Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Consumer Society

Boy, it all really took off after the war! Thousands of military men coming home with pockets full of wartime money. We saw a period of concentrated home building, car buying, and spending. And in those days manufacturers produced a few of whatever they produced and charged whatever they liked for them because only the few could afford their products anyway and were willing to pay for exclusivity. Exclusivity to which the rest aspired.

Cars, television sets were built to last, and expensive. One arriving on a block was the envy of the neighborhood, and something to aspire to. But then the manufacturers found ways to produce big numbers and those came with built in obsolescence. So in order to stay one step ahead of the Jones’s people had to have the latest gadget as quickly after it appeared on the market as possible. And of course those who didn’t already have it aspired to it too. We became an aspirational society. And the rest, as they say, is history.

We have a dramatically increasing number of households. More single people, staying single longer. More people divorcing and buying two homes where one used to be enough. More second homes, and more homes on the way. And they’ve all got to be furnished, ornamented, carpeted, tiled, updated, repainted, extended, bought and sold and refurbished all over again. And all the while our attention span seems to be decreasing. No one wants something that lasts, we all want the latest version as quickly as the manufacturers can come up with it. We want them in time for Christmas so we can impress our friends, and who’s thinking about the long term costs of our obsession with fashion? Who is really aware of the price the planet is paying?

DVD killed the video star. It’s a quarter of a century since the first Sony video recorder appeared at the cost of about $800. What would a video recorder cost now? About $150 if the ads are anything to go by. The DVD player has taken over but the replacement for the DVD should appear, in time for Christmas, a digital gadget that records and stores hundreds of hours of TV programs. And the same applies to Cassette players, CD players, MP3 players, and now I-pods. As the pace of life races ahead the shelf life of every invention gets shorter and shorter. It’s no longer a case of having something to play music on and replacing it with a new device when the old one finally gives up the ghost, it’s a case of starting all over again every time a new device goes on sale. How many of us bought the same albums on CD that we already had on cassette so that we could play them on our new CD player. And of course the music publishers made it more difficult to do without a CD player if we wanted the latest albums. While we’re guilty of wanting all the latest products the manufacturers are very good at coming up with items we never knew we wanted and then convincing us we want them.

And what happens to all the gadgets we’ve finished with, TVs, computers, electronic junk that we throw out. Our unwanted highly toxic electronic waste is ending up in China, our new dumping ground. Workers remove all valuable parts from circuit boards and copper from transformers with no protective clothing or masks. Highly toxic fumes and dust cause lung and nerve damage, so that rich countries don’t have to pay the price of dealing with their waste. And having furnished our homes with everything under the sun what else do we spend our money on? Even men these days it seems, love shopping and are prepared to spend long periods of time on the weekends trailing around Best Buy or Circuit City. Shopping is the national pastime.

Have you ever thought about the businesses in our malls and on our streets and the rate at which they turnover. Every time a shop or bar changes hands the entire premises are gutted, no matter how new the previous installation, and rebuilt. What a waste. 75 million gallons of unused paint alone is thrown away each year, full of toxic chemicals which end up in landfill sites.

So what do we shop for? Well there are all those gadgets of course but just to mention a few of our other big obsessions:
Food. We’ve been abroad, got the t-shirts and eaten the dish and we want it when we get back home. So the supermarkets stock it, no matter how many miles it has to travel with no thought to the damage caused to the environment. Our food is jet lagged. A kiwi fruit creates something like 5 times its own weight in Carbon dioxide flying across the world. 40% of the freight traffic on our congested roads is carrying food from one side of the country to the other. What’s wrong with eating locally grown foods in season?

Cleaning products. Look in your kitchen and bathroom and see how many cans of antibacterial this and that are in there. What are they doing to our ecosystem when they are washed down the drain and flushed down the toilet? What’s wrong with baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice, and tea tree oil?

