. We do not actually need one to live, but how much easier has it made life?
Some of you may remember that even quite recently, a trip to australia would have taken six weeks by boat. Now we can make it from the uk in less than twenty four hours, in complete comfort, knowing we will almost certainly arrive safely.
Hundreds of millions of us move around the earth this way every year. How many of you would like to swap lives with your ancestors, or indeed any person who has to work the land every day just for survival?
I know the family struggling to feed themselves in some remote village in africa would like to swap with us!
Some of us in the west may see consumerism as a waste of resources, but there are billions of poor who want to experience the benefits.
Sometimes it is only through experience that you can see what is truly important in life. Deep down, I believe that many of these products are unnecessary parts of the human experience, created to keep us superficially happy, but most of us are not at such a point in our development that we can live in total simplicity, aware in the moment, using our minds creatively to understand more than just the visual world. Most of us still need the pleasures that mass consumerism gives us, including myself.
I have seen people from poor countries marvel at being able to talk to someone on a mobile phone, or being able to buy food from a supermarket, and we have to admit to ourselves that it is wonderful.
The man who has nothing isn’t interested in my opinion that mass food production and world distribution isn’t helping the planet, or that mobile phones are an addictive waste of time and energy used by people to occupy their minds when they are bored. He sees each of these things as a positive step forward. Something better than he had. Who am I to tell him that supermarkets and mobile phones are bad, when he sees millions of people enjoying them?
Who am I to tell anyone that mass consumerism is bad? If someone was to tell me that buying clothes from Shop X was bad, would I listen?
Yesterday I bought clothes and had coffee. Was it “bad” I did that? I am aware that people are working for next to nothing in terrible conditions in far away coffee plantations and textile factories, but did it stop me buying the products? No, it did not. I wanted a coffee and I bought it. I wanted a new t-shirt because my old ones look terrible, and I bought it.
An ethical dilemma
These are real dilemmas I have faced since embarking on my journey.
I need a new pair of shoes as my old ones are falling apart. I go to the shopping centre, because that is where the shoes are sold. I can only afford a cheap pair of shoes, as I choose to do work that benefits others, which is rather poorly paid. I do not wear leather, and I want to make sure that the shoes I buy are made by someone who is getting well paid for their work. I see a pair of shoes I like at a reasonable price I can afford, but am unsure as to the conditions the workers face in the factory.
Do I (a) buy the shoes anyway, as I am now getting wet feet as my shoes are in such bad condition or (b) wait until I find a company that can guarantee that the workers are being treated well, no animal has suffered in the manufacture of the product, and the company is not adversely affecting the environment with their manufacturing processes?
I am hungry. I am away from home. I cannot find anywhere that serves food that is “strict” vegetarian (i.e. contains no dairy as well as meat), but find a shop that sells a takeaway vegetable pastry. I am pretty sure that the pastry has butter in it, and that the vegetables have a cheese sauce. Do I (a) buy it, as I am hungry, even though it conflicts with my ethics (motivation based on ideas of write and wrong), on dairy free products, and is wasteful to our resources because of packaging, or do I (b) wait until I get home, even though I will not be able to eat for another six hours?
I want to go on a trip abroad. I cannot travel there by train, as it costs too much, and I have to cross water too. The trip is very important to me in my research for a book, but I understand that flying creates a lot of pollution and uses up precious resources such as oil. Should I (a) go on the trip because it is vitally important to me, or (b) decide not to travel?
Every minute of every day, I am confronted by dilemmas such as these. This is one of the problems of living your life in awareness, knowing that everything is interconnected.
So what do I do? I am aware that most products that are made in life come at a cost; either human, animal, or environmental. I try to make myself aware of companies who have a compassionate outlook on life, who try to minimize the impact products have; but these companies are few and far between.
Most companies are interested in getting the products out to the consumers in the cheapest possible way which usually means that someone is going to be paying that cost. Either in the form of bad working conditions, animal mistreatment, or inconsiderate use of the planet’s resources.
My cheap shoes (yes, I did buy them), came at a cost. They were manufactured in china, by workers who live under an oppressive regime, are paid measly wages, by a company that is only interested in making money, and shipped thousands of miles using fuel which is a limited resource.
My pastry came at a cost. It did contain butter, meaning that animals suffered for my hunger, and was wrapped in plastic which could not be recycled.
I did take the flight, meaning that pollution was caused by the aeroplane which also used large amounts of petroleum, which is a limited resource.
Do I feel guilty about these things? In a word yes; but if I was to wait until each company had satisfied my strict ethics I would be waiting a long time.
So what do you do when you want to make a difference in the world, but most other people don’t care? Do you live as a hermit, relying on the basic resources our ancestors had available, or do you live in the world as it is, and try to make a difference from where you find yourself?
Nothing in this life is perfect, and it is only through education and awareness that people will start to live more ethically. Not by rejection of all that surrounds us. Trying to live the “perfect” life has nearly driven me mad! I live in a consumer society and I have to do the best I can whilst living here.
I am sure that most companies do not think they are behaving unethically when they produce consumer goods. They provide employment for people, who may not otherwise have any, manufacture goods that make people’s lives easier, and generate money, that goes back into they world in the form of taxes that can help to build hospitals and schools.
They certainly have a strong argument to keep doing what they’re doing. The problem is, that businesses fail to consider the impact their actions will have on the world as a whole, and the consumers never see the negative impact. They just see the end product they really want, but it really is quite simple. They are both just lacking insight. They do not realise that the world is interconnected, and as such focus only on one small part of it. The part that affects “me.” My needs. My fridge. My tv. My profits.
So how do we escape this cycle that will ultimately create misery for us all? It would be easy to say: “just stop buying stuff!”
But I am acutely aware that a few words from me will not stop people wanting things that make them happy; so for now, let’s just ask some simple questions when making or buying products.
Consumers: (a) Is the product I am buying from a country where the people are oppressed politically, or are made to work in conditions I would refuse to work in? (b) Could I have bought this product locally, which would have provided local employment, and cut down on packaging, and other transportation costs? (c) Does the company have an ethics policy with regard to the employees and the environment? (d) Are animals suffering because of the products I am buying? (e) Am I buying this because I need it, or because I just want to impress other people? (f) Could I make do with what I have?
Companies: (a) Is profit my only motivation and goal? (b) Have I considered the human, animal, and environmental costs associated with manufacture? (c) Do people really need what I am making, or is there a product I could make that would have a positive impact on humanity whilst still providing employment? (d) Do I have an ethics policy that is attached to each product so that consumers can make up their own minds on whether to buy it or not? Would I have bought my shoes if they came with the following information attached?
Casual sports shoes: £29.99
Origin: China. Run by an oppressive military regime
Human cost: Workers paid £1.00 per day and forced to work minimum 12 hours a day
Animal cost: One cow died to make the suede uppers
Environmental cost: Paper packaging, fuel for transport to dock, fuel for ship, fuel for lorry to take to distribution point, fuel to take products to shop
If I did buy them it would be my choice, but at least I would be more aware of the real costs. It is time we started taking responsibility for our lifestyles and the products we surround ourselves with. At the same time, companies have to take responsibility for the products they manufacture, and can no longer just get away with whimsically using up the planet and making animals and people suffer all in the name of employment.
We, the consumers and the manufacturers, are intertwined in a real relationship, with costs that are way too high, if we are going to live in any kind of balance with each other, and the planet we inhabit. We cannot just buy or sell products without total awareness of the global costs. It’s time to become aware, right now.