And then there’s clothes. Who can bear to be seen in the same outfit at more than one party, never mind the same outfit as last year. Blame Ambercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Old Navy. They really have it nailed down. They can get the newest fashions onto the streets in under three weeks and they change their clothing lines every three weeks, and they are eminently affordable so we buy, throw away, buy, throw away to our heart’s content. Cotton is not the world’s largest crop but it uses a quarter of all the world’s agri-chemicals. Man made fabrics release man-made chemicals into the atmosphere and azo dyes into water systems. Whatever happened to investment dressing? And what about that big culprit, faux fur? People have been duped into thinking that fakes are acceptable where real furs are not. They’re everywhere, and they are reducing animal suffering but at what cost? All fake fur is man made, from things like polyester and nylon. More than half our emissions of nitrous oxide come from nylon production. Polyester is made using petro-chemicals, and as we all know oil is running out. Some polyester dyes are highly poisonous carcinogens and are polluting our air and waterways. So we’re using precious oil reserves when we have sustainable materials like wool, fur and leather.

It takes about one gallon of oil to produce just 3 fake fur jackets. Around 4 million of these fake furs are being sold each year and what happens to them all when spring comes? Most of them are fashion items and so, as one season wonders they end up being thrown out. They don’t degrade for at least 600 years and can take much longer. So there they sit in landfill sites with the chemicals in them seeping slowly into fields and rivers. The problem is that a high rate of obsolescence is built into our economic model. Once we have fulfilled our needs for shelter and food we look for other things to spend our money on. And the manufacturers are all fighting to come up with new inventions so that they can supply them to us. The economy doesn’t grow if we’re constantly trying to squeeze new life out of old goods. If we aren’t constantly buying, new production doesn’t appear to be growing year after year.

Is economic growth good? Our consumer habits are almost as big a threat to the planet as climate change and buying more stuff, sustainable or not, really isn’t the solution. Try telling your family that on Christmas day. So how do we get the message across? The problem is that it’s not easy to be a non-consumer. We have to make it easier for people to buy the things that are better for the planet than it is to buy the things that aren’t, and that means they have to be convenient and value for the money. It also means they have to be aesthetically pleasing, fashionable or imperative and without that obsolescence built in, be it wear and tear obsolescence or fashion obsolescence.

There is a growing interest among consumers in ethical, organic, and environmentally sustainable goods. Think back to recycled goods. Consumers remember all the products that were supposed to be less environmentally damaging like recycled toilet paper and ended up being just as bad as the original because no one had done a total lifecycle energy audit. People want to have all the information so that they can be sure that goods are ethically sourced, organic, environmentally better than the other options. But that’s just the people who are already concerned. There are some concerned that they’ve heard something they should be concerned about but they can’t remember what it is and the majority are completely unconcerned.

Part of the problem is that it’s all too confusing. We’re still trying to get messages across about all the same things. Take financial products, people still don’t know what to look for when they’re borrowing money, they don’t understand what the APR is and that’s been around for many years. Take food labeling, we’ve had all the arguments for clear labeling and manufacturers respond. Sugar, fat and salt have been in the firing line for years, look on the side of your cereal box when you get home and you won’t see salt but you’ll see sodium. People don’t know what it is. What exactly does it mean to have a label saying low fat, low in comparison to what? (I’ve covered this topic in a past post, “The Basics of Healthy Living” in my Health and Nutrition blog.) We’re still battling to get clear standards and definitions of what’s in our food never mind tackle the definitions of sustainable and ethical. There’s no clear overreaching standard as to what is sustainable and is one particular product more ethical than the other one on the shelf, both of which claim to be ethically produced. Organic is now clearly defined but sustainable is not and consumers are confused and while they’re confused they don’t trust the concept. There is a vague awareness on the street of various aspects of sustainability, something to do with planting a tree for every tree you cut down, but overall it’s still confusing. And that’s what people are saying.

All is not lost, there are glimmers of hope. Just last week a press release from ‘Envirowise’ said that 3 out of 4 of us are fed up with excessive packaging this Christmas. We no longer want bows and glitter, one fifth actively avoid products packaged in this way and 86% believe unnecessary packaging is bad for the environment. So at least that message is starting to get through. However further down the press release we find that 12% of young people between 18 and 29 are prepared to pay extra for the fancier look and are more impressed if they get gifts that are impressively packaged. And worse still almost a third of that age group forgets about the environmental consequences when shopping.

The big hope used to be that children would take what they learned about ethical and environmental issues home from school and spread them around the rest of the family. It’s worked with recycling to a certain extent but what we’ve really discovered is that people will only become interested and committed if it’s made easy for them to be so. And children can quickly lose interest!

The majority of people out there today doing their Christmas shopping have no interest in, or awareness of, sustainable consumption. They may vaguely disapprove of all the extra packaging but how many will really refuse to buy something because of it. How many will be putting their shopping in bags they’ve brought with or wicker baskets and turning down the offer of plastic carrier bags. How many will give a second thought to all the extra electricity being used up by festive lights and displays. It’s a very different matter answering a question in a survey on how you feel about excess packaging and actively doing something about it. And for most people that’s as far down the line as they’ve got towards sustainable consumption.

We all have a role to play in raising awareness and in creating a more sustainable society and I include the media in that. they communicate to vast numbers of people. Many morning news shows alone can boast over 3 million viewers. The average person watches 4 and a half hours of television a day. They influence what people think! That’s a hell of a responsibility. And then there are the ads. With that kind of viewing we see somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 ads a year. Children develop brand loyalties by the age of two. The media has a duty to entertain, to hold people to account, to raise awareness and to inform. But we need to know that the information they’re giving audiences isn’t somehow biased or flawed so they need an end to confusion too. At the moment they’re airing informed debate which stimulates discussion but which more often then not leaves us less clear than ever because the people involved in the debate can’t agree. We need clear definitions and information so that we can make informed choices.

There is a very long way to go and it will take a very long time. But what will happen if we take all that obsolescence out of our economic model? If we do embrace the concept of a more sustainable society, Christmas future may eventually be an entirely different experience. Not only will what we buy be different but we’ll also have to accept that to be truly sustainable we’ll have to buy less. Will GNP go through the floor? The economists don’t seem to think so. The shift to sustainable consumption will take a long time. Some businesses will go under, others will find niche markets and flourish. If we’re to become a more sustainable society we need a different mindset, a change of culture to one where people don’t aspire to own things, don’t need things to be happy. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be people with money and aspirations. What they spend the money on and what they aspire to will be different. How they work to get that money will be different. And the things that we’ll be spending money on probably haven’t even been invented yet. We’ll be spending money on things that at this minute we can’t image. But even if we could look into the crystal ball and see that by becoming a more sustainable society GNP would fall and we’d end up in a sustained period of negative growth, can we afford to turn our backs on sustainable consumption?

Are people in denial of their impact?
The average person isn’t always aware of their impact. Consumer power is, however, becoming increasingly important and with increased communication, for example, through the internet, this is a powerful tool for change. Politicians will only make it policy if consumers want it. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Big business will have something to say about it for sure.

What about legislation as the driver to engender mindset change? How did Ireland manage to ban plastic bags?
The change in Ireland was unpopular at first but as soon as the price increased people changed their behavior. There is hope. Legislation is creeping in and the big wigs are beginning to think about sustainable consumption. Retailers are also reporting changes in our purchasing habits, e.g. we are buying things seasonally now, so potentially things last longer, but countering this is the trend to buy ‘weekend wear’, clothes that are worn once and then thrown away.

The government is not doing anything about consumption. This is a big barrier, for example, the government is encouraging air transport expansion. It may not be possible to make it attractive to consume less, how do we do it?
It is becoming more mainstream, people are wanting to improve their communities. The message will slowly get through as it did with recycling. The media is also very important in this respect, the average person watches 4.5 hours of television a day. But we need to get to people young too, evidence suggests children develop brand loyalty at the age of 2.


